Jud Newborn first fell for the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl when he arrived in Germany to do field work for his dissertation at the University of Chicago.
While peers and colleagues headed to remote places like Samoa and Africa to study insular tribal behavior, he was tracking down former SS members to learn why the Holocaust — what he calls “the greatest mystery of modern times” — happened.
“When I entered the University of Munich atrium, I saw a white rose carved into the marble as a memorial, with the names of Sophie and Hans Scholl and other members of the White Rose resistance group carved there,” said Newborn. “It brought their story to my attention and gave me a source of inspiration, something to boost my morale while working on very dark subject matter.”
The Scholl siblings led the White Rose, the only nonviolent group resisting the Nazis after they seized power. Guillotined by the Nazis in 1943, the two were lionized in postwar Germany when the country was still unable to “digest” the Holocaust or its responsibility.
Newborn, special projects curator at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island, will discuss the White Rose when he delivers the keynote address at the 13th annual Dorothy Koppelman Memorial Holocaust Lecture on Sunday, May 19, at 1 p.m. at Rider University in Lawrenceville.
His multimedia presentation will be followed by a reception and book-signing.
A writer before getting his degree in cultural anthropology, Newborn had been looking for a book subject. With Annette Dumbach, he coauthored Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, published in 2007. An unrelated German-language film, Last Days of Sophie Scholl, came out in 2005, and the two were often publicized together.
But the book didn’t answer a nagging question Newborn had about the Scholls, who started out as Hitler Youth leaders in 1933. “What would cause Hitler Youth to turn into heroes, giving their lives in the name of all humanity?” he wondered.
After some digging, he found his answer. “Hans had previously been arrested by the Gestapo for having had a same-sex relationship, a ‘crime’ perpetrated at the age of 16,” said Newborn. He believes that the arrest for this intimate conduct shook the beliefs of Hans and his sister and transformed their outlook.
Although Sophie has often garnered more attention than her brother, Newborn believes Hans may be more intriguing in the final analysis.
“It was actually Hans who was the author of the leaflets, distributed them, and thought up the White Rose along with a friend,” he said. “Although Sophie was incredibly wise and very appealing, Hans was part of the political theater, pushing leaflets over the balustrade so they rained down on the heads of students.”
Newborn is working on an English-language film that will focus on Hans. He hopes his work will help people understand “what the Holocaust was in its own terms and never forget it or lose it by making sloppy comparisons to other outrageous abuses of human beings.”
But he also believes his work holds lessons for current affairs.
“For the Holocaust to remain relevant and powerful in the 21st century and as the last survivors disappear, we need to show how the Holocaust is a touchstone for taking a stand on all manner of human rights abuse, from outright genocide all the way down to bullying of students in school.”
His presentation at Rider University will be all about bringing out the need to be “upstanders,” rather than bystanders, he said. “That’s why I tell their story.”