The first occupant of the new Holocaust chair at UNO might not fit the expected profile.
Waitman Beorn is not Jewish — he's a 35-year-old Episcopalian, a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Iraq War.
And that's fine with Auschwitz survivor Sam Fried, the impetus behind creation of the academic chair at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Some people had asked me, 'Does the person have to be Jewish?'” Fried said. “Absolutely not. But I felt it was important that to succeed, he had to have a soul — and I found that this man really has a soul.”
Beorn (pronounced “Born”) is also a Virginia native, an author, a speaker of German, a newlywed — and a former forklift operator for Home Depot.
As much as he enjoyed driving a forklift and stocking shelves for three months after leaving the Army in 2005, he said, he truly looks forward to the heavy lifting expected in his new job at UNO.
“This is a dream position,” he said after pouring me tea at his campus office. “To have a tenure-track, named position dedicated to Holocaust and genocide studies is amazing.”
The “named position” refers to his job as the first Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Louis Blumkin, of the Nebraska Furniture Mart family, was a GI who helped liberate concentration camps at the end of World War II. He and his wife donated at least $250,000 to establish the academic chair.
Fried, who lost his parents and dozens of other relatives in the Holocaust but survived because he knew electronics, later operated the Master Electronics Co. in Omaha. As president of the Society of Survivors of the Holocaust, he has spoken to thousands of students and others.
Over the years, the Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Educational Fund grew to $700,000, and now will be administered by UNO. The fund also helps provide for courses at four other schools: the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Creighton University and Wayne State College.
The program falls under the purview of the young scholar and assistant professor, who said he looks forward to working with other schools and people in Nebraska.
So what made Beorn, whose father is a physician, aspire to be not a doctor of medicine but a doctor of history?
It started as a child, when his family visited museums — not to quickly walk through, he said, but to stop and read everything. “My parents are fantastic history buffs.”
Waitman — yes, schoolyard chums played with his distinctive name by calling out, “Wait, man!” — played piano growing up and outfield on the high school baseball team.
As a cadet at the United States Military Academy, he sometimes paused and pondered memories of the historic figures who had walked the beautiful bluffs above the Hudson River.
He graduated from West Point in 2000 and served in Iraq in 2003-04, some of it on the border to Iran. He had some close calls with incoming mortar fire and again with a minefield — ordering the driver of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle to slowly back out in its tracks.
He loved the Army and appreciated his comrades and the maturity it brought.
“Even as a junior officer, you get way more responsibility than your typical 23-year-old,” he said. “It can be a crushing responsibility, but it's something you deal with.”
At 28, out of the Army and waiting to enter the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, his sturdy vehicle was not a tank but the forklift. He was placed in command of the lumber and building supply section at a Home Depot in Richmond, Va.
“I'd be lying if I said I didn't love it,” he said with a smile. “It was great. I worked the night shift, 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. After all that life experience (in the Army), I didn't want to move back in with my parents and I didn't want to just sit around. I was my own boss.”
Earning his master's degree and Ph.D., he concentrated on the Holocaust, which he had first written about at West Point.
He studied the actions of German soldiers and went to Germany to read 500 testimonies of their recollections, which were recorded in German investigations in the 1960s and '70s.
Beorn also visited Belarus and the place where thousands were massacred. Though many attribute the worst sins of the Holocaust to the SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party, the professor said some German soldiers also were complicit.
Some stole rings and watches from the dead. Others walked women and children to the death pits, but “compartmentalized” their actions by insisting that they had not actually pulled the trigger.
Beorn said he doesn't practice “psycho-history,” but seeks to explain how and why German soldiers became agents in the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.
Some whose accounts he studied were ashamed of their participation. In any case, the prof said, it is not useful for those trying to understand the Holocaust to dismiss its participants as mere “nut jobs.”
The question is how humans could take part in such horror.
Beorn, whose last academic position was at Loyola University in New Orleans, married his wife, Christina, also a historian, on Sept. 1.
He will be formally introduced at a 6:30 p.m. dinner Thursday at the Happy Hollow Club in Omaha — a city where, he said, he hopes to stay for a long time.
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