My professor's Holocaust story

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On Friday our newspaper ran a piece about the upcoming Greater Lafayette Holocaust Remembrance Conference, which featured the story of one of my former professors here at Purdue. As a former student, her story was especially touching to me, but I thought all of you would enjoy it. I’ve added some more information in sparse parts, taken from here.

Anna Berkovitz had a normal childhood until 1944. Now, years later, she still has nightmares of her family being taken from their home by the Nazis.

“I was 13 years old at the time when I was taken with my family to Auschwitz, just before D-Day,” said Berkovitz, Purdue Professor Emerita of biology.

At the concentration camp, Berkovitz and her family faced grim odds of survival. Six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews entered the camp between May and September of 1944. In just three months, 500,000 were killed.

“The killing machine was so effective that names were not even taken when we arrived.”

Berkovitz’s grandparents, aunts, uncle, cousin and probably her father were among the victims of the genocide conducted by the Nazis.

Her survival, as Berkovitz says, can only be accounted for by a series of miracles. …

Anna and Elizabeth were taken to Camp-C in Birkenau. To this day Anna ponders how she survived six months of brutal treatment, harsh conditions, starvation and disease there.

In November 1944, Anna and Elizabeth were transferred to a slave labor camp near Magdeburg, Germany, where they were put to work in an underground ammunition factory. Ten days prior to the end of World War II, they were liberated by the Swedish Red Cross and taken to Sweden, where they spent three months in a sanatorium recovering from malnutrition and physical and emotional traumas. …

This year, Berkovitz will be attending the conference, but participating in these events brings personal pain.

“It’s very difficult for me … to me it’s just like it happened yesterday, so I don’t need a conference to remember.”

Still, Berkovitz recognizes and even asserts the necessity of the conference and sees participating as a duty.

“I think I owe it to the people who died to be remembered.”

Berkovitz’s story does not end in Sweden; rather, her rescue from tyranny marks the start of a new journey that defies the unthinkable trauma of the Holocaust.

In Sweden, Berkovitz maintains that she suffered from no depression or bitterness and looked forward to the future.

“I could have lived my life as a victim, but I did not,” she said. …

In April 1946, Anna and Elizabeth emigrated to the United States. They arrived in Los Angeles pennyless and not speaking English. In order to resume her schooling, Anna worked as an au-pair for several years. During this time she completed four years of high school and four years of college, graduating from U.C.L.A. in January 1952 with a B.S. degree in bacteriology and with Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude honors. While working as a laboratory technician, Anna met Leonard Berkovitz, who was then a post-doctoral fellow at Caltech. They were married in June 1953, and their sons Dan and Kenneth were born in 1956 and 1960, respectively. During this period Anna worked part time in various cancer research laboratories.

In 1962 Leonard accepted a position at Purdue University, and the family moved to West Lafayette, Indiana. When Kenneth was in kindergarten, Anna decided to continue her formal education. She was accepted as a graduate student in the biology department at Purdue University. She was working on her Ph.D. thesis when, in 1967, she was asked to take a temporary teaching position to fill an unexpected vacancy in the department. This temporary position turned into a lifetime career of teaching, and while Anna never obtained her Ph.D., she earned a tenured position from which she retired in 2003 as Professor Emerita in Biology.

Anna’s efforts as a teacher, her dedication to her students and to the discipline were amply recognized by her students, colleagues and the administration. She was selected by the students as one of the Top Ten Outstanding Teachers in the School of Science 14 times, she received the Murphy Award, the top recognition of teaching excellence by the University, and was given the Chiscon Award for outstanding teaching performance by the Biology department. Anna was elected to the Teaching Academy at Purdue and her name is in the Purdue Book of Great Teachers.

In her retirement Anna has more time to travel, attend theater, to be active in her Temple, and to winter in California. But, what she most enjoys is still interacting with young people, be it her own five grandchildren or students at the University. She currently participates in the University Honors Program, where she developed a new course, “The New Genetics – New Perspectives, New Dilemmas,” which she teaches in the Fall semesters. …

Marveling at her accomplishments for the time – raising a family while entering a competitive career field as woman when it was rare – Berkovitz attributes much of her drive to a belief that humanity was good. Only a small group of evil was responsible for her painful experiences.

“Unfortunately, now I see that there are still evil groups of people in the world killing or wanting to kill innocent people just because they are different from what they are,” she said. …

Though Berkovitz’s story is one of inspiration, she still bears emotional scars.

“I have recurring nightmares that I’m told that I have to pack up and leave home … that’s part of me; that’s part of my existence.”

Preventing scars such as these in others is a duty for Berkovitz; an obligation driving her to participate in programs such as the Holocaust Remembrance Conference.

“It’s very relevant to what’s going on in the world today.”

I had Dr. Berkovitz for the Honors Genetics course (mentioned in the article) and for Human Genetics, and she was one of my favorite professors here at Purdue. You could tell she was passionate about the subject, and she did a great job of explaining genetics. In class she would encourage stimulating discussions on eugenics, genetic testing, gene patenting, and abortion.

When she overheard me telling another student about the Society of Non-Theists, she asked to be put on the mailing list and has attended all of our pro-evolution events (including my talk about the Creation Museum). From our class discussions, I could tell she shared my liberal views. She even once showed us a clip of Stephen Colbert talking about DNA, and we were the only two to giggle when he talked about Jesus burying the dinosaurs.

