In her PhD dissertation, English professor Deb Donig wrote about how Jewish people’s suffering in the Holocaust became a narrative of universal suffering. Then she was selected as a consultant on a an Amazon Original series following Nazi hunters in 1977 New York City.
“Hunters” follows Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a young man seeking justice after witnessing the murder of his grandmother. In comes Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), who reveals that Heidelbaum’s grandmother – a Holocaust-survivor – was a member of a secret group of Nazi hunters, who happened to be in search of a genius like Heidelbaum, according to Amazon’s website.
“[‘Hunters’] is a really thoughtful engagement with history in a very critical time right now, where the questions and the urgency of the Holocaust have a very significant bearing on our contemporary reality,” Donig said.
As a consultant in the writers’ room, Donig sat in on discussions about the authenticity of relationships between characters of disparate backgrounds, specifically between Jewish and Black communities in the 1970s. Discussion also addressed the ethics of fictionally representing the Holocaust with respect for historical truth.
Donig began working at Cal Poly in Fall 2019 and has lived across the globe – from Berlin, Tel Aviv and Cape Town to Texas and Los Angeles. Her classes explore a wide variety of topics: in her “Afrotopia” class, students study the “Black Panther” comics and Africa’s global image; in her “Distant Suffering” class, students examine literature as a tool for understanding suffering of people and things outside one’s own community.
“We know we can’t share identities, but to come to bat for people who don’t belong to an identity that you understand is vital,” Donig said.
Donig wrote her PhD dissertation on what she calls “the intersectionality of texts,” or how stories respond to one another and shape global culture. Specifically, she considered how Jewish people’s pain became a narrative of global suffering in a post-1945 environment of human rights.
The project, now a book manuscript titled “At Metaphor’s Edge: Comparative Suffering in a Post-Holocaust Climate,” traces how subsequent groups seeking to represent their own experiences of suffering grapple with the Holocaust as a metric for what counts as legitimate suffering in the international arena, Donig said.
“In my years of teaching, I’ve been very sad to see that increasingly, the students I teach don’t have the Holocaust as a reference point,” Donig said.
According to Donig, the number of living Holocaust survivors is decreasing. Now, she said, there is a resurge in attempts to ensure people know about its reality.
“Our understanding of fact is so deeply linked to witnessing,” Donig said. “The loss of [Holocaust survivors] who could make the claim, ‘This is true because I saw it, I was there’ – that loss can potentially serve to sever the link of that authenticity.”
She said she is grateful that there has been increased attention to, and investment in, ensuring this memory will carry on.
“[In] our particular political environment, we are seeing a resurgence of the kind of phenomena that lead to the success of the Nazi – in antisemitism, in beliefs [in] the greatness of a nation over the life and dignity of people who live in it, in the demonization of that which is ‘other,’” Donig said.
“Hunters” suggests an alternative possibility, according to Donig, where groups of people recognize the threat of antisemitism and fight against it.
“It’s the attempt to imagine what could have been, and that is very inspiring,” Donig said. “To realize the history of the Holocaust is one of deep loss and suffering, but it could also be a story of the ways we are empowered to fight against that, and the power we wield as a public to respond to it and say we won’t allow this.”
“Hunters,” as well as a behind-the-scenes documentary, became available for streaming Friday, Feb. 21 on Amazon Prime.