Author Spotlight: Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean: Memoirs of a Refugee's Progress by Michael
Much like Michael Shinagel’s journey back to Vienna in 1965, his memoir, Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean: Memoirs of a Refugee’s Progress, is a cleansing of spirit, an exorcism, and an acknowledgment of how the past paved the way for a career in one of America’s most illustrious name in education.
When Michael and his family set foot in New York, his father, Emmanuel Schinagel, had the foresight to drop the c in the family name, knowing people will have trouble with its pronunciation, knowing it will always come between the family and their Americanization. Hence, Shinagel. But that was about the only thing the family left in the past. Everything else they took with them, especially the memories of the Holocaust and their harrowing escape.
Their exodus to New York City started in Vienna in 1938, shortly after the Anschluss and before the cataclysmic Kristallnacht, when Michael was only four years old. From Vienna, Michael, his brother Fred, and their mother Lilly flew to Brussels where Emmanuel was waiting. The years between 1938 and 1941, when they finally set foot on American soil, were the darkest in Michael’s life. They were so dark that the only way to survive its throes was through repression of memories, and that’s what Michael did to protect himself from the horrors of the Holocaust.
In New York, life as refugees was a “humiliating decline in social status” from the family’s Viennese days, and they lived in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Despite their circumstances, Michael made friends, rapidly learned English, joined the army, earned a degree and, finally, a Ph.D. in literature. In 1977, Michael Shinagel started his career as dean in Harvard, a career that span thirty-six fruitful years.
Despite his achievements, however, Michael always felt some irrepressible urge to face his past. The Holocaust was never truly far from his mind. He went through many years of psychiatry and attempts at hypnotherapy, hoping to open the closet of his childhood memories. He realized, as a Holocaust survivor, he has a moral responsibility to bear witness and honor the legacy of the victims by sharing his experiences.
The new generation needs to know about the Holocaust, so everything lost to Hitler, and his campaign will not be forgotten. Michael joined discussions about the Holocaust and retraced his roots in Vienna. Finally, he started on his memoir. In Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean: Memoirs of a Refugee’s Progress, Michael Shinagel confronts his demons—his first two failed marriages, his unviable relationship with his father, and the Holocaust—and celebrates his fruitful years in the academe and in America.
Reviewed by Amy Alcott
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Michael Shinagel received his AB degree in English from Oberlin College and his AM and Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University. He has taught at Cornell University and Union College, where he was professor and chair of the English Department. In 1975, he returned to Harvard as the new director of Continuing Education, and at his retirement in 2013, he was acclaimed as the longest-serving dean in Harvard history and as one of the transformative leaders of the university. At Harvard, he was a senior lecturer on English in the English Department for more than thirty years, a lecturer in Extension for forty years, and master of Quincy House for fifteen years. Among his many administrative roles were his service as president of the Harvard Faculty Club, a member of the board of freshman advisors, associate director of the Office for Graduate and Career Plans, chair of the faculty committee in dramatic arts, member of the faculty council, member of the committee on commencement parts, director of the Harvard Summer School, and dean of Continuing Education. His publications include Daniel Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility (Harvard University Press), A Concordance to the Poems of Jonathan Swift (Cornell University Press), the Norton critical edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (W. W. Norton), and The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910–2009 (Puritan Press). He remains a distinguished service lecturer in Extension at Harvard, teaching graduate seminars and directing master’s theses in literature in the Extension School as well as teaching professional development workshops on leadership and decision-making in the Division of Continuing Education.