Visions of the Past

Unbelievably to me, 21 years ago, I was a college senior at the University of Michigan enrolled in the most formative class of my entire education as a student of history. I had previously taken two courses with Professor Jonathan Marwil and knew that he was challenging, old school (even back then) with his lecture style classes, tough grading practices and traditional papers and exam assessments. But I just knew somehow that I needed to take one more class with him.

Back in the late 1990s, “Visions of the Past,” explored historical themes as they were shown in novels, television shows and major motion pictures. The goal of the class was to explore the ways in which the average person, not a historian or student of history, views historical events in mass media. I imagine that if the course is still offered today it has added social media platforms as well. It was the first time ever that any teacher, let alone one of the most well respected historians and professors at the University, had ever told me that the majority of the people out there learn history through fiction.

Yup – that is correct. After high school history classes, most people (that’s most of you out there) learn about history through works of fiction. So this course was designed for emerging historians to take a look at how everyone else in the world learns about historical events and how those events are “kept alive” through fictitious movies, shows, and novels. We read and watched the likes of “The Crucible”, Les Miserables and the Titanic among countless others and delved into discussions that were a true paradox to the historical learning and research that we were immersed in for our other classes.

The class truly shaped and defined me (I should also mention that I met my husband in that room as well, so that also helped) – my senior year housemates, none of whom were history majors, were certainly sick of how much I drilled into them what I learned in that class. Over the years, as I went on to get two different master’s degrees in history and began to work as a historian, I have often reflected on the teachings of Professor Marwil; but never as much as in the past few months.

You see, my specific historical area of expertise is in the Holocaust and although I remember references to the Holocaust in the class, specifically to Elie Weisel and his speech at the 500th year anniversary of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, but as a whole we did not look at any works of fiction from the Holocaust. Not at all – I wonder now if it was because there wasn’t much out there yet or if it was just too soon after the Holocaust to really delve into it. Regardless, what we have now, 21 years later, is so drastically different from then. I can list so many fictional novels, movies, television shows and even instagram posts that have come out about the Holocaust that would fit in so well to the teaching of “Visions of the Past,” that were written or produced 21 years ago.

I must admit that I often cringe when I watch or read these fictitious works and then get on my soapbox to let people know the falsities that they are portraying. But a few days ago, a dear friend, after watching the new Netflix hit, “The Hunters,” made me stop and pause. And once again reflect on “Visions of the Past.” She reminded me that not everyone is a historian and the reality is that those works of fiction are out there – and society is all downloading them, bing watching them and despite how I feel about it, the greater world is remembering the Holocaust through them.

This will always irk me but it will also always please me in that it means that the Holocaust is still on the forefront of people’s minds. With each novel, movie, television show and post that has a storyline that is about or related to the Holocaust, the greater world is still remembering what happened. And that in and of itself for me – is a win.

But I do hope that a few guidelines could be followed. So I ask each of you to just look over this short list of what to keep in mind when you are reading, watching or even scrolling through social media and the topic is the Holocaust.

  1. Before you watch or read determine what it is you are watching – you should always know if you are reading or watching fiction or nonfiction. This will make all the difference.
  2. Keep a bit of a guard up; don’t always take things as truth. If its fiction, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it but it does mean you should have a different lens on when reading or watching because it is fiction.
  3. It’s ok to laugh sometimes. Even at the heaviest of times, we know we need to laugh. But make sure you are laughing with the scenarios and not at them. Poking fun is not a good thing, learning to laugh at uncomfortable times is.
  4. Adults are different then children. And all adults, especially those that are teaching young people about the Holocaust, need to be aware of this. What might be appropriate for adults to be able to handle the difference between reality and fiction might not be so for children or teens. So be careful of what they are watching and reading.
  5. Question, question, question. If it’s completely unbelievable then it is probably not true and make sure to take it as just that – not the truth.

Professor Marwil and “Visions of the Past,” will always be a driving force for me – it helped me learn to look at how the world remembers history and to realize that even when its fiction, its not necessarily a bad thing. It also doesn’t hurt that it led me to my husband, so thinking about it often brings a smile to my face.


About the Author
Ilyse Muser Shainbrown was a former Middle and High School History teacher who now holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Over the years she has done extensive research on various portions of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide including, Rwanda, the Belgian Congo and Bosnia. Currently, Ilyse Muser Shainbrown is the Director of Holocaust Education and Newark Initiatives at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Through both programs, Ilyse works to ensure that Holocaust education is taught broadly in public, private and parochial schools throughout Essex, Union, Morris and Sussex counties.