Jewish Journal

UCLA Shoah class attracts large number of Asian students

by Peter L. Rothholz

Posted on Jan. 31, 2008 at 7:00 pm

"The Holocaust in Film and Literature" is one of many UCLA classes that draws in undergraduate students looking to fulfill general education requirements. German 59, as it's listed in the university catalog, has attracted 241 students this quarter.

The course demands are strenuous. Among the required readings are Elie Wiesel's "Night," Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink. Additionally, students read selected works by authors such as Hannah Arendt and Nelly Sachs, as well as poetry, memoirs, encyclopedia entries and original documents. Assigned films include "Schindler's List," "Night and Fog" and several documentaries.

Allan, a 23-year-old chemistry major, said he is taking the class because he wanted to explore what caused such a great tragedy with so many deaths.

"It's a lot of work," he said, "but it's an interesting topic and worth the time."

Allan, a Filipino American, represents a surprising trend for a Holocaust studies class -- about 40 percent of the students in German 59 are Asian or Asian American.

"This is not a class that's taught only for Jews," said Todd S. Presner, who teaches the course.

One explanation might simply be that the class reflects the demographics of the UCLA student body, which is roughly 33 percent Asian and Asian American. But that ignores some of the more profound motivations expressed by a random sample of students attending Presner's lectures.

Several students say their interest was piqued in high school, when they first learned about the Holocaust, often through a Jewish teacher.

Isabella Niu, a 19-year-old political science major from Taiwan, first heard about the Holocaust in high school. She said she wanted to learn more after her teacher "just mentioned it and then dropped it."

Angela, a 20-year-old Chinese American neuroscience major, is attending the class simply to learn more about the Holocaust. She felt it was important to study the topic, and it provides her a break from her science courses.

Presner's reputation as an enthusiastic teacher who knows his subject is also an important draw for some students.

Among them is Patrick Agustini, a 21-year-old business major from Taiwan, who expects the course to "broaden his outlook and change his perspective."

Don T. Nakanishi, UCLA Asian American Studies Center director, believes that Asian American students are interested in learning more about the Holocaust for the same reasons as other students: It was the most horrific example of human madness and extermination.

"They are interested in learning more about why it happened, what took place and what lessons we need to learn so that it does not happen again," he said. "Asian American students may also have a special motivation, which stems from their interest in seeing potential parallels between the Holocaust in Europe and major episodes of genocide in countries from which they and their families fled, like the killing fields in Cambodia."

Professor David Myers, chair of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, speculated that some Asian and Asian American students might be interested in the Holocaust because of a "lingering consciousness of Japanese internment."

Yuri Shindo, a 19-year-old biology major from Japan, said that the Holocaust intrigued her, not because of Japan's role in World War II, but rather because of "how the Japanese were treated in the United States."

Shindo lamented the fact that the Holocaust is not taught in Japanese schools. She is aware that the Germans are much more knowledgeable about the war and feels that Japan should follow Germany's example and include it in the school curriculum.

"Japanese people don't know what happened," she said.

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Internment, Redress and Community at UCLA, said that he has not seen any empirical material, such as a survey, that would provide any insight into why Asian and Asian American students would be particularly interested in this or similar Holocaust studies courses. He recognizes that the medium might be as important as the message.

"Over the years, I have used documentaries as an integral part of my Asian American studies courses," he wrote in an e-mail. "What I found is that no matter where I've taught, my Asian American students both appreciate and enjoy film and other visual material because they are able to 'see' things for themselves that the textbooks and articles only describe."

While no one has seriously researched why Asian and Asian American students in particular are drawn to this Holocaust studies class, it likely has something to do with the professor's approach. Presner doesn't look on the Holocaust simply as a historical event or an enormous tragedy that happened to other people a long time ago in a far away place.

Rather, he said, "it should affect my students personally. Initially, it's abstract and distant, but in time, it becomes personal and relevant. There is an ethical undercurrent in the class, and I'm not only teaching them facts but engaging my students to become more humane."

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