The JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish History and Culture


When Sonja van der Horst was diagnosed with a Grade IV glioblastoma in Oct. 2005, her children, Tatjana, Charles, Roger and Jacqueline, opened a discussion with her about the possibility of donating funds for a project honoring both her and her late husband, Johannes Martinus Arnold (Hans) van der Horst. After much discussion Sonja chose to donate her home of fifty years to B'Nai Israel Congregation and to fund a professorship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The rationale for this decision is a reflection of their combined ideals and of the singular impact World War II and more specifically, The Holocaust, had on each of them. They lived their lives committed to many ideals including:

  • high quality education not only for their own children but for others as well
  • fostering intellectual curiosity
  • the importance of research in support of scientific and cultural advancement
  • protecting civil liberties, religious and racial freedom for all

A list of particular charitable organizations which Sonja and Hans were affiliated with or support these ideals can be found here.

Sonja and Hans

Hans was born on Sept. 22, 1918, in the Netherlands to Hendrik and Catharina van der Horst, both chemical engineers. (Click here for PDF). His own training as an engineer was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Holland on May 10, 1940. He fought in both the Dutch Army at the onset of the war and then as a scout with the US Armed Forces, starting with their invasion of southern France in Aug. 15, 1944. With the end of hostilities in Europe on May 8, 1945, Hans began working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, during which period he took Russian lessons from Sonja.

Sonja was born Chaya Eichenbaum Teichholz on Dec. 16, 1923, to Naftali and Chawa Teichholz in Tarnopol, Poland. Her grandfather, Shmerl Eichenbaum, (Click here for more information.), was a religious scholar. Sonja was one of only a few Jewish females to be allowed to attend the public high school or gymnasium. As a fifteen year old she witnessed the Soviet invasion of Tarnopol on September 1, 1939 when Poland was divided between the Soviets and the Nazis under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty. Her father, aware of the stories of Jewish murders in Nazi controlled Poland, wanted to immigrate to Palestine but could not afford the immigration tax imposed by the British Mandate. Then on June 22, 1941, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began and specifically on July 2, 1941, Nazi Einsatzgruppen entered Tarnopol. In one week five thousand Jews were murdered beginning a systematic extermination of the 18,000 Jews of that provincial town. On Nov. 8th and 9th of that year during a Nazi Aktion, Naftali and his daughter, Malka, were shot outside their apartment and Chawa was gone, presumably to the Belzec Concentration Camp at the age of 40 (View the site here). To escape, Chaya assumed a series of false names, the final one being Sonja Tarasowa from the town of Winniza. She took off her yellow star and joined a workers train with two other friends to Germany. She survived in Germany and at the end of the war was working as a translator for the English forces.

In the summer of 1945 the Soviets began the forced repatriation of displaced persons to their countries of origin and the English agreed to hide her. When she told Hans, he proposed and they tried to get married Oct. 11, 1945, in Belgium but eventually were married on Dec. 8, 1945, in the Netherlands.

Hans van der Horst was a scholar and classic intellectual. Fluent in Russian, Japanese, Dutch, French, German, Spanish and English, and trained as a chemical engineer, he read archaeology journals and translated them for fun. Nothing pleased him more then sitting in his favorite armchair by the picture window in the living room overlooking a forest of trees, smoking a large stinky cigar and reading an obscure article on an archaeological site in the Middle East. Sonja, although never having attended a university, was equally fluent in many languages, including French, German, Polish, Dutch, Spanish, Russian and English as well as an ability to read Hebrew. She was au courant with the New Yorker, the Saturday Review, and the latest novels.

Both Hans and Sonja