In the 1970s, only a handful of university professors taught courses on the Holocaust. Northeastern’s Gerald Herman was among them.
Inspired by his wife’s family’s experience in Brussels, Herman began teaching the Holocaust as part of a senior seminar and then incorporated it into the Western and World Civilization course once required of all students.
By including public events as part of the course, Herman also helped launch Northeastern’s annual week of Holocaust commemoration.
Herman’s role in educating the campus about the Holocaust has not been his only contribution to Jewish Studies at Northeastern. Herman nurtured the program, particularly during his 11 years as director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Jewish Studies was one of 24 programs that came under the center’s auspices, along with programs such as Cinema Studies, Women’s Studies and Asian Studies. (The center dissolved in 2010 when the university divided the College of Arts and Sciences into three separate colleges.)
Herman, who has been on the Northeastern faculty since 1967, acknowledges he took a particular interest in Jewish Studies. He worked with then-Jewish Studies director Debra Kaufman to secure funding for a major Jewish Studies lecture and to offer more courses.
“We moved the program to the point we created a distinct presence,” Herman said earlier in the semester as he sat in his office lined with books from floor to ceiling. “We finally did get faculty from all over the university interested in Jewish Studies, even in the law school.”
Herman’s own teaching continues to reflect his interest in World War II. Along with seminars on various aspects of the war, from the home front to genocide and war and memory, Herman taught a graduate course on 20th Century European History with three other professors, including Tom Segev, author of The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust. He also helped to edit the 2007 book, From the Protocols of Zion to Holocaust Denial Trials: Challenging the Media, the Law and the Academy; the book grew out of a Northeastern conference on the topic. Since 1983 Herman has served on the Holocaust Awareness Committee that plans the week’s commemorative activities.
It is not surprising that Herman has been drawn to Jewish Studies for both personal and professional reasons. His interest in the Holocaust came initially from his wife, Jacque’s, experience. She was born in Belgium shortly after it was liberated from the Nazis. Her Jewish parents had spent the war years in hiding. The family immigrated to the United States in 1950, eventually settling on Coney Island. Herman and his parents lived not far from his future wife and in-laws. “We spent our teenage years by the ocean, eating Nathan’s hot dogs and enjoying ourselves,” Herman recalled.
Professionally, Jewish Studies fits Herman’s career-long interest in interdisciplinary work. Even as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the early 1960s, Herman found an interdisciplinary major for himself. International Affairs existed on the books, yet almost no Hunter students actually had declared the major that encompassed history, political science and economics. Herman did.
International Affairs led to what Herman assumed would be a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. It didn’t turn out that way. The State Department sent Herman, who had passed his foreign-service exam and obtained security clearance, to Northeastern to get a masters degree. While Herman was at Northeastern, a history faculty member happened to run off with an undergraduate, leaving the university in need of a last-minute replacement for his course. Herman stepped in and never left.
Herman, who received a masters in history from Northeastern, became a tenured faculty member in 1973 without earning a Ph.D. As he sees it, the lack of a Ph.D. freed him to pursue his interests. “I never worried about getting promoted,” he said. “In my career I do more or less what I want to do.”
What he wants to do ranges over academic subjects and positions, as his 31-page curriculum vitae attests. University service alone fills 10 pages. In addition to being an assistant professor and acting chair in the Department of History, he’s been three “specials”: Special Assistant to University Counsel (1987-present); Special Assistant to the Provost (1979-1987); and Special Assistant to the Provost for Faculty and Program Development (1977-1979).
Herman has taught 21 different undergraduate courses, 14 separate graduate courses, and 12 courses in what is now the College of Professional Studies. Although many of those courses focus on war in the 20th century, he also has a number of subspecialties, including technology, leading to courses such as the History of Flight and Space Travel; and film, leading to courses such as Exploring Humanities through Film. He also pioneered using films as an instructional tool, including in his Holocaust courses.
His eclectic interests carry over to the grants he has received, ranging from a National Science Foundation grant for informal science teaching in museum environments, to a National Endowment for the Humanities Program grant for “The Historian and the Moving Image Media.” His scholarship also spans disciplines, with publications in Film and History, International Journal of Instructional Media, and the Public Historian. He’s even written the liner notes for an album on American ragtime.
Herman’s explanation for this wide-ranging and interdisciplinary career: “I was interested in all this stuff. That’s the thing.”
Fortunately for Northeastern, Jewish Studies is among “the stuff” Herman has been interested in for 47 years.
Read the rest of the Haverim Spring 2014 Newsletter here.