Monika Rice grew up in communist Poland where Holocaust studies did not exist and Holocaust literature was scarce. Now she’s ready to take the helm of Gratz’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies Programs.
As a child growing up in communist post-WWII Poland, Monika Rice felt an obligation to learn about history. As a youth—and as a Catholic—Rice noticed a void in her own education. She began asking questions about Poland’s past and discovered that, more often than not, answers were not easily found.
“I grew up in a place that had the largest Jewish diasporic community in Europe before the war,” she said. “That community was almost completely annihilated, but when I was in school, I was simply taught that 6 million Poles died during the Second World War. While it was technically correct that close to 6 million Polish citizens died during the war, more than half of them were Polish Jews, who were destroyed simply for being Jewish, whereas ethnic Poles were killed for resisting the Nazis. Communist propaganda, however, wanted to ‘de-nationalize’ the victims, thus erasing the specific features of anti-Jewish genocide.”
Rice traces her desire to learn more about the Holocaust to her own origins.
“I think we all have an obligation to study, learn, and know the history of the place we were born in; I perceive it as an expression of patriotism, or a particularly-conceived love of one’s country. Such love obligates us to face even the darkest sides of a nation one comes from, so as to be able to constructively ‘work through,’or at least to be aware of, those parts that deserve criticism. In the area of Polish-Jewish relations there is a lot that had – and still has – to be brought to light and corrected, especially on the Polish side of this relationship.”
That early decision prompted Rice to pursue an education in Holocaust studies. It also led her—ultimately—to Gratz College, which this spring appointed her to lead its Holocaust and Genocide Studies programs, which include a master’s degree and a newly formed Ph.D. that has the distinction of being the country’s only online doctoral program in Holocaust and genocide studies.
Rice will take her post as program director in September. She brings experience and energy to a program that is challenging and difficult—both in academic rigor and subject matter.
“This is a deeply disturbing and emotional subject,” she said. “It requires serious commitment, knowledge, and maturity. I’m looking forward to working with devoted, self-motivated students at Gratz, who are deep thinkers. This is something you have to be passionate about.”
Rice speaks from personal experience. Her Holocaust education was largely self-driven.
She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ethnology and cultural anthropology from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznán, Poland. Her studies also took her to Warsaw, Krakow, as well as Berlin, where she studied for a year and sought specific courses or instructors.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be a person of Jewish origin,” she said. “I had to dig deeply to find out about the Jewish community before the war—this politically and culturally vibrant community that, during the communist years in Poland, was completely forgotten.”
Rice found that there were no courses offered on Polish Jews or the Holocaust. Following professors’ advice, she searched for books on the topics and read everything she could.
Rice went on to earn a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. Upon graduation in 2014, she entered an academic world that, as far as Poland is concerned, was dramatically different from the one she encountered as a child.
“Now, practically every institution of higher education in Poland is building a field of study around Jewish history or the Holocaust,” she said. “It’s inspiring; I had to do the hard work on my own.”
Rice has written and spoken extensively about Polish Jews and the Holocaust, with a focus on survivors’ memories, including a 2017 book, "What! Still Alive?!": Jewish Survivors in Poland and Israel Remember Homecoming about the postwar development of a collective memory among Holocaust survivors in Poland and Israel. She also served as an adjunct instructor at Brandeis University, Clark University, Seton Hall University and Gratz College.
As director of Gratz’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies programs, Rice said her first goals are to set rigorous education standards and prepare students for careers in Holocaust and genocide studies.
“We want to offer an education of the highest standards and give students access to great, challenging professors,” she said. “The goal is to make this program not only the first one online, but also the best in the field. When students graduate, they will be regarded as experts in the field, ready to work in schools, at museums, on Indian reservations, in diplomatic relations, non-profit organizations, or in a variety of other settings.”
Dr. Rosalie Guzofsky, dean and vice president of academic affairs, said she looks forward to Rice’s unique views on Holocaust scholarship. “With her unique background and academic accomplishments, Dr. Rice will bring a new and fresh perspective to our program. She’s a serious scholar with the drive necessary to take the program by the reins and make it something that is absolutely unique and impactful.”
Arched entrance to Kraków Ghetto, 1941