Lodz, Poland, might not be well-known to some students, but to Gordon Horwitz — a professor of history at Illinois Wesleyan University who specializes in modern European and German history — it is a city that shows how life can go on amid chaos and violence. Staff Writer Kelsey Fowler spoke with Horwitz about his recent book, “Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City” and his research on the Holocaust that he will present tonight.
Kelsey Fowler: How did you become interested in Holocaust history?
Gordon Horwitz: It had already been a long-term interest of mine and was an essential part of any study of modern Germany and 20th century Europe.
KF: What will be the core message of your lecture at Ithaca College?
GH: I’m going to be talking about Lodz as a microcosm of the wider events associated with the final solution and the Holocaust. I want to raise the issue of the relationship between those who live on the outside and those who are within these centers of quarantined destruction. The problem of how one world can live so closely beside another is still an unresolved aspect of our civilization.
KF: What have you learned about the Holocaust that has interested you the most?
GH: I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the centers of destruction — places like the Lodz ghetto and the surrounding neighborhoods. It always struck me as one of the most essential things to understand: How is it that places like that exist in relation to others where people go about their daily lives? If we look at our own existence, we, too, carry on our lives in the midst of all kinds of destruction and chaos.
KF: Why did you choose to study the Lodz ghetto for your book?
GH: It was largely a logistical matter. In the late 1990s, when I was looking at the topic, there was a great deal of information that was starting to emerge from the Polish archives. There were both documentary sources in the state archives and also little known elements of photographic record from chroniclers, both German and Jewish, who were on the scene and taking photographs at the time.
KF: Do you think primary sources help tell history’s story?
GH: Absolutely, I always look for primary sources. It’s essential because they are documents that were laid down with the sentiments of that historical moment itself. The Lodz ghetto was the longest lasting of all the ghettos, so it left behind very extensive administrative records and a number of remarkable diaries.
KF: Why is knowledge of the Holocaust relevant to today’s college-age adults?
GH: You are growing up in a world in which many of the same tendencies that were expressed in the most extreme during the Second World War continue. The same policies of genocide, destruction and singling out of people for elimination is a problem that the Nazis historically have highlighted, but we still live with in parts of the world.
KF: Do you believe history can repeat itself?
GH: Never exactly. But there are patterns. I do not believe we will necessarily see what happened in Europe under the Nazis quite like that again. But the same patterns of exclusion and destruction do repeat themselves, and one should be aware of them.
KF: Do you believe those patterns are an important factor in our society today?
GH: Civilization is a remarkably sturdy but very fragile construct. We do always have to worry about the prospect of even the sturdiest societies coming apart at the seams. Just as we saw a decade ago in Yugoslavia, the breakdown of central authority and its replacement can lead to many of these genocidal and racist manifestations.
KF: How did putting together “Ghettoshadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City” help influence those lessons and thoughts for you?
GH: I’m trying try to use the skills of research and, above all, writing to help shape in a broader way the imagination of readers. To have an alert imagination and an alert awareness is essential. Imagination, thought, knowledge, a storehouse of recollection of past events, an analysis, is a way of preparing oneself to be a citizen of the globe today.
KF: Do you see a solution?
GH: Just to be aware of what has happened, of the potentialities and the prospects of this occurring elsewhere. Of course, knowledge is but the first, but very important and very mighty part of that preparedness and alertness.
Gordon Horwitz will speak at the college’s annual Holocaust lecture at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Emerson Suites. The event is free and open to the public.