Friday Faculty Focus: Mark Celinscak


September 15th, 2017

Dr. Mark Celinscak poses for a photo. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)


This week on Friday Faculty Focus with KVNO’s Brandon McDermott speaks with Mark Celinscak, the Louis & Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust & Genocide Studies from the Department of History at UNO. 

Brandon McDermott: Dr. Mark Celinscak, thanks for joining me on the show.

Dr. Mark Celinscak: Thank you Brandon for having me.

McDermott: First of all talk about the project you did with UNO students called “America Responds to the Holocaust” this was with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. What did this entail and what did you find?

Dr. Celinscak: So, I thought to myself, ‘Well, wouldn’t that be a really interesting assignment for my students?’ So for us, it was not necessarily how America responds to the Holocaust, it was much more specific how Nebraska responds to the Holocaust? Going back to those big newspapers like The New York Times what was discovered in a lot of the research was that when the Holocaust was covered it was either buried in the back pages or it wasn’t covered at all.

What we found at the local and regional level — and my students were astonished, I asked them what they think they were going to find before we did the assignment and most of them assumed that there would be little to no coverage and that is not what they found. They were surprised by how much was known about the Holocaust as it unfolded, early on. In 1942 and 1943 there were reports of widespread slaughter even before that and some of the titles were startling ‘that this town or village emptied of Jews,’ or ‘European Jews at risk of being destroyed completely,’ titles like that which were I think surprising for a lot of the students.

McDermott: In a recent book you wrote on Bergen-Belsen liberation, it revealed common patterns of behavior and reactions to the concentration camp. Talk about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and maybe some misconceptions about it.

Dr. Celinscak: When you have a camp like Bergen-Belsen with 10,000 unburied dead, a camp of nearly 60,000 prisoners — many of whom are sick and starving — this is a tremendous undertaking. A number that I always tell audiences when I speak is that in the two and a half months after liberation almost three months after liberation—14,000 people died. That’s nearly one quarter of the total number of survivors alive when allies arrived, ultimately died. Now much of that had to do with illness and no matter what was done they would’ve most likely perished anyways, but some were mistakes were made — again these were soldiers who were not trained for such a humanitarian catastrophe.

McDermott: It’s interesting when we think of liberation on the eastern front we think of the Russians and on the western front we think of the British and Americans, but you also reinsert Canada into the story of liberation at Bergen-Belsen. How about the Canadian role into the camps liberation?

Dr. Celinscak: I remember I distinctly remember the first day I decided this is going to be my project and I told my advisor and the thumbs were given — thumbs up. I remember taking five books off the shelf and the first book said it was the 11th Armored Division of the British Army that liberated Bergen-Belsen interesting in the second book said it was the First Special Air Service — British Special Air Service that liberated Bergen-Belsen. Another books it was the 29th Armored Brigade that liberated Bergen-Belsen and so on.

All five books designated five different liberators and so I went to my archive at my university and I asked the archivist, “Do you have any material related to the British and Bergen-Belsen?” and they said, “No, we don’t have anything regarding the British and Bergen-Belsen, but we do have a huge stack of letters by a Canadian who was at Bergen-Belsen.” I thought “Canadian at Bergen-Belsen?” That was pretty odd. I remember going back to those books and looking at the index and Canada was never mentioned in any of them. I thought again that was pretty odd and these were letters by a man named Ted Aplin and they were the some of the most haunting, deeply moving letters over about a two month span.

He was stationed in a town called Celle, which is about 20 minutes from Bergen-Belsen. So he frequently went to the camp to assist and do any number of things. I remember thing myself “How interesting!” and then I pushed it aside — because my focus was on the British in Bergen-Belsen — but things like that kept happening. I came across a couple of Canadians war artists who were there, I came across a speech that was given two years before that, this would been in 2005 by a Canadian paratrooper who called himself a liberator of Bergen-Belsen, when he was with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and one name turned to 10 and 10 turned to 100 and before I knew it had over 1,000 Canadians who had some kind of connection to Bergen-Belsen. Why hadn’t that been detail before? Because liberation is chaotic, it is messy, it is complex.

That is why five different reputable scholars have denoted five different liberators — please I don’t want to be misunderstood — the camp was surrendered to the British Army, the British were in charge. But because of the how overwhelmed they were, the Canadians also assisted. So we have artists, photographers, chaplains, doctors and nurses etc. So the Canadians were involved in so many different ways and again that really hadn’t been acknowledged or studied.

McDermott: Dr. Mark Celinscak, thanks again for joining me.

Dr. Celinscak: Thank you for having me.

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