Frances Tanzer never knew her great-grandmother, but grew up hearing stories about her path out of Europe during the interwar period.
Fascinated by the past — including her own family history — she went on to study history and visual studies at the University of Toronto. There, she took a class that opened her eyes to the use of primary sources, including diaries and first-person testimonials, as tools for studying historical events. Tanzer was also interested in how people — particularly artists and performers — reinvent themselves when they’re forced to move.
“I think these things got lodged into my brain and made me interested in refugee experiences,” she says.
Tanzer, the Rose Professor of Holocaust Studies and Modern Jewish History at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, has been teaching at the University as a visiting professor since 2018. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in history from Brown University and will begin her new role at Clark in August.
“It’s kind of a continuation of what I’ve been doing,” she says. “I teach classes about the Holocaust that focus on Jewish sources.”
This semester, Tanzer is teaching the history of the Holocaust, much of it through the lens of how young adults experienced the genocide. She is also teaching a seminar on borderland histories — in particular, those involving a contested border. The class has covered East-Central Europe, South Asian, the Middle East, Israel-Palestine, and will conclude with the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tanzer hopes students will examine the case studies and develop new ways of thinking about ongoing controversies.
“What I try to do in my classes is help students better understand contemporary issues, to understand their historical roots, and to think about them and analyze them in more nuanced ways,” she says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Tanzer asked students in her Holocaust history class to archive the crisis by compiling news reports, social media posts, and their own observations.
“One of the more general themes of our class is to learn about different source materials and source types, which is something you can transfer to any history course or regular life,” she says. “I’m certainly not having students compare the Holocaust to the pandemic, but I want them to think about this as a moment when people are living through something quite extraordinary that surpasses what was thinkable or imaginable before it took place.”
The exercise helps students view the pandemic through a historical lens and gives them a space to reflect upon and analyze their own experiences. Several students moved back home across the country or overseas — to Taiwan, Switzerland, and China. Tanzer says the diversity of their perspectives and level of engagement has been striking.
In the fall, Tanzer plans to teach a course on refugee history and hopes to establish a forum for students to share what they’re learning with a broader audience. She is also working on several personal projects, including “Vanishing Vienna” — a book that explores representations of Jewish absence in post-Nazi Vienna and Austria — and “Klezmer Dynasty,” about Tanzer’s own family history in East-Central Europe.