Hannah Herzog Discovers Powerful Connection to Jewish History and Culture

May 7, 2018

Hannah Herzog (photo by Kristen Chavez)

American studies graduate student Hannah Herzog couldn’t explain why, but she always felt a strong connection to Jewish culture and tradition.

That connection inspired her academic career, which will reach a new peak this weekend when Herzog graduates from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree.

Herzog, who grew up in Dallas, was adopted from a Romanian orphanage when she was about three years old. Later, as a pre-law student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, she took a Jewish American literature course that changed the course of her academic career and led her to graduate school in the American studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill.

After the first year of her master’s program, in what she called “the most impulsive decision I’ve ever made,” Herzog contacted the organization Never Forgotten Romanian Children on Facebook. Within four days, organizers had tracked down her birth parents in Romania. Turns out, her maternal grandmother is Jewish.

“On the fifth day, I was on the phone with my birth family,” said Herzog, who is currently learning Romanian with the help of a tutor. “My sister, who is the only one with an Internet connection, messages me every day to say, ‘I love you.’”

Herzog, who will receive her master’s degree in folklore, felt drawn to Holocaust studies and has received a number of fellowships and grants, including the Daniel W. Patterson Fellowship, to support her work. For her thesis, she interviewed 15 Holocaust survivors in Atlanta, Birmingham and Charleston. Their ages ranged from 78 to 95. She said Holocaust survivors who settled in the South faced a different form of anti-Semitism after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Her work will be archived in museums across the South, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“It is through my newly discovered Eastern European family, my Jewish heritage and the trauma of my own displacement that I feel a visceral connection to those who suffered in the Holocaust,” Herzog writes in her thesis, which is divided into case studies of five survivors.

Each of the survivors’ stories touched Herzog in some way. Joe Engel wears a nametag every day that says “Holocaust Survivor.” Robert May became a surgeon at age 18 and chose to work in a doctor’s office that treated African American patients.

Hershel Greenblat told Herzog that in order to explain his first impressions of America, he could show her better than he could tell her.

“I really hope this doesn’t make me emotional,” Herzog said, as she recalled the story. “But it’s so powerful.”

“He handed me a 50-cent coin in a glass case,” she continued. “When his family got off the train in New York at 3:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, they were completely lost, didn’t know a single word of English and needed to get to Atlanta. An American soldier helped them to find the right train, and when they departed, he gave Hershel this coin. He was nine years old at the time and is now 89. It became his moral compass. Every day it reminds him to pay it forward, to treat others with the same kindness.”

Herzog has presented her research at both regional and national conferences and said she is grateful for the support Carolina faculty have given her.

“Carolina was my dream school because of the interdisciplinary research opportunities available in American studies. My professors, especially Marcie Cohen Ferris, have guided me, encouraged me and believed in me. I think these relationships will last forever.”

By Kim Spurr, College of Arts and Sciences