Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Remembering Stephen Feinstein

Colleagues and friends of the founder and director of the U’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, who died in March, gathered to recall his passion and humor in words and video. 

Stephen Feinstein, founder and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, died suddenly at age 64 in March. On May 12, at an event at the Humphrey Institute, friends and colleagues remembered him as a scholar, an activist and a man who used humor as a “survival technique.” Here is a video by David Feinberg, associate professor of art, that was shown at the event, and excerpts from three speeches. 

By Steve Hunegs, Executive Director
Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota & the Dakotas

This past Shabbat was the Minnesota fishing opener.  I note it because it was a rare – if not unique – event for which Steve in his distinguished career of academics and activism did not:

• Write an article
• Convene a symposium, or
• Organize an exhibit
as far as I know….

This next Shabbat, the Torah portion is Behar which discusses – among other topics – the Sabbath year of rest.  This is completely inversely appropriate to Steve, since he was in perpetual motion and never, seemingly, at rest.

*     *     *     *     *

All of this energy and Steve’s Russian and beaver skin hat were brought to bear on the Soviet Jewry movement of the Upper Midwest.

Contextually, 50 years after “Red October,” the Six Day War sparked a revolution of a sort among Soviet Jewry by rekindling their national, religious and cultural identities as Jews.  In the years after 1967, huge numbers of Soviet Jews sought to escape intellectual and spiritual suffocation through aliyah or emigration to the West.  This was a blow to the Soviet solar plexus and immigration was held hostage to the trajectory of American-Soviet relations.

Article continues after advertisement

Into this moment stepped the American Jewish community, determined not to repeat its quiescence during the Holocaust. The Minnesota community, aligned with its tradition, organized activism in size disproportionate to its numbers.

*     *     *     *     *

At the center was Steve Feinstein…

• Lobbying for passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment tying trade with the USSR to immigration;
• Meeting with Refuseniks in the USSR when attending the Moscow Book Fair;
• Organizing the Minnesota delegation to the December 1987 March on Washington during a visit by Mikhail Gorbachov;
• Recording telephone messages, with a new action item each week;
• Demonstrating at hockey games or cultural events involving Russians – as Mort Ryweck pointed out, “no demonstration was too small for his participation”;
• Leading Freedom Seders with freedom hagadot;
• Leading the charge for the Vladamir Feltsman concert – a former refusenik pianist – which sold out Orchestra Hall in the late 1980’s.

As chair of the JCRC’s Minnesota-Dakota Action Committee on Soviet Jews (1985 to 1992), Steve worked with a great cross-section of the community… . Poignantly, Steve was working — always working.  My last meeting with him, Susan Yana Glikin and Mark Glotter – not long before he died — was planning a community 30th anniversary commemoration of the Soviet Jewry movement.

As a friend, student and colleague of Prof. Feinstein, I can say his work was characterized by the fact that he was equally at home in the flat of a Leningrad refusenik, the galleries of the Louvre, the archives of Yad Vashem, among his vintage model trains, and in the classrooms and lecture halls from the University of Minnesota to Moscow.  He was among the few who both wrote and shaped history — as only a person of his experience, interests and travels could.  He was and will be remembered as the quintessential community person—who “respected” no boundaries of the University—and will inspire us for decades to come.

By Taner Akcam
Department of History and Center for Holocaust
and Genocide Studies

University of Minnesota

I am here to say publicly what Steve already knew – how thankful I was to him as a friend and colleague.

In 2001 I was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, looking for a position where I could stay in academia in the USA. Mutual friends put me in touch with him; his support for my invitation to teach here was crucial.

Over the next six years, Steve proved to be more than a colleague: he was my “problem solver.” Through every challenge, large or small, he was always there with a solution.

My office in the Social Science Building was not a permanent space. “Why don’t you come over to the Center,” asked Stephen one day. “We’ll give you a room; you will have fun here.” He was right – to work beside him every day was a real pleasure.

“You are the real Talat Pahsa,” he would say, showing me the fez he had received from the Minnesota Armenian Community. “Now, we have to organize a ceremony to turn this over to you.”

Steve sought to incorporate not only the Armenian Genocide but also other 20th century genocides into the comparative scope of the Center. “The Holocaust can be adequately understood only in perspective with other Genocides,” he used to say.

Let others speak of Stephen Feinstein’s philosophy of comparative genocide or his one-week summer seminar for teachers on Genocide and Human Rights. I would rather speak of the Steve who after teaching all day, went home and slept on the floor, too exhausted even to take off his shoes.

Now, when it comes to solving practical issues, I am a person with two left feet – my only talent is reading books. But, when I came to the Center, I had no book shelves. PEHH – no problem! Steve knew what to do. “Are you going to build them?” I asked, astonished. There he was with the lumber, nails and tools.

“Steve, this shared printer in my office is driving me crazy.” No problem, there was Steve drilling a hole in the wall to reroute the cable connection out of my office. “How can you be so talented, Steve; we scholars are supposed to be clumsy.” Well, “this is what we learned from the Nazis,” he would say. “This is how you survive in a concentration camp.”

He walked in every morning with a joke, tossing a sheet of paper on my desk, or starting a new story, “have you heard the one about….” He would come to my office saying, “check your email, I just sent you something” or he would call me over to his office to watch a video clip or to read a joke. Steve was hilarious, laughing with full mouth…. “The jokes are my survival technique,” he used to say. But they were a social pressure for [me]: Oh my god! What should I tell him today?

He loved to see me in the office everyday from 8 to 5. “I am sorry, Steve, I had to take my daughter to the doctor.” “Steve, I am leaving, Helin missed the bus, I had to pick her up.” “You need a wife,” he would say. “Tell your Armenian friends they have to find you an Armenian wife. This cannot go on. You cannot work. They should know that they are hindering genocide research; this will be their way to contribute to it.”

He used to tell visitors, anyone who walked in the door, “I am looking for a Jewish wife for Taner. The Armenians cannot find one. So, even though having a Jewish wife and dealing with Armenian Genocide is very suspect, we don’t have any other choice.” That was embarrassing…..

Steve saw life as a joke and lived it as a joke. His leaving us was also a joke but one of his worst ones. Steve…my dear friend…you are always with me, wherever I go. And I am hoping to see you there…to listen to one more joke from you.

By Henry Oertelt
Holocaust Survivor

My association with Steve with goes back at least 25 years, when he invited me to speak at his class at [the University of Wisconsin], River Falls. I can say it was “love at first sight.”  I was taken in by his easy-going casualness and his wonderful sense of humor.  It was there that I had my first experience with his quick humor. 

During my lecturing I had explained that, during my incarceration in the concentration camps, I was able to utilize my trained profession of designing and building fine furniture. I had explained that on two of those occasions I was transported to other camps, without being able to finish the projects I was working on.  During the following question and answer session, one student wanted to know if I was still working in that profession.  Before I was able to answer, Steve jumped in and quipped, “What do you think, with that kind of a work record?”


For more information, go to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies website.