But in addition to being a great professor and skeptic, she was a wonderful person. She would always take time to talk to me about random articles in the news she thought I would be interested in. She encouraged me to shoot for the stars when it came to genetics. When I was still considering becoming a genetic counselor, she encouraged me to get a PhD, saying someone with my skills in genetics should be doing research or running the clinic. And when I had asked her to write me a letter of recommendation for grad school, I discovered that her husband had passed away just a week before. Seeing someone I looked up to so much distraught and crying was horrible. I quickly told her I could easily find someone else to do it, but she insisted – even when overwhelmed with grief, she wanted to help her students.

I always said that this is exactly how I want to be when I was 80 – compassionate, skeptica
l, witty, and still excited
about science. That was before I knew her history as a Holocaust survivor. To think that she became such a strong woman and wonderful scientist even through that tragedy is amazing. She’s a role model to everyone, but especially to female scientists. I can only hope to be half the woman she is when I’m 80.


  1. says

    I am so lucky to have a teacher just like your’s (well not really, your’s went through much worse). But, her husband died and instead of being victimized she used it to push forward. Definitely passionate about her subject and the people she works with, your professor sounds like someone that i would love to meet… if only she was still teaching

  2. says

    She still teaches the University Honors Genetics course, which is a cross departmental course for freshman and sophomores. I got lucky that the current professor for Human Genetics was on sabbatical that year, so I got her again!

  3. says

    She sounds awesome. I woulda loved to have a teacher like her; my biology teacher was decent, but never really got me interested in the subject. Or, maybe it’s just too technical for me to catch on, anyway.And, when your favorite cool teacher asks to be added to your student group’s mailing list and be a part of your discussions, you know you’re both awesome people – her for obviously taking an interest in her students and their works and projects, and you for setting up an interesting and appealing project (the SNT) to begin with.Thanks for sharing this. Yet another example showing how you don’t have to let hardships, no matter how horrible, get you down.

  4. mcbender says

    Jen, that’s an amazing story, and thank you for sharing it. I can’t remember if I’ve met any Holocaust survivors; I think I must have attended a talk by one at some point when I was younger but I can’t remember very clearly… my family was lucky enough to have migrated to the States prior to the Holocaust, so as far as I know I’m not related to any survivors.As far as her being willing to write the recommendation for you so soon after her husband died… I’m impressed. I had a similar experience with my high school computer science teacher; she was in the hospital dying of cancer and insisted on writing a letter of recommendation for me… her husband later told me that she had been grateful to have had something to do, but I still feel a bit guilty about it.I find it inspirational that such teachers exist, and feel very lucky to have benefited from one of them. I’m sure you feel the same.

  5. Jewish Atheist says

    Today, we stand and remember the six million Jews who were shot, beaten, choked and burned to death by the Nazi Destruction Machine. We will not forget them, never. We will remember and not forget a thing. We will not let such a thing to ever happen again. Never again!

  6. Erp says

    Never forget.Not only the Jews but also those with physical or mental disabilities, the gays, the Roma and all the other ‘undesirables’.

  7. says

    And after the horrors suffered by Dr. Berkovitz and her family due to nazi racist pseudoscience, she goes on to become a professor of Human Genetics.You defeat lies with truth.

  8. Guest says

    Yeah, genetics, a bullshit science where they decide to put DNA from all the races in a blender in the Human Genome Project, since “they’re all going to be the same anyway”, and be happy with a lot of “undetermined sites”, rather than do truthful research.

  9. Greg23 says

    “If you believe god makes you breathe,why did he lose six million jews?”Emerson, Lake & Palmer

  10. Daniel says

    wow, white power much? So, like, you don’t believe there are dogs? They’re all different species, right? This whole “looking similar, breeding together, acting the same, put together the same way” thing is just…what? The old man in the sky laughing his ass off?

  11. Thomas L says

    First off, I’m a fellow atheist. I’ve been raised in the spirit of scepticism and I love this blog for beeing an eye-opener on the American stance in atheism. That’s for the introduction.To get back ontopic: I am German. Every time I read about the Holocaust, it stings me. Their is a kind of inherited guilt I feel with every fate I learn about. I wish I could just feel sad about the past and know that the world has learnt from it. Reality shames me for the mere hope of a learned people. We have not overcome the inexplicable fear and aversion for foreign cultures, we have not overcome the stupid hatred for different views, religious opinions or for “race”. There even are legal parties in Germany, who uphold the ideas of the original nazi party. It is a minority I speak of, but their existence is a shame. I hope we could rid the world of such ignorance. For now I will take it like the quest for atheism and just try to appeal to the sanity of the mind – not that it helps much with extremists of any kind.And to you, Jen, I say thank you for sharing the story.

  12. says

    Aw wow, she sounds wonderful. It’s great that you’ve had the chance to get to know such an astounding person over the years.(also, I just found your blog the other day, and must say, I’m really loving it! =D)

  13. Simon666 says

    Hmmm… Me I was always thaught the Nazis killed the weak and feeble immediately in gas chambers. Yet they selected a 13 year old girl to go and work. While the Germans were no sweethearts with forced labor and such, makes you wonder about those gas chambers.

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