Even before she entered college in 2007, Gabrielle Conlin was fascinated with learning about the Nazi Holocaust.
Now, as she works toward a master’s degree at Monmouth University, the Oceanport resident has dedicated her academic career to studying the Shoa.
“I get asked all the time why a non-Jew has such an abiding interest in the Holocaust,” she told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 12 phone interview.
She said that when people say to her, “‘You don’t have a family connection,’ My answer is ‘So what?’ I think the Holocaust was a universal event that everyone should study, and it is even more powerful when someone who is not Jewish is studying it.”
After she finished her bachelor’s degree in history and archeology in 2011 at Monmouth, she received a full scholarship and a post as a teaching assistant at the West Long Branch university.
Under the tutelage of Professor Susan Douglass, a specialist in oral history, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam era, Conlin began interviewing survivors and recruiting them to speak on their campus. To date, Conlin has interviewed 16 survivors.
“What fascinated me most about survivors is their human spirit,” she said, adding that their narratives inspired her to go through a period of introspection.
“Of course I really don’t know, but if I put myself in their situation I think I could never have survived,” said Conlin. “It shows how strong someone could be when they are put in these situations. I admire them. When you hear their stories it hits you on an emotional level. I am just in awe of how strong people can be. That is what draws me to the subject.”
Conlin describes herself as someone “who comes from a Catholic and Greek Orthodox background and is very devout.”
Learning the stories of survivors who maintained their belief in God, she said, makes her “wonder how someone could go through such a horrific situation and at the end manage to still keep their faith. I find that very fascinating.”
The young scholar said she is especially drawn to one of the darkest sides of Nazi genocide — the Sonderkommando units — and how history should treat them.
Sonderkommandos were specially selected teams of Jewish men at six of the death camps. They were forced to escort unsuspecting fellow inmates to their deaths in gas chambers, then dispose of their bodies.
“There is really not a lot written about them; it seems to be a very taboo topic,” she said.
Some survivors look at the Sonderkommandos as collaborators with the Nazis, while others view their grim work as a means to survival.
“The Nazis needed other Jews to tell incoming inmates how to behave so that everything ran smoothly at the death camps,” Conlin said. Although they received slightly better treatment than other prisoners of the Nazis, the Sonderkommandos were executed and replaced every three months to ensure they did not divulge the nature of their work.
Few of them lived through the ordeal, and Conlin said she hopes to speak with the only Sonderkommando survivor she is aware of in the United States, a man who is believed to be living in California.
“If everyone thought it was too morbid a subject to study, then it would be lost, and that would be a disgrace to the memories of those who were murdered,” she said.
And, she added, “This is not like a hobby. This is a passion for me. This is going to be my life’s work.”