Professor of Modern Jewish History
Shirli Gilbert is a specialist in modern Jewish history, with particular interest in the Holocaust and its legacies, modern Jewish identity, and Jews in South Africa. She holds a D. Phil in Modern History from the University of Oxford and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. Before coming to UCL, she was Karten Professor of Modern History and Director of the Parkes Institute for Jewish/ non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton.
Music in the Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 2005) examines the role of music in the Nazi ghettos and camps and the insight it offers into victims' responses. The book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. It was also the basis for the large-scale educational website Music and the Holocaust, a documentary feature on BBC Radio 3, and concerts at London's Wigmore Hall and the Hampstead Arts Festival.
From Things Lost: Forgotten Letters and the Legacy of the Holocaust (Wayne State University Press, 2017) is based on a trove of over 2000 letters belonging to a German-Jewish refugee who came to South Africa in 1936. For 35 years, Rudolf Schwab corresponded with family and friends across the world, including a close childhood friend who became a Nazi, meticulously keeping copies of his own letters in addition to those he received. The research was supported by the Kaplan Foundation in South Africa, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York, and private donors, and was awarded the British Association for Jewish Studies Book Prize Special Mention. An exhibition based on the book produced by the South African Jewish Museum has travelled around South Africa as well as to Germany, Israel, and Australia.
Prof Gilbert’s most recent book, with Dr Avril Alba from the University of Sydney, is Holocaust Memory and Racism in the Postwar World (Wayne State University Press, 2019). The project challenges the assumption of an unproblematic connection between the Holocaust and the discourse of multiculturalism and anti-racism, and through diverse case studies seeks to historicize how the Holocaust has informed engagement with concepts of ‘race’ and racism from the 1940s until the present.
Prof Gilbert’s most recent research focuses on the changing landscape of South African Jewish identity from the 1940s to the present. She has published widely on the ways in which the Holocaust shaped understandings of and responses to apartheid (1948-1994), and several articles based on a British Academy-funded interview project are forthcoming. She also contributed to the curation of the museum at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre.
Prof Gilbert welcomes enquiries from research students interested in any aspect of Jewish history and culture in the twentieth century, especially relating to South African Jewry, and any aspect of the Holocaust— its history, historiography, representation, and memory.
Current and recently-completed research students are working on the following topics:
- The Yiddish Press and the Holocaust in Mexico (Tamara Gleason Freidberg)
- Relations between the Polish government and the Zionist movement in the interwar period (Kasia Dziekan)
- Ballet music in Paris during the Nazi occupation (Abi McKee)
- Travel to Holocaust sites in Poland (Scott Saunders)
- Jewish identity in the GDR (Susan Wachowski)
- Public and private Jewish responses to apartheid (Louise Leibowitz)
- The lieder of Julius Bürger (Ryan Hugh Ross)
- Liberators, Occupiers, Pastors: Christian Encounters with Holocaust Survivors in Germany, 1945-1950 (Rob Thompson)
Alongside her work at UCL, Prof Gilbert is Academic Director of the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre which aims to make the finest historical research accessible to broad audiences.