Today marks the first in a series of lectures addressing the Holocaust by honoring noted Nazi opposition leader and Santa Barbara resident George J. Wittenstein.
The German Catholic Wittenstein, who later moved to Santa Barbara and became a cardiologist, avoided Gestapo persecution in the 1940s by volunteering for frontline combat. Afterward, he actively worked to oppose the Nazi party through his affiliation with White Rose – a nonviolent resistance group created by University of Munich students that began an anti-Hitler leafleting campaign in 1942. As part of the series honoring his past, various speakers on German literature, art and philosophy aimed at promoting democratic principles will visit the campus.
Yale University professor and senior research scholar Geoffrey Hartman will commence the lectures at 8 tonight in the Theater and Dance Building, room 1701. Hartman’s lecture will focus on Holocaust literature.
The series will continue throughout the year, featuring speakers from Duke, Stanford and several University of California schools.
According to Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies Dept. Chair Elisabeth Weber, Wittenstein opposed Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic regime in spite of great personal danger.
“[During WWII,] there were no computers and everything was under intense surveillance,” Weber said. “It was extremely difficult to engage in organized resistance.”
During his early 20s, Wittenstein and several of his medical school friends formed White Rose, the sole German organization specifically committed to the condemnation of the Holocaust.
Under the Nazi regime, political opposition was punishable by death at the hands of the German Gestapo. Indeed, six members of White Rose were convicted of treason and executed. Weber said students should appreciate the group’s courage.
“There is an important message for students here,” Weber said. “The members of the White Rose engaged in organized resistance, not only at a difficult time, but at a young age.”
Wittenstein also worked to gather the weapons of wounded soldiers, sending them to Freedom Action Bavaria, another resistance group based in Munich. Weber said Wittenstein’s example still has relevance in today’s political climate.
“We cannot take democracy for granted,” she said. “It’s a very relevant message for us to become politically responsible.”
Weber said literature and the arts strongly influenced the members of White Rose. She said it is important that future generations continue to feel the power of the group’s bond.
“What really linked [the members] to political engagement was studying the humanities and fine art,” she said. “This shared interest inspired them. … There is a moral responsibility to keep the legacy of the White Rose alive.”
Santa Barbara Hillel’s Religious and Cultural Vice President Sheperd Aziz said the lecture series was important in light of the Holocaust’s terrible nature.
“It is very important to constantly deal with things like this in the world,” Aziz said. “Many things have been learned previously and we can still learn more.”