As the director of the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies, Associate Professor Helene Sinnreich wears many hats: teacher, chronicler of Holocaust stories, author and editor, and community liaison.
Sinnreich received the College of Arts and Sciences’ 2021 Faculty Academic Outreach Service Award for helping improve education and build community in the wake of a spate of antisemitic incidents on and off campus during the six years she’s been at UT.
The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Sinnreich has dedicated her career to telling the story of one of the world’s greatest atrocities.
This past year, she helped secure a generous gift from UT alumnus Dan Ricketts (business ‘85, law ‘92) and his husband, Steve Frankel—both successful businessmen in Los Angeles, California —to create the Frankel-Ricketts Scholars in Israel Program that will debut in spring 2024.
As part of that program, Sinnreich will teach a three-credit hour general education course entitled Religious Studies 225: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Students enrolled in the class will travel to Israel during spring break on a trip led by Sinnreich and Erin Darby, who is an associate professor of religious studies, an archaeological project director, and UT’s inaugural faculty director for undergraduate research and fellowships.
“I hope this is a class that really transforms students, especially students who wouldn’t otherwise have this opportunity, by giving them a taste of an international experience,” Sinnreich said.
Before that, however, Sinnreich will travel to Budapest in December 2022 for a six-month fellowship to continue working on a research project about a group of Hungarian and Polish boys who were held at Auschwitz in the fall and winter of 1944.
About 2,000 boys between the ages of 10 and 16 arrived at the concentration camp and went through a “selection process” to determine which would be sent to the gas chamber and which would be allowed to live and perform slave labor. About 600 boys survived, and Sinnreich has been poring through books, memoirs, recorded interviews, and other historical tidbits to find their names and gather their stories.
She’s identified about 45 so far. Of those, she knows of three who are still alive.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she said. “I feel so excited when I find one.”
Her goal is to combine the stories she uncovers into a book tentatively titled Who Will Live and Who Will Die? The High Holidays at Auschwitz in 1944.
Sinnreich’s husband, Wesley Johnson Jr., and the couple’s two young sons, Nathan, 11, and Noah, 8, will accompany her to Budapest. The boys will attend a British school while they’re in Hungary.
“I told them on weekends we’ll be tourists,” Sinnreich said.
Sinnreich is also involved in sharing stories of the Holocaust as one of the new co-editors-in-chief of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the official journal of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The first woman to edit the journal, Sinnreich shares the work with co-editor-in-chief Daniel H. Magilow, a professor of German in UT’s Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.
Sinnreich said the journal comes out three times a year. Articles are submitted to the Holocaust Museum and then divvied out to Sinnreich and Magilow, who read them and decide whether to move them on to blind peer review.
While Sinnreich has made a name for herself through her work on the Holocaust, her son Nathan also has enjoyed his own fame.
When Nathan was 9 months old, Sinnreich and Johnson took him to a 2012 re-election campaign event for Barack Obama. After the event, Sinnreich pushed through the crowd to get closer to the President.
“I handed my child across the rope line. President Obama took him out of my hands, held him up, and kissed him.”
Several photographers, including the official campaign photographer, captured the moment.
The photo became an iconic image of the campaign and appeared in numerous outlets, including the front page of the Los Angeles Times and TIME magazine. Jimmy Kimmel talked about it on his TV show, and “it showed up in a Huggies commercial.” It was subsequently used as the basis of a mural on the exterior wall of an eatery in Houston.
–Story by Amy Blakely