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A Great Expert on Genocide Dies on the Job

March 12th 2008

Stephen Feinstein picture
Stephen Feinstein

Of one America’s most knowledge experts on genocide suddenly passed away a few days ago.

Historian Stephen Feinstein, 65, died on the job last week during a presentation at the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival. Feinstein lapsed mid-sentence during his remarks. His wife reportedly rushed to his side and summoned paramedics. But at the hospital nothing could be done to repair what was close to an aortic aneurism. The loss to his family, to his friends, to the community and to scholarship will be permanent.

As the founder and director the University of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Feinstein was a expert on the unlimited darkness surrounding humanity’s greatest atrocities—the effort to destroy an entire people by means of genocide. His collection of books and articles was on the finest. His cavernous knowledge of the small but important details was as encyclopedic. As smart as he was, he was never afraid to learn more, and raced toward new facts the way a thirsty man runs toward water.

Feinstein fearlessly devoted himself to the spectrum of the evil, from the Holocaust, to the decimation of the American Indian, to the Turkish genocide against Armenians, to the current systematic mass murders in Darfur. He was fearless because he stood up to the politics of genocide. Although pressured and threatened by Turkish elements, he refused to desist in publicizing and documenting the Ottoman genocide against Armenians. When the USHMM in Washington tried to dismiss the Nazi-allied pogrom against Iraqi Jews, known as “the Farhud,” Feinstein refused to back down. When it came time to shine a bright light on the Carnegie Institution’s financial and scientific support for Nazi eugenics, he worked vigorously.

I knew him as a close friend, a man who responded instantly by email, but never carried a cell phone… a man who was as knowledgeable as any about current events, but refused to subscribe to cable TV… a man who invited me as a University lecturer on more than one occasion to Minneapolis, but refused to let me stay in a hotel, instead insisting I be a guest in his own home.

Like all his friends, I knew Feinstein’s other side. When one spends your entire day studying the most depressing aspects of history, two unstoppable feelings grip you. Sometimes your clinical academic stride is suddenly pierced by jolting disconsolation. Sometimes you relieve the pressure with jokes. Feinstein was a ceaseless jokester. That made him so human in a field of inhumanity, and helped those around him know that his view held that progress required rising above it—and that meant breaking free from the paralysis of evil deeds. Once he and I shared a meal of Mongolian yak in a Minneapolis ethnic restaurant. He never let me forget it, making yak jokes at almost every turn.

Since obituaries by friends can be objective only to a point, let me confess the following. I have worked closely with literally hundreds of historians and experts around the world. They have their names engraved in granite in the great centers of learning, from Berlin to Jerusalem to London. But the ones I trust the most can be counted on one hand: Bob and Sam and a few others. Feinstein in Minneapolis was amongst those five. We have lost him today, but history will remember his work for a long time.


Memorials may be sent to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota Foundation, Box 70870, St. Paul, MN 55170.


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