Sadly, I need to share another message of loss. Almost two years ago, Hebert Pundik died. This past June, Rabbi Bent Melchior died. On Friday, October 22nd, Joan Ringelheim died. Inexorably, people, who have been so important to Humanity in Action, grow older and pass away. Herbert, Bent, and Joan were key to starting Humanity in Action.
I can’t remember who said that we should try to involve the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) as we developed educational plans for an international educational program for college and university students. Someone said that we had to speak with Joan, who was a key part of the Museum’s programs. I called her and asked for guidance. I don’t think there was real enthusiasm but she was game to try something out. We planned to bring the American Fellows to the Museum for orientation before going to Europe. Thus, she led us through intellectual and emotional journeys focused on aspects of Holocaust history and the history of the development of the Museum. From the opening moment, she was candid, thoughtful, fiery, incisive, funny, warm, engaging, supportive, and loving. And patient. One year, she even joined the group after the DC program and went with us to Poland.
Thus, she led us through intellectual and emotional journeys focused on aspects of Holocaust history and the history of the development of the Museum. From the opening moment she was candid, thoughtful, fiery, incisive, funny, warm, engaging, supportive and loving. And patient.
The annual program started in DC with Joan and the Museum staff who adored her. Fellows adored her. She loved them back. (She always said that they were the best students she taught in a career that started in academia and ended up as a key figure at the Museum). And when it was clear after two years that the Danish American Dialogue on Human Rights had no future in the organization where it was developed—when it was clear that I was out of a job—Joan said don’t give up! The idea is too good! Start with Denmark and take it to other countries. Joan turned on the light for Humanity in Action.
She was a deep student of philosophy and history. Her moral strengths guided her inquiries. Her passion for truth made her, despite self-doubts, into a crusader. This was especially true in her determination to make historian and keepers of Holocaust history aware of how little they knew or cared about what women experienced and how they suffered during the war years. She insisted that women were not recognized for the abuses they endured precisely because they were women. Their histories were silenced and ignored. She fought on this battlefront in academia and in the international realms of Holocaust institutions. Only in the past few years have her concerns become recognized as essential to historical accuracy and remembrance.
This past year, she published Companion: the Strange and the Familiar. It is a book of self-scrutiny tracking her career and life: successes, seeming failures, emotional and physical challenges. It is such a rich and wise book, especially in the ways that her knowledge and concern about Black history was part of how she thought about the Holocaust. Luckily, Joan agreed to talk about the book with many Humanity in Action Senior Fellows in a wonderful Zoom conversation this past spring. We also used two chapters as opening texts for American Fellows in our 2021 annual program.
The association of Humanity in Action with the USHMM was special to us. The friendship with Joan, however, was a blessing. There were many struggles that she courageously faced: within her field of work and within her own body. Cancer was a devastating presence for all too long. It finally won out. She leaves us richer for knowing and adoring her, but so bereft as well.
Judy Goldstein, October 25, 2021