Holocaust and Genocide Ph.D. Students Reflect on Academic Journey
This year, Gratz College welcomed its second cohort to the Doctor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. Twenty-eight students from across the United States—and even a few international students—are now enrolled in the world’s only online doctoral program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Here, we spotlight three of these students.
Heidi Omlor can trace her interest in Holocaust studies to elementary school. She was 12 when an English teacher assigned her class to read Corrie ten Boom’s autobiographical book The Hiding Place.
Omlor, now a high school social studies teacher in Ellsworth, Maine, remembers asking for more reading material. Her teacher tried to redirect her attention to more uplifting pursuits, so Omlor continued learning on her own.
Years later, while teaching Advanced Placement European History, Omlor suddenly realized she lacked the background to effectively teach the Holocaust. She immediately ordered the Echoes and Reflections curriculum (developed by the Anti-Defamation League, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and Yad Vashem) and enrolled in courses at Gratz College.
“What I found was that the textbook I was teaching from had—for the first time—more than a single paragraph about the Holocaust,” Omlor said. “I was reminded of my experience in sixth grade and I knew I needed to learn more about this. I had to get this right.”
One course at Gratz led to another, Omlor said. She earned a Master’s of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies in 2015. Two years later, she was accepted into the first cohort of Gratz’s new Ph.D. program.
Omlor, who has taught in secondary schools for 19 years, aspires to teach at the university level. She also wants to see that Holocaust curriculum is made mandatory in Maine.
When the going gets tough, Omlor remembers counsel she received from Helen Lebowitz Goldkind, a Holocaust survivor she met at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Goldkind was sitting in front of the quote “You Are My Witnesses,” which is inscribed on the wall in the Hall of Witnesses, Omlor said. When Omlor asked how she could make a difference, Goldkind glanced over her shoulder at the quote.
“I took that literally,” Omlor said. “This was something I had to do, and do it seriously.”
Jesse Tannetta views Holocaust education as the perfect blend of religion and history.
Originally from Boston, Tannetta now lives on Staten Island, where he teaches religion, American government and economics at St. Joseph Hill Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school. Tannetta, who holds bachelor’s degrees in history and Catholic theology, pursued a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies as a way to examine post-Holocaust theology. He completed his MA from Gratz in 2017.
“My thesis topic was on post-Holocaust theology, specifically the role of G-d during and after the Holocaust, the nature of humanity and the new relationship that has to be forged between the two after the event,” Tannetta said. “I wanted to tackle the question of who we are as people and how we find G-d in the midst of atrocities.”
Tannetta started the Ph.D. program this summer, after taking a year off from his studies. He comes from a family of educators and dreams of being a college professor or working in a museum.
“I have always known I love teaching,” he said. “The question is, in what capacity?”
In his spare time, Tannetta coaches volleyball and roots for Boston sports teams. He has two cats.
Karen Lerman’s first career was working as a Registered Nurse.
Her second was raising four children, including a set of twins.
Lerman, who lives in Manhattan, stumbled on her “true calling” 18 years ago when she landed a job as a gallery educator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Now that her children are grown, Lerman is pursuing a Ph.D. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies so she can teach in the classroom.
“When my last children were finishing college, I decided it was my turn to go back to school,” she said. “Teaching history to students, teachers and adult groups has become my passion. After all this time, I found out what I really loved was teaching history to all ages.”
Fueled by her father-in-law’s stories about serving as a physician in Displaced Persons camps and taking care of American GIs in post-WWII Germany, Lerman decided to delve more deeply into Holocaust studies.
She became self-educated with books and engaged in conversations with her father-in-law, who had helped deliver food and medicine to displaced people and had forged lifelong friendships with Holocaust survivors.
“He was friends with a couple who had survived Auschwitz,” Lerman said of her father-in-law. “I befriended them through him, and this really started my desire to teach about the Holocaust.”
Lerman enrolled at Touro College, a small private college in New York City. In 2017, she earned a master’s degree in Jewish Studies with a specialty in the Holocaust.
Lerman is finishing her first Ph.D. courses this summer. Her ultimate goal is to teach Holocaust education in a Jewish day school in Manhattan.
“In beginning this program, I’m looking forward to the experience,” she said. “It’s daunting, but there’s magic in beginnings.” ■