I should preface this review by saying that I have an interest in history especially related to the second World War. I've read quite a few books on the Third Reich, including Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and Richard Evans trilogy, among many others. When I saw this course I was immediately interested not only because of my interest in history but also because I had not really read much specifically on the Holocaust. While all of those books discussed the Holocaust at length that was not their primary focus.
One thing that I will talk about in much greater detail has to do with the readings assigned for this course. I purchased many of the books that they suggested, owning only Elie Wiesel's "Night". Out of the 11 suggested texts I now own all but 3. This will be important later in this review.
The course itself is made of of 10 modules and each module has assigned readings combined with video lectures. The video lectures themselves are taken directly from the physical lectures at UCSC. Normally I prefer video lectures that were designed specifically for the course because they tend to be much more direct but I like this format here mainly because there are two professors.
Professors Baumgarten and Kenez each present about an hour of lecture each week with Prof Kenez giving more of a history lecture and Prof Baumgarten more of a literature lecture. They often interact with each other during the videos which is where having a recording of the physical lecture is nice. Their interactions are often humorous but also enlightening especially when they disagree. They especially disagree on the notion of resistance in the context of the Holocaust and seeing that from two points of view is wonderful.
There are three written assignments that make up the grading for the course and they are graded by peer review. They are fairly short (approx 500-700 words) but it is here where I think the course runs into trouble. If you do not have access to the books then while Prof Kenez's lectures are easy to follow you lose much from Prof. Baumgarten's. One of the books that I did not purchase was "The Last of the Just" and when Prof. Baumgarten was discussing it I felt lost when compared to lectures I had watched that corresponded to books that I had read.
There are also videos that are assigned each week but unfortunately they are not easy to find for the most part, and by that I mean they are not available on Netflix. I have seen some of the films before but it is a shame that they are not more readily accessible. I was able to purchase most of the books fairly cheap from on Amazon and you could find the videos there as well but I tend not to purchase DVDs much these days.
The first assignment was very open-ended but out of the three papers I read only one of them had read any of the material. The other two had to write their papers simply from the video lectures so that they were merely rehashed information from the lectures. They weren't able to make arguments or ask questions from the readings because they weren't able to do the readings. The grading scale went from 1-3 and I was torn with how to grade them. Certainly I couldn't hold them to the same standard as I would someone who had read the books because they weren't required. Still, in both cases they seemed to be more of a regurgitation of material from the video lectures rather than any kind of analysis so I gave them a 2. The third paper I read not only showed evidence of having done some readings but also tried to make arguments and draw conclusions so I gave it a 3.
Here is a copy of what I wrote, "The thing that has struck me most from the readings are how very different two Holocaust experiences could be. Traditionally we might think of someone who experienced the Holocaust as someone who had an experience similar to that described by Primo Levy. To be sure, the majority of European Jewery did experience the Holocaust in a similar way. Concentration into ghettos, transport to an extermination camp and more often than not death at the camp. Nechma Tec's experience is just as much the Holocaust as Levy's. In the past I would not have really considered them to be as similar as I do now because to me the Holocaust was merely the death camps. The way that I see it now is that the Holocaust was the destruction of the Jewish way of life, which could be experienced in many different ways.
Reading Tadeusz Borowski's writings about Auschwitz are what first made me consider the question. After reading Levy I almost found myself having a hard time feeling sympathy for Borowski even though I know that his experience was horrible. Since he was not a Jew, however, his experience was very different. There are examples he gives where he seems to be playful and almost having a good time. In other words, he was able to keep his humanity. This is something that was robbed of many, if not most or all, of the Jews who were not immediately exterminated. He receives packages from outside the camp and seems to have a much better diet than just the watery soup that Levy had to live on. In this case it is easy to say that Borowski's experience was better than Levy's but then I realized that lead me to another question. Did Borowski actually experience the Holocaust, or was he merely a concentration camp inmate?"
I received a grade of a 3 although I'm not sure exactly how the grading works because the feedback I got from one of the graders was quite negative. He said that he felt my paper was very lacking because I did not answer the final question that I posed. I'm not sure if he was just a lazy reader or if I did a poor job setting it up but my goal was not to answer that question but to leave it for the reader to think about.
One of the greatest things for me about this course is that it was the first time I read poetry and had any time of positive response. Prior to this course every time I read a poem the only reaction I had was to think how I couldn't wait to finally be done with it so I could get on with my life. We read Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car" and Paul Celan's "Todesfuge". Both of these make me feel sad, and the more I read them or listen to them read the sadder I get. Perhaps it is that I read them within a much deeper context than poem's I read in high school but it was ironically very fulfilling to me to feel so sad from a poem.
This is a wonderful course and I look forward to it each week but it does highlight some of the shortcomings of a course where readings are assigned that are not in the public domain. My experience watching the video lectures related to one of the books I had not read really emphasizes how serious an issue it can be to not have access to the readings. The lectures that did correspond to the readings were superb and enlightening and this multi-disciplined approach to one of the darkest events in human history allows for a more emotional response than would be possible from a strictly historical view.