Trevor Stern used his two theses as an opportunity to explore two aspects of a subject of great personal significance: the Holocaust, and how it is memorialized.
The history and religion double major, with a Global Asia minor and Middle Eastern studies concentration at Bryn Mawr, has long been interested in Jewish communities from across the world, primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly, Stern expressed great interest in the Holocaust, and how it is memorialized and remembered. This interest was ignited in his sophomore year, when he took “Europe Identity and Memory,” which studied how Europeans remembered both World Wars, the Cold War, and the Holocaust.
This served as the basis for Stern’s history thesis, which examines three separate Holocaust memorials in Philadelphia, Miami Beach, and Berlin. Stern argues that each memorial is a product of both the time it was constructed and of its location. Therefore, much can be gleaned about both the time period each monument was constructed in, and also the state of the city itself at the time of construction, simply by critically examining the monuments. Stern believes that this important connection is not unique to only Holocaust memorials.
“My thesis suggests the utility of a localized consideration of monuments, taking into consideration the impact of their immediate spatial and temporal surroundings,” he explained. “For other historians, my work lays out a method of analysis which can fruitfully show the various local influences on monuments.”
Relatedly, his religion thesis describes the personal connections he felt with the exhibits and architecture when he visited Jewish Museum Berlin. Stern, an American Jewish descendant of Holocaust victims, wrote his religion thesis as an autoethnography, where he reflects on his visit to the museum, and how it relates to what he’s learned about his ancestor’s experiences during the Holocaust.
Stern explained that his visit to the Jewish Museum Berlin made him feel as though he was embodying Holocaust victims by taking on their identity and emotions.
“The museum’s architecture cultivated this visceral reaction by placing me in particular settings. The ‘Garden of Exile’ evoked for me the sense of being a German Jew forced to flee the Nazi regime (like my own great-grandfather), while the ‘Holocaust Tower’ brought feelings of being a Jew murdered in the gas chamber of a concentration camp,” he said.
Stern believes that this connection between him and the Holocaust victims which the museum is different than the “current scholarly norm” of museum interpretation. Additionally, Stern hopes his thesis leads to ethical discussion about memorial engagement, as well as how the museum relates to other religious experiences, such as rituals and pilgrimages.
Going forward, Stern will be building off of his Haverford coursework and theses by attending Oxford University for the 2022–2023 year, where he will be pursuing a master’s degree in religion via a Keasbey Fellowship.
How did your thesis advisor help you in the thesis process
[Professor of History] Linda Gerstein was an amazing help while I was working on my history thesis. She read over each section I wrote multiple times, always making insightful observations which helped me when I would go back and edit. She also recommended some fascinating books and articles which were very influential in my thesis framing. We had many meetings where we would talk for hours on end about the Holocaust, Jewish life in America, and other interesting topics which gave me a wider scholarly framing for my work.
[Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion] Pika Ghosh helped me to make my religion thesis more personal, poignant, and academically informed than I could have ever hoped. She introduced me to a wide range of museum studies literature, which strengthened and supported my analysis. She also encouraged me to feel comfortable using my own voice while writing in an autoethnographic style, something I was not used to doing in academic writing and loved having the opportunity to learn. She also travelled with me to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to help me conduct field research. Her commitment to my project and to my academic development shone through across the whole thesis process.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
My history thesis was my first time working with archival materials. I enjoyed the opportunity to learn how to comb through numerous documents to find the information relevant to my thesis. I also got to develop my skills analyzing architectural forms, and drawing connections between monument structure and different commemorative purposes.
Working on my religion thesis definitely helped to deepen my analysis skills relating to sensorial engagement. Working with museum studies literature allowed me to more acutely describe the experience of being in the museum. I also learned how to incorporate more personal, informal writing into my scholarship. From the inception of my project, my professors and classmates were most drawn to the parts of my writing where I described my own experience in the Jewish Museum Berlin, and how it related to my own family history during the Holocaust. This became a larger and larger part of my project, as I gradually became more comfortable describing connections between existing scholarship and my own subjective perspective.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.