On the Shoulders of a Legend
- By Kevin C Coburn
As a young history professor at St. Michael’s College early in his academic career in the 1980s, Francis Nicosia knew Raul Hilberg as a mentor and eventually, as a friend and colleague. When Hilberg’s landmark work, The Destruction of the European Jews, was published in 1961, it established him as a foremost scholar of the Holocaust and brought the field of Holocaust Studies into the mainstream of academic inquiry. Small wonder, then, that when Nicosia sought out Hilberg’s opinion on his own first book when it was published in 1985, it was done with some trepidation.
“I still referred to Raul as ‘Professor Hilberg.’ At that early stage of my career, I wasn’t going to call him Raul, I’m sorry. And so I sent him a copy. And I was nervous as hell,” says Nicosia. The letter he received in response, he says, was pure Hilberg. “Dear Professor Nicosia,” it read. “Thank you very much for your book. I haven’t read the text yet, but I’m impressed with your footnotes and your archival sources.”
Hilberg did read the text, of course, and offered his endorsement for this and subsequent works by Nicosia and other up-and-coming Holocaust scholars. “He was so supportive and so helpful to younger scholars, to the next generation,” Nicosia recalls.
When he was offered the position as the Raul Hilberg Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies as a member of the Department of History at the University of Vermont, Nicosia says, “I was absolutely overwhelmed because I’m a scholar who writes about the Holocaust, and the name of the professorship is the guy whose work literally began Holocaust Studies. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Today Nicosia is himself one of the nation’s foremost Holocaust scholars. He has been affiliated with UVM’s Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies since its founding soon after Hilberg’s retirement from UVM in 1991, as an advisory board member, and later as a member of the UVM faculty. In October 2014 he received the Distinguished Achievement Award in Holocaust Studies at academia’s premier Holocaust conference.
In addition to the honor of holding an endowed professorship in Professor Hilberg’s name, he says, the Hilberg professorship provides funding to support his research and enables him to offer financial assistance for a graduate student research assistant every year.
“We’ve had students do master’s theses that involve the kind of original archival research that you normally don’t do until you are a doctoral student,” Nicosia says. “So we’re lucky to have these various endowments that help students get started with research and to help faculty in our own research.”