An Interview with Dr. Shay Pilnik, Director of the Fish Center

Dr. Shay Pilnik

In September 2019, Yeshiva University made the momentous announcement that Emil Fish, a Holocaust survivor, had made a generous donation in the name of himself and his wife, Jenny z”l, to establish the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

The Center, said Fish, “will educate young people and adults about a singular event in history that, regrettably, too few people understand, including what conditions existed before the Nazis ascended to power, how they rose to leadership positions and why they targeted Jews.”

After an extensive search, Dr. Shay Pilnik, who at the time headed the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was named the Center’s inaugural director in February 2020. The son and grandson of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Dr. Pilnik took on the position because “teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation is one of the most important educational tasks of our time.”

Shortly after he came on board, the University was forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to move all administrative and educational activities online, but this has done little to slow down the Fish Center’s efforts to create dynamic educational programming, including most notably the institution of a master’s degree and certificate programs in Holocaust and genocide studies.

YU News sat down with Dr. Pilnik to discuss his assessment of what the Fish Center has accomplished over the past year and his vision for future.

The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Dr. Pilnik, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about and plans for the Fish Center. What drew you take the director’s position?

I have been in Holocaust education for over a decade. And when I saw the position at Yeshiva, I thought that the insights I had gained from my work could be applied to a new institution to improve the field on a national level and international level. That’s the primary reason why I came, and I’m very excited to say that during the past year I have worked with my colleagues to build the foundations of the Center and prepare for the grand launch of our graduate programs.

I must also say that I was drawn to do this work through the vision of Emil Fish.

Speak about that a bit, if you could.

Emil Fish is a Holocaust survivor who survived Bergen-Belsen as a child. We’re fortunate that the  philanthropist behind the Center is somebody who is directly touched by the subject that we’re studying. He is the real visionary here.

To a great extent, Holocaust education and Holocaust studies have been propelled by Holocaust survivors, which was my experience in Milwaukee. These volunteers insisted that what happened to them personally marks a historic moment in the annals of human civilization and has to be taught, especially as, for younger generations, it’s becoming both in terms of time and space a more and more distant event.

Going back to Emil’s vision, he realized that because the survivors holding up the edifice of Holocaust education are passing day by day, the field has to be professionalized. And here we come to both the mission of the Center and Emil’s vision, which is to train the new cadre of educators in Holocaust education and genocide studies, giving them the tools to guarantee the professional integrity of the field.

What challenges does this new cadre face?

There are several, but the primary one may be the one that sounds a bit absurd: to insist upon the Holocaust as a Jewish experience anchored in the history of the Shoah. The Holocaust does teach us many universal lessons, but the way the Holocaust is taught in the United States creates the danger that over time the subject can become marginalized and sidelined if we do not assert that the event is significant because the Holocaust was the only genocide in history with the intent of wiping out every member of the Jewish people from the face of the earth—a unique and unprecedented event.

That is why I want to design a program steeped in the experiences of the Jewish people before, during and after the Holocaust. With the Center located at a place like Yeshiva University, with its world-class faculty, we can really make the Fish Center into a beacon for Holocaust and genocide studies.

And the graduates of this program are going to be the new generation of teachers and leaders better qualified to teach and ready to defend the field’s integrity.

How have you designed the proposed program to take advantage of what the University offers in terms of its programs and people?

When you realize that the Holocaust is a watershed event in the history of humanity, you must also observe its impact on our lives. The interdisciplinary nature of our proposed program, and the interdisciplinary sophistication of our faculty, exactly addresses that issue. I envisage a curriculum that shows students that to study the Holocaust is not only to understand the chronology of events but also to understand the impact of the Holocaust on the fields of literature, law, film studies, memory studies, social work and theology, to name just a few.

A good example of this are the four Fish Center-affiliated courses being offered this spring: Social Work and the Holocaust (Matthew Katz), History of the Jews in Eastern Europe Since 1914 (Dr. Joshua Zimmerman), At the Edge of the Abyss: Jewish Intellectual Responses to Nazism, 1933-1940 (Dr. Josh Karlip) and Teaching About the Holocaust Through Narrative, Film, Art, and Artifact (Dr. Karen Shawn). Four instructors from four YU schools meeting at the intersection of multiple areas of study: this is the essence of what the Fish Center wants to offer.


Will this be enough to improve Holocaust education in the United States?

The recent survey issued by the Claims Conference that assessed all 50 states does not show a hostility to the subject matter of the Holocaust, but it does show that the American public is ill prepared to learn because the subject is often taught perfunctorily and is not one of the easiest subjects to teach.

The survey does show that my former home state of Wisconsin, as the study stated, “scores highest in Holocaust awareness among U.S. Millennials and Gen Z,” and I believe that is because the Pelz Center, along with many, many others, made long-term and devoted investments in Holocaust educational curricula. In Wisconsin, there are teachers who have been teaching the Holocaust for decades, supported by the Pelz Center, which provided such things as teacher training and visits of survivors to classrooms. When you invest in the training of leaders and teachers, the good results will come.

I can also say, with confidence, that over the last year, we have received more inquiries about our courses and plans for future programs than we can handle. Another interesting thing is these inquiries are coming from practicing teachers and retired teachers, from teachers both at the beginning and in the middle of their careers. I believe this shows that when there is a call to rise to the occasion and display leadership in the field, there will be people who will heed the call and be ready to join us.

What effect has the pandemic had on the Center?

There is something of a silver lining with the pandemic. I came into the position with a clear vision of offering online education to teachers, but at the time, it seemed like a distant goal to be implemented within three to four years. But a month after I started, practically all instructors in the world switched to teaching online. So, now there are Center-affiliated online classes, which we will continue to do even when the pandemic is over and we have face-to-face courses as well.

Already we see good results. One example that, for me, illustrates the power of what our online Holocaust education can do is Justin Zammit, who is head of humanities for St. Philip’s College, located in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia, situated almost at the exact center of the country. He is part of a network of Australian Holocaust educators, but we never would have connected with him if we had relied on getting him to set foot on the Wilf Campus.

We also have reports of increased attendance in Center-affiliated classes that normally would have had a lower number of in-person students, and extending Center-supported scholarship aid helps us fulfill our goal of offering training affordable to all.

I know I can’t be unbiased, but I really think we will have a phenomenal program.

What are the Center’s plans for its second year?

We hope for New York State Education Department approval of graduate programs, and people who have already taken Center-affiliated courses can look forward to continuing their advanced studies.

We have instituted a webinar series, Holocaust Remembrance Around the World, where every other week, beginning at the end of January, I will be in conversation with educators from around the world. Our first conversation will be with Samuel Shats and Marjorie Agosin in Chile. Marjorie is a poet whose recent book, Braided Memories, is centered on Helena Broder, her great-grandmother, and her escape from Vienna to Chile in 1938. Samuel is a celebrated photographer born in Chile, and his pictures grace Marjorie’s book.

This series echoes one I did last summer, where I spoke with five directors of education from around the United State on the topic of Holocaust remembrance and education.

Our commemoration of Kristallnacht last November, supported by Tova Rosenberg of Names, Not Numbers© and Dr. Ronnie Perelis, director of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, was quite special. It featured Helga Schmitz-Luden, who made her way to the United States by way of the Dominican Republic, which offered Jews sanctuary in 1941 when so many other countries did not. We were able to include Ambassador José A. Blanco Conde, Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, and U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose congressional district includes Washington Heights. Both commented on the long history of friendship between the Dominican Republic and the Jewish community. This coming November, we will look to have the same kind of commemoration that brings together the many different communities affected by the events of those times, which still reverberate throughout the world.

All of these reflect our goal to see the Holocaust through as many lenses as possible and to share our multiple understandings of this watershed event with educators throughout the world. This vision is also Emil’s vision, and I am gratified to have the responsibility to carry it forward.