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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Historian Debórah Dwork and her students use a variety of sources--including government and philanthropic agency archives, newspapers, letters, memoirs and interviews--to understand the causes and impacts of the Holocaust and other genocides of the twentieth century.

Meet the researchers: Contributing to history

Interview with Joshua Franklin '05
Joshua Franklin completed his B.A. degree in history at Clark in 2006. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in that subject through Clark's 5th year free program. In a recent conversation, summarized below, he discussed how the correspondence of a World War II veteran got him interested in the story of German-Jewish refugee soldiers in the American Armed Forces.

Did you know when you started at Clark that you wanted to study history?

When I came to Clark I was one of those students who had no idea what he wanted to do. That's why I was attracted to a liberal arts college. I expected to figure it out when I got there. I took a course with Professor Everett Fox that really got me interested in Jewish studies and history. Then I started taking history courses, and more specifically Holocaust and genocide courses. I really got into that particular aspect of Jewish history. Finally, I completed a major in history with a concentration in Jewish studies.

Did you participate in Clark's Prague/Terezin study abroad program in Eastern Europe?

Yes, in May 2005.

What did you think about that?

It was an amazing experience. Here, in the United States, I studied the history of the Holocaust, read books and attended lectures. But when I went to Eastern Europe and was surrounded by the places that I had studied, it was a different experience. My visit to Auschwitz was particularly moving. I had read so much about it, but it was really incomprehensible until I actually saw it for myself. The Prague/Terezin program really gave me a chance to see what I was learning about in the classroom.

Did you do any other study abroad experiences?

Yes, I studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the summer of 2004. I did a program called an Ulpan, which is an intensive course in Hebrew. The program was for six weeks, six days a week, five hours per day. It really improved my Hebrew and got me interested in the language and country, and more interested in Jewish studies.

I imagine you took a lot of field trips while you were in Jerusalem?

Much of the program involved touring the city and learning—in Hebrew—about the Jewish history of Jerusalem. There were also trips to places like Tel Aviv and Haifa. On my own I visited the Sinai in Egypt. It was a great experience, with a lot of freedom, but very intense.


I know that during your senior year you completed an honors thesis in history. What was your research about?

It was about the experiences of German-Jewish refugees serving in the American armed forces during World War II. These refugees immigrated from Nazi Germany to the United States between the years 1933-1941, especially 1938-1940. When the U.S. entered the war, these refugees had the opportunity to return to Germany and fight against the Nazis. Jewish participation in the U.S. armed forces during World War II is a topic that's been studied in great detail. I wanted to know if the experience of this group of soldiers differed from that of other Jewish soldiers, and then from all U.S. soldiers.

Did you find a difference of experience, and if so, what was it?

The German-Jewish soldiers as a group did have a very different experience from that of other Jewish soldiers who served with the American forces at that time. For these German Jews, the fight was very personal, because before arriving in the United States they had experienced Nazi persecution first hand. Not only that, but they spoke German and they knew the people and geography of Germany. These qualities made them very valuable to the U.S. military, which used them in special ways. For example, a very high percentage of these German Jews were in military intelligence. Even those who weren't officially assigned to intelligence often managed to find their way, unofficially, into areas such as interrogation, translation, radio operation and censorship. Some of the vets knew the locations of factories or other important targets in their hometowns in Germany. One of the men I interviewed, Erwin Weinberg, was in Air Force intelligence and provided the location of a ball-bearing factory in his hometown. Ball bearings were crucial parts for machines and tanks. The factory was bombed upon his recommendation. So they, indeed, had a distinctive experience. What percentage of Jewish soldiers did these German-Jewish refugees comprise? This was a statistic that no one had previously calculated. Through my research, I determined that approximately 9,500 German-Jewish refugees served in the American Armed Forces, just under 2% of the total Jewish population of 550,000.

What got you interested in this particular topic?

My grandfather is a German-born Jew who fought in the American armed forces in WWII. I came across correspondence between him and his father, a German veteran of WWI. Their correspondence was very interesting and reading these letters got me asking questions. What was the experience like for other German-born Jewish soldiers? My original thesis plan was just to study these letters. But when I did preliminary research to find out if anyone had studied German-Jewish refugees in the American armed forces, I found that no one had. So I expanded my thesis topic, because I thought it was an area that needed to be pioneered, and would be more important than studying just that particular correspondence. But I did include those letters among the primary sources that I studied.


What other sources of information did you use?

I conducted interviews with German-Jewish veterans and read memoirs, biographies and autobiographies. One veteran I read about was Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State, who came as a German-Jewish refugee to the U.S in 1938. He began by serving in the infantry during WWII, and is an example of a German-Jewish soldier who started out in one area but wound up in military intelligence. Someone recognized his abilities in German and his intelligence. Another great resource was a German-Jewish refugee newspaper called Aufbau. It was put out weekly, and every week it featured articles and letters from soldiers telling about their experiences. One of my big challenges was that Aufbau was written about 40% in English and 60% in German. I was able to have a few articles in German translated into English, but wasn't able to look at all the articles since there were so many. Many WWII veterans are now deceased. How did you find veterans to interview? Actually, I keep finding more veterans to interview and am expanding my study, even though the senior thesis is completed. You interview one veteran and find out he has a buddy who is also a German-Jewish veteran. Many veterans were also recommended to by various people who I happened to mention my thesis to. My roommate's father, for example, gave me the name and phone number of one of his family's friends in Worcester who was a German-Jewish veteran. I happened to meet another German-Jewish refugee veteran at my grandmother's funeral. Because my family is of German-Jewish background, we have German-Jewish family and friends who became interested in my study and helped me to find people to interview. The American German-Jewish community is a surprisingly close network of people and the interviews keep flowing in.


What else did you find distinctive about this group of veterans?

I dedicated one chapter of my thesis to what it was like for these German Jews to return to Germany as Americans soldiers. Unlike other American soldiers, who were simply going to Europe, German-Jewish refugees were returning home. Many of them had family members who had not been able to emigrate. These refugee soldiers often searched for their families only to find out that they had been annihilated in the Holocaust. A few German-Jewish refugees even returned or liberated the very concentration camps that they themselves had been imprisoned in. Another part of the German-Jewish refugee experience was the discrimination that they often faced in the United States as enemy aliens. When WWII began, German-Jewish refugees were considered enemy aliens by the U.S. government. They weren't allowed to enlist in the U.S. military and had a number of restrictions placed them. With few exceptions, enemy aliens weren't allowed to serve in infantry or combat units until mid- 1943. They were assigned to groups like the medical or ordnance corps. Then, in mid-1943 General William Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services, pushed for a change in military policy to enable enemy aliens to enlist in the armed forces. Upon his recommendation the policies of the military changed, and he began to choose German-Jewish refugees for intelligence work. It was also around this same time that the restrictions on enemy aliens being in combat units were lifted. D-Day was in the planning stages, and the U.S. needed a lot of manpower and had to think strategically.

How did you work with your thesis advisor, Professor Deborah Dwork?

During the first semester that I worked on my thesis, Dr. Dwork and I met every other week. Second semester, when I started to do my writing, we met every week. I am highly indebted to Professor Dwork for everything she did for me, and also for my research. She made time in her busy life to read, edit, and critique my writing. She constantly challenged me to think critically, write better, and to be a better scholar. Without her guidance, support, kindness, and wisdom, I never would have been able to finish my thesis.


What are you working on for your master's thesis?

I'm writing about Rabbi Leo Baeck, the head of the German-Jewish community in Germany during the Nazi era. He held this position until January 1943, at which time he was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin), a concentration camp located about 45 miles outside Prague. There's evidence that possibly as early as 1942, he had knowledge about the transports of German-Jews to camps in Eastern Europe and about the gassing of German-Jews at Chelmno (one of the 6 death camps in Poland). There's also evidence that, while in Theresienstadt, he learned about Auschwitz from two different Auschwitz escapees. Supposedly they met with Baeck or the Council of Elders, which Baeck became part of. My study tries to clear up what in fact went on. There are a lot of misconceptions about what happened, what Baeck knew and whom he met with. He has been accused of complicity with the Nazis, notably by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I want to understand why he remained silent about his knowledge, discuss how others like Baeck in different ghettos handled this type of scenario and review the criticism and opinions of other scholars about Rabbi Baeck.

Can you describe the advantages and disadvantages of participating in research as compared with more traditional classroom based learning?

It's very different. If you do a paper for a seminar, it's usually between 10-15 pages, and you're often commenting on and repeating what people have already said. Perhaps you are formulating new ideas, but you are not discovering anything new. But when you're doing your own research, you're creating new ideas and writing about topics that no one has written about before. You're looking at a unique area and contributing to history and academia in general. I'd never produced something on the scale of what I did for my honors thesis, or gotten involved in that kind of research.

What do you hope to do when you finish your degree?

I'm going in another direction again and applying to rabbinical school. At the same time I like the academic part of Jewish history, and hopefully I'll be able to continue that as well.



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Joshua Franklin
Joshua Franklin
  Doing your own research:     Quicktime

Read Josh's senior honors thesis (PDF). Copyright Joshua Franklin.

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