By Eleanor Ferguson

Reader’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Eleanor Ferguson is a current student in Professor Blum’s Holocaust class.

The map that Mark Blum, an 86-year-old Jewish professor who has been teaching for 62 years, brings to teach his Holocaust class is from the 1960s.

To him, he’s been teaching the class “not that long.” Eight years. Highlights of his career include teaching Contemporary Culture at San Francisco State and teaching at an experimental school for Black middle schoolers previously expelled for “bad behavior”.

The Holocaust class, though, is special. “The course is the summation of everything I wanted to do,” he said.

Stacks of folders, loose papers, and books stood tall on the shelves in his office. On his desk are pictures of his family—dog included. Blum sat smiling in a sweater on his chair.

A Philadelphia native, Blum’s family came to the US in the 1890s. His grandfather stowed away on a ship to the United States but was caught at Ellis Island. After being sent back to Europe, he worked until he had enough money to pay for the ride over.

Blum didn’t always want to be a teacher. In 1959 he was thinking of becoming a diplomat, and he was offered a fellowship. He decided to go to the University of Zurich because it was a center where diplomacy took place. At first, he taught English as a second language—because of this, he realized teaching was what he wanted to do.

It was his admiration for Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s first and only—to date—Jewish prime minister, that pushed him to pursue a graduate degree in English History from the University of Pennsylvania.

Then, an arm changed the course of his life.

“I felt, at a very deep level…I had to teach it.”

He went on a date with a girl who had survived the Holocaust. They went to see ‘A Winter’s Tale’ by Shakespeare. The girl was put into the Dachau Concentration Camp; the camp operated longer than any other. Blum closed his eyes while he spoke, and held up an arm. The girl’s arm had been hurt so badly that it shrank.

“I can’t recall her name,” he said, but she was sweet.

The play stuck in his mind because, in it, a statue comes to life to bring justice to past wrongs. After their date, she gave him a book of German poetry by Eduard Morike that changed his thinking. After he met her, he knew he had to learn about Germany, switching his major from English history to German history.

“I couldn’t see her again because I didn’t know how to deal with it … I didn’t correspond with her, I didn’t thank her for the poetry. It was too much for me,” he said.

He tried to find her; he wrote to the family that introduced them, but they never responded. He even called the Holocaust Museum, but they could find no records of a girl by her description at the camp.

“I can’t recall her name,” he said. “I felt at a deep level I had to learn about the Holocaust and had to teach it.”

He stated he’d never witnessed the tragedy, because his family was already in the U.S. The date was one of the most profound things in his life and kept those theater tickets pinned to his wall until he was married for the first time.

“Teaching has certain kinds of boundaries.”

Teaching for six decades means teaching during many major historical events, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Israel’s attack on Gaza.

He stared at the high ceiling of his office. In some ways, he said, students from different decades approach the content of his classes differently depending on the political climate.

He liked that in his Holocaust class, students “don’t push me to take a stand on what’s happening between Israel and Palestine.” Whether he considers it a genocide is a complex question. He encourages people to read the United Nations’ five criteria for genocide. Blum says Israel is guilty in every criterion.

“What I’ve learned about myself is I can put things in certain chambers of my mind and heart that I address at a certain time in my life that I can handle it,” he said. “And teaching has certain kinds of boundaries.”

Blum shook his head slowly. “But when I’m at home and I see the way the Palestinians are covered by the press, I get really upset because they don’t give them the same kind of human equality you see in the media they give to a Jewish person. I have to learn to compartmentalize because I feel very deeply about certain things that just completely shake me up.”

Throughout his career, Blum has dealt in darkness and light. He believes students treat the Holocaust class with the care it deserves, sharing that he’s never had a bad experience in the class.

“I always feel like people are paying attention and investing in the class,” he said.

Darkness comes in the form of Holocaust deniers.

He frowned, looking down. “There’s a hatred that I’ve seen in what is being done now with Holocaust deniers. They’re small groups. There’s a hatred that wants to destroy. So when I get back to the concepts of death drive, bad faith, I think these are rooted in wanting to be superior,” he said.

He stated they wanted to be right in a way that somehow made them feel better than others. Holocaust deniers, he added, did not seem capable of reflection.

A 47-year-old Mark Blum.

The “no-nonsense” generation

Blum reflected on his own life. “The idea of being able to forgive—this is so significant, to be able to forgive—I’ve forgiven a lot in my life, sometimes in a way that should’ve been more outspoken.” He believes it takes a long time to mature, see your own faults, and try to correct them.

On the topic of how people can do terrible things like the Holocaust, Blum believes people committing these violent acts don’t adequately reflect on the concepts and objects of their destructiveness. Blum cited the 2017 incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a self-identified white supremacist deliberately ran over a crowd of counter-protestors at a “Unite the Right” rally.

What Blum hopes the current generation understands about genocide is that every individual is capable of it if they don’t engage in the reflection that societal groups can instill in them. He stated that was why he teaches context in his Intro to History class. He said people must examine their ideas and values, and how authority is distributed.

Despite everything, Blum expressed optimism. His smile reached his eyes.

“I really do feel the human race has gotten better,” he said. “I think (your generation) has the right values.”

Blum is optimistic about the current generation, calling them “no-nonsense.” He believes the current generation will put people in authority, asking the right questions to see if their representatives are consistent. If older people show inconsistencies in their thinking, Blum’s confident they can change their minds and hearts. This generation has the right kind of values to create societal organizations that level of power and give the people more authority.

It was different in the 60s, he said; “Get in line, here’s our slogan.”

He believes this generation sees through organizational slogans and is tired of hearing political rhetoric. “I know I’m tired of it!” Instead of slogans, Blum described it as living by careful questioning.

It gives him hope.

Through struggle, pain, and discrimination, Blum’s optimism survives. He stated that he’s “unbelievably happy,” and that his granddaughter recently asked him what more he wants in life.

“I could die tomorrow. I am happy,” he replied.

Photo Courtesy // Eleanor Ferguson