He is now leading an organization 90 or so miles away from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. But Shay Pilnik, who has taught as an adjunct instructor at UW Oshkosh over the last five years, has only deepened his connection to the University and its mission.
Over the summer, Pilnik assumed the role of executive director of Milwaukee’s Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC). The center is a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and as its new director Pilnik has been given a unique opportunity to connect his previous career with the journey he has recently embarked upon. One of the very first initiatives he decided to undertake is interlocking the missions of the center and UW Oshkosh’s academic programs. He wishes to do so by partnering with University faculty members to bring stories, programs and speakers into the classroom and, in at least one instance, venture abroad with students to closely examine the horrors of the Holocaust.
“For me, as a recent graduate with a PhD in modern Jewish Studies and a dissertation that dealt with the memory of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, this was a great opportunity to work for a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that has, for decades, dedicated itself to educating the public about the perils of bigotry and hatred through the lessons of the Holocaust,” Pilnik said. “By doing so, HERC is hoping to foster a society founded on the values of diversity, tolerance, peace and understanding among people of different ethnic, racial or religious background.”
Pilnik hails from Herzliya, Israel and has degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, McGill University, Canada, and the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary. He has taught at both UW Oshkosh and UW-Milwaukee. Most recently, he lead a UW Oshkosh interim course History 333, which explored the events that preceded the Holocaust, World War II’s evolution and the extermination of the Jews and other Nazi-targeted groups. The three-week course concluded with Holocaust survivor Raye David’s classroom visit and talk.
That kind of high-impact learning experience is exactly what Pilnik said he hopes to nurture and provide more of through his post at the HERC.
“My main objective is to bring the stories of the survivors and their children to the classrooms. So far our center has focused primarily on the Milwaukee area. Its important mission, though, needs to be carried across the entire state of Wisconsin,” he said.
The center’s array of services includes a team of Holocaust educators and survivor speakers who visit schools across the state, a library with an impressive collection of books and films on the Holocaust, and middle-and-high-school-level “Holocaust Materials Trunks.” So too, it offers teachers with seminars and workshops exploring different aspects of the Holocaust, and for the wider community it provides public lectures, commemoration ceremonies and an annual film series.”
“We want to offer high quality instruction that will educate our student community on one of the most horrific moments in the history of mankind in order to ensure the kind of industrial death machine, implemented by the Nazis to destroy European Jews and other enemies, will never materialize again,” Pilnik said.
He is currently working with UW Oshkosh to plan a March 2015 educational seminar at UW Oshkosh designed for middle and high school teachers in the Fox Valley region. Dubbed “The Slippery Sloped of Racism and Hatred: Understanding the fundamentals of the Nazi Propaganda Machine,” the “teacher’s training seminar” will offer guest lectures by UW Oshkosh faculty and a guest speaker, a session on Holocaust education and a film screening.
During UW Oshkosh’s spring 2015 interim session, Pilnik will also travel with UW Oshkosh Department of Political Science Professor Michael Jasinski and students to Germany and Poland for a six-credit study abroad experience and course.
“The objective of the program is to give the participants a comprehensive understanding of the Holocaust, as well as the political conditions prevalent in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that ultimately led to it,” Pilnik said. “The program will also concern itself with the politics of the contemporary European Union to examine the impact of the Holocaust on European integration and the resurgence of nationalism across Europe in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.”
Jasinski said the value of such study-abroad experiences for students is priceless.
“If I could, I’d teach every class in the study abroad format,” he said. “There is simply no substitute for putting yourself in another part of the world and experiencing the events, or their historical aftermath and legacy, that you are discussing.”
“Moreover, being in an unfamiliar environment heightens one’s senses, making it a fairly intense experience that is not easy to forget,” Jasinski said. “For example, I am working on a research project dealing with genocide and visiting places like Oskar Schindler’s factory, or Auschwitz death camp — places I’ve read about and even visited before. You can’t replace this experience with anything else, whether you are the student or the scholar.”
Other members of the UW Oshkosh faculty are finding ways to pull Pilnik’s expertise and his Center’s stories and lessons of the Holocaust into their classrooms, too.
Pilnik will be visiting fall classes to lead talks on the “History of Antisemitism” and the “Historical Context of the Holocaust,” said UW Oshkosh History Lecturer Jeffrey Pickron.
Pickron, UW Oshkosh LGBTQ Center Director Liz Cannon and Courtney Bauder, of the College of Education and Human Services, are collaborating while teaching six sections of “Intro to Social Justice” within the University Studies Program’s Quest I courses, an honors course and a course for Social Justice minors.
“I know all of these programs will enrich our classes and the first year experiences of our students,” Pickron said.