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Learning from History: “Upstanding” UMass Professor Shares Holocaust Stories

As the number of living Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, it becomes more important for others to tell their stories so that deniers can be denied and the repetition of history can be stopped.

In her new book, The Jews of Nazi-Vienna, 1938-1945: Rescue and Destruction, UMass Dartmouth Professor Dr. Ilana F. Offenberger uses archival documents to explore and explain Jewish resistance in Vienna during the Holocaust. Among the topics dealt with in Offenberger’s book and her speaking engagements are religious freedom and tolerance, what she calls the “warning signs” of genocide, and how so-called “ordinary” people respond.

“This book is the first comprehensive history of the daily life for Vienna’s Jews during the Nazi period written in English,” Offenberger asserts, noting that it offers actual letters that, “allow the voices of the Nazi’s victims…to speak for themselves.” And while the book offers many personal testimonies from a certain time and place, it is also an exploration of universal themes that linger today.

As a full-time lecturer, Offenberger teaches upper-level courses in European History, including some with a particular focus on the Holocaust. She is also a member of the Holocaust Committee of New Bedford and a former staff member at the Brookline-based Holocaust education organization Facing History and Ourselves (, an “incredible institution and resource for teaching strategy and methodology” that has equipped her “with the additional skills needed to make my dream come true – not only write down the history and pass it forward on an individual basis through the written documentation, but to teach.”

When asked what prompted her “dream,” Offenberger explains that her grandmother had fled Vienna in 1938 and that her grandfather was also from the area. When her grandmother died in 1996, Ofenberger became even more interested in finding out about how they had lived and about the many others who had died. Spending her junior year in Austria, Offenberger visited the archives of the Austrian Republic, where she was presented with a trove of documents regarding her family and other Jews in the region.

“As soon as I found the victims’ letters and corresponding documents,” Offenberger explains, “I knew that this was a piece of history that needed to be told, no matter how difficult or how much work it entailed.... I knew that I had to take these words far and wide and share them with as many as possible so that the world would know and never forget.”

Over the course of teaching nine courses at UMass, Offenberger (who will be lecturing about her book at UMass Dartmouth’s Claire T. Carney Library in April, alongside one of the survivors she interviewed for the book) has “fallen in love with teaching” and hopes that her book will not only inform her students but serve as a resource to colleagues and other historians.

“The potential audience for this work reaches beyond the scholarly community,” Offenberger maintains, “to descendants of the many…Jews who fled and to everyone interested in…cultural and social history.  It will appeal, too, to readers interested in the emigration/immigration experience; the Nazi era; the study of genocide; or ongoing political issues…such as restitution and reconciliation.”   

While she is a dedicated educator, Offenberger also hopes to be able to continue her own learning and research and is currently applying to a number of fellowships.

“[My] next project,” she reveals, “will explore and analyze the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors...during the Holocaust.”

By investigating what prompts people to go to such lengths to help others, Offenberger hopes not only to preserve the stories of the Holocaust, but to offer life lessons for all.

“These questions and others will be explored,” she says, “while attention is also brought to the question of what makes an ‘upstander’ and what defines the role of the righteous in times of great calamity.”  ▪

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