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New Holocaust Studies Center Harnesses Diverse Academic Fields

The son of a Presbyterian minister and a man raised in a Greek Orthodox family are spearheading the establishment of a Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at a Los Angeles-area college.

Philosophy professor John Roth and historian Jonathan Petropoulos are both steeped in the history of the Holocaust.

Roth, 61, has been teaching and writing on the subject for 25 years at Claremont McKenna College, a liberal arts college.

In 1999, Roth resigned his appointment to head the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies after he was assailed for writings he made in which he compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews.

Roth has apologized for the comparison..

Petropoulos, the 41-year-old director of the college’s Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, is an authority on Nazi-looted art, both as the author of two books on the subject and in assisting Holocaust survivors.

Drawing on the resources of Claremont McKenna College, its four sister undergraduate colleges and two graduate schools, which collectively make up the Claremont Colleges, Roth and Petropoulos are enlisting professors and students in such fields as history, philosophy, religion, sociology, political science, psychology, economics, arts, science and literature for the center’s mission.

They make the point that while there are numerous Holocaust museums, memorials, university courses and teacher training programs in America on the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, there are only two or three academic centers which bring to bear the perspective and research of a whole range of scholarly disciplines on the subject.

In dealing with the three areas in the center’s title, Roth emphasized in a recent interview with both men that “the Holocaust will be the linchpin and cornerstone of our studies. There is no moral equivalency to the Holocaust. But, unfortunately, the Holocaust has not put an end to genocide, and to understand both, some comparative analysis is appropriate.”

Roth also notes that “much of the international legislation on war crimes, crimes against humanity and the United Nations’ declaration of human rights have grown out of the Holocaust experience.”

Petropoulos added, “We are sensitive to the uniqueness of the Holocaust. We will not try to relativize it.”

Petropoulos said he first became aware of the Holocaust as a 10-year-old when his Athens-born father spoke with great bitterness about the German occupation of the city.

With his subsequent studies of the Holocaust, he is convinced that its impact and relevance “transcend ethnicity.”

Roth said he learned about the Holocaust as a college student when he encountered Richard Rubenstein’s writings and later the works of Elie Wiesel.

He recalled discussing with his minister father his discovery that his own Christian tradition, “its antipathy toward Jews, was embedded in the Holocaust.”

Still in its beginning stages, the Claremont center is seeking an endowment of $5 million to $6 million.

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