SAN FRANCISCO — A mysterious discovery in a Holocaust survivor’s attic is fueling hopes of a Jewish studies renaissance on a campus plagued by antisemitic protests last year.
Leaders of San Francisco State University’s Jewish studies program say the recent donation of original transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials will help usher in a new era on their campus, which was rocked by pro-Palestinian demonstrations last spring and a string of antisemitic incidents. They say the 100,000-page, 20-volume historical treasure should help boost the recently launched five-year plan to revamp the department.
The archive was discovered two years ago by Arlington, Va., resident Carmel Thompson beneath the insulation in the attic of her childhood home. Thompson, who has declined requests for interviews, reportedly has no idea how the transcripts ended up in the house; her father never spoke of them.
Thompson turned to psychotherapist and social worker Gerald Gray, founder of two Bay Area groups that combat torture, to help her find a location for the archive. He arranged for the archive to be acquired by the family foundation of Silicon Valley venture capitalist and investment manager George Sarlo.
Gray “asked if I would be willing to do the heavy lifting of getting the volumes [to San Francisco] and finding a good home for them,” Sarlo said.
The Holocaust Center of Northern California already had a set of the transcripts. So the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties put Sarlo, who as a child was smuggled out of Hungary hours before 17 of his relatives were deported to Auschwitz, in touch with San Francisco State’s Jewish studies program.
Sarlo said he was impressed with the program’s effort to revive itself in the face of campus antisemitism and quickly resolved to send the transcripts there. “It’s a place that should not and must not be neglected,” he told the Forward.
Marc Dollinger, acting director of San Francisco State’s Jewish studies program, said the gift comes as his program is undergoing great changes in the face of great need.
“We are a campus with a high level of Palestinian activism, and very militant Palestinian activism at that,” Dollinger said. “We want to become a center of learning on Jewish issues so we can get away from the rhetoric they put out on the quad and move it into the classroom… this is the ground we’re trying to carve out for ourselves.”
Efforts to revamp the program were launched following pro-Palestinian demonstrations in April and May 2002. The rallies featured antisemitic rhetoric and fliers containing anti-Israel blood libels.
These incidents and others on or near campus — including the Passover 2002 discovery of unexploded Molotov cocktails on the roof of a synagogue — contributed to Northern California’s 800% increase in antisemitic incidents last year, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League.
“This is something that all of us in Jewish studies are very concerned about and will respond to,” Dollinger said. But, he added, the program, which just started offering a bachelor’s degree for the first time — in modern Jewish studies — would remain apolitical.
“What I don’t want to have happen is to have that particular group of Palestinian activists define the course and control of Jewish studies on campus — that, to me, would be a defeat. But we are at the start of a wholesale renewal of Jewish studies.”
A key step in that process was the appointment last year of Dollinger, formerly of Pasadena City College, to the university’s chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility — believed to be the first and only such academic post in the country. Dollinger is currently filling in as chairman for Fred Astren, a professor in Jewish and Islamic history, who is on sabbatical at Oxford University.
Receiving the Nuremberg transcripts, Dollinger said, appeared to be a “a great omen.”
“I let everyone up and down the line know we were grateful for their confidence, for standing with us” at a time when the Jewish community could have chosen to shun the campus, Dollinger said.
The transcripts, mostly in German, will be housed in a reading room for public viewing as well as use by faculty and graduate students with interests in Holocaust studies, German history and other fields.
“We have a brand-new scholar of German literature, Volker Langbein,” Dollinger said. “His specialty is post-World War II German literature and he’s very interested in Nuremberg and the cultural issues that came out of Nuremberg. He wants to integrate some of these pages into his courses, in the original German for his advanced students.”
Dollinger said it was “an incredibly powerful moment” for him and Langbein as they unpacked the volumes from their shipping boxes and Langbein began reading passages from one of the hearings.
“He was haunted and disturbed deeply by what he was reading,” Dollinger said. “But how incredible that after just 60 years — a short time historically — we can have a child of German society and a child of Judaism reading together a document from the worst period of our histories.”