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Q&A: Eureka College Professor Discusses Appointment To State’s Holocaust Commission

Erika Quinn

Eureka College history professor Erika Quinn is one of 17 scholars and educators chosen last month by Gov. JB Pritzker to serve on the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission, giving a panel originally formed in 2010 an entirely new membership.

Quinn was awarded the Helen Cleaver Distinguished Teaching award in 2015 and her research interests focus on Central European history. Her book, “Franz Liszt: A Story of Central European Subjectivity,” was published in 2014, and she also has contributed articles to the Journal of First World War Studies.

Reporter Joe Deacon recently spoke with Quinn about the Holocaust commission's purpose and her role as a member.

What can you tell us about the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission and what your role will be as a member?

The Holocaust Commission is being slightly reinvented. It has a mostly new membership. I'm one of 17 people who's going to be on the commission, which includes three students. That's the first time that there have been students on the commission at the high school, undergrad and master's level students, so that's really exciting. And because the commission is being put together out of new members, I think that there's some reinventing that's going to happen.

From what I understand, the commission is meant to help guide Holocaust and genocide curricula for K-12 education. So part of what we might be doing is looking to see what kind of education is actually being offered in the state, first of all, to see what students are learning, what access teachers have to resources, etc. And once we find out what's actually being taught and where maybe gaps are, we might start developing ways to put teachers in touch with resources, whether those are nonprofit organizations or teaching resources or other kinds of connections.

I know another part of what the commission will be doing is, in its mandate the commission is asked to put on meaningful and long-lasting commemorations. So that's another thing we're going to be exploring, is how to have some kind of public commemoration that has real impact and outreach.

How often will the commission meet?

We're required to meet quarterly, and it sounds like there might be working groups that will break out and maybe meet more often. Again, it's all kind of an exciting process of reinventing a little bit.

Can you share a bit about your background and qualifications and why you were chosen to serve on this commission?

Sure, I'm a historian. I have a Ph.D. in modern European history, and my focus of interest is in German-speaking Europe for the 19th and 20th century. So as a German historian, it's unavoidable to learn about Nazism in the Holocaust; it is just part of our training. It's a course that everyone pretty much expects to teach in their career because it's such a horrible and important part of German history.

My own research isn't related to the Holocaust directly, but I do work a lot on war widowhood, and I have looked and scoured in Jewish history archives trying to find memoirs and diaries of Jewish widows of World War I. I have not been successful yet, but certainly looking at the effects of war and trauma on people is something I'm really interested in and have published on. So that's I think another reason I've been chosen to be on the commission.

I'm also kind of newly engaged in cross-cultural understanding projects. I've been pretty central in redesigning our general education curriculum at Eureka; that's been maybe four years ago that we really started to launch that and develop it. So I was really engaged in that process and really thought it was important and interesting to give students a skills and competency-based general education curriculum, rather than kind of just discipline or content based.

So building on that, we have a working group at Eureka now, to think about building some kind of curricular offering around intercultural competence. And so I've been doing a lot of personal training and professional work to help me understand the skills that students would need to demonstrate for that, and of course to develop them more in myself as well. So I think that's something else that I would really bring to the commission, is this commitment to developing interpersonal skills through this curriculum.

Why is it important for the state to have a commission on the Holocaust and genocide?

I think that the Holocaust and other genocides of the 20th and 21st century are important tools for us to all look inside ourselves, for impulses, resentments, feelings that could lead us to distance ourselves from people or to dehumanize other people, or even support policies that might be problematic. And I think with the rise of the alt-right all around the world, it's really important to look at not only government's roles in creating that, but all of our own personal responses that might be feeding polarization. And I think it's great to work with young people when they're still learning some of those codes and some of those social identities to really have them question those.

Do you think there's a growing disconnect or lack of awareness about the Holocaust as it becomes longer and longer ago?

I don't have this study right at the tip of my fingers, but I know studies have been done recently with high school or college students who, something like 15 to 20%, don't know what the Holocaust was. And I think especially, you know, here in central Illinois we have relatively small Jewish communities, we have fairly homogenous communities. And I think, just, you know, teaching at Eureka, I see that students don't have a lot of familiarity certainly with Jewish history.

But also, I've noticed that there's quite a bit of learning that students want to do about other genocides, and they just haven't heard, for example, about the Armenian genocide. And they're usually pretty upset actually that they don't know more about some of these terrible things that have happened. Especially when I have students in class who are going to go on and teach history in high school, those students are really, really interested in making sure that their future K-12 students get maybe a more complete picture of the 20th century than they feel like they had in their schooling. So, I think there's a lot of interest and, yes, there's a lot of need.

You can also listen to the full interview:

Listen to the full conversation

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.