Thomas Kaplan was once a German citizen coming of age during the 1970s coping with what he describes as “coming, as the awkward phrase has it, to terms with the mass crimes of the Nazi era.”
Kaplan is now a distinguished professor of Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies at Appalachian State who teaches a course where students travel to Germany and Poland, including to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin and the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, according to the course website.
Kaplan’s passion for genocide studies started when he wrote a piece in his high school student paper criticizing an honorary citizen in the community at the time who had been a member of the Nazi party during the 1930s.
Kaplan said he was threatened with a libel suit, which was later dropped when his principal saw the overwhelming evidence in his piece. Kaplan said the backlash is what got him started.
“Now of course it wasn’t pretty to be called a communist pig and all the good stuff, but nonetheless, you do what you have to do. That’s what really got me going,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan later went on to university and continued his work in genocide studies.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Kaplan said.
The most recent trip that Kaplan’s students took to Poland and Germany was this past spring break.
During this trip, students walked through the gas chambers where so many lost their lives.
Aaliyah Spear, a junior history major who went on the trip, wrote via email that she believes everyone should go see the camps at least once in their life.
“Being able to see and stand in the places where this genocide of many different types of people happened was emotionally draining,” Spear wrote. “I honestly believe that everyone should go once in their life, even if it’s not for a research trip. Go and see where they were imprisoned and stand where they stood.”
Kaplan said that the trip requires minimal funds from students as a vast majority of it is funded through the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies at Appalachian State.
Many schools organize trips such as these but they often deteriorate to what Kaplan calls “holocaust tourism.”
Katie Atwell, a senior Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies major who went with Kaplan on the trip, said they were busy researching the entire time and were granted access to archives undergraduates don’t often get to use.
Katie Haynes, a junior history and social studies education major who also went on the trip, wrote through email that the class was incredibly rewarding, but also challenging.
Students will present their research on April 27 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 417 in the Plemmons Student Union.