Holocaust Course Offers New Perspective to Law Students
Don Smith teamed with a former student to teach the role of human rights in the professional world
Forget statutes and regulations. Save the discussions of torts and court cases. In Don Smith’s class this spring, the conventional law school curriculum has been on hold.
And yet, the Holocaust seminar Smith taught at the Sturm College of Law in April is one of the most important and impactful courses he has offered in his 18-year career at the University of Denver.
“It raises some real ethical and moral issues for people who are trained in the law,” says Smith, an associate professor of the practice. “Lawyers were involved in many of the high levels of what the Nazi state did. We wanted to acquaint students with that and explain to them how that happened and what the legal profession’s complicity was.”
Over the course of two full weekends, the two-credit elective seminar examined the factors that created the Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany methodically killed six million Jews. For law students, Smith says, it’s an opportunity to think about who they are as individuals and how to incorporate human rights into their future professions.
Neither Smith nor his teaching assistant, Rachael Kamlet, are aware of any other law school that offers a similar course. For years, professor Kris McDaniel-Miccio taught the seminar. When other obligations arose, she passed the responsibility to Smith and Kamlet, his former student, who had formed a close bond around the subject.
When Kamlet took Smith’s environmental law class in spring 2019, her professor told a story of his father’s World War II service and his participation in the liberation of a concentration camp. Kamlet approached him later, mentioning that she was Jewish and had worked with Holocaust survivors growing up in Florida.
The conversation added a new dimension to their relationship — office chats often turned to Judaism and religion.
“Learning and teaching is a two-way street,” Smith says, “and sometimes when Rachael and I would talk, she was the professor and I was the student. And other times it would be the other way around.”
So, when Smith had a chance to take on the Holocaust seminar, he invited Kamlet to essentially co-teach. Together, they shaped the syllabus and developed the class schedule, featuring several lectures from Kamlet, who, after earning an LLM in environmental and natural resources policy, is now a student in DU’s graduate tax program.
“The Holocaust has always been a topic that is so important to me,” she says, “so to be able to get in front of 15 students and explain why it’s important that something like this never happens again feels like I’m giving back in a way.”
Initially, the on-campus class included a visit from a Holocaust survivor and a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But when the coronavirus pandemic forced instruction online, Smith and Kamlet adapted too.
Thanks to relationships she had built on an international trip with the environmental law program, Kamlet was able to create a panel discussion featuring contemporaries from Poland, Germany and Israel. They spoke about the way the Holocaust is viewed and taught in other parts of the world.
“I want [DU students] to realize that this isn’t just something that affected our grandparents or great-grandparents,” Kamlet says. “Antisemitism is something that is continuing to grow. For them to hear the experience of antisemitism from their peers is really instrumental, and they’ll see that it’s not just here [in the U.S.].”
Although the move online altered the way the course had to be taught, Smith and Kamlet say there were plenty of silver linings. Going forward, a virtual setting means the class can be offered to anyone, anywhere. Smith and Kamlet have already reached out to a number of groups to which they can present the materials.
“To me this class is the epitome of what education is all about,” Smith says, “It feels good that this isn’t just some one-time effort that will disappear when [the term] is over. It feels good to build something during this time that hasn’t been the most uplifting.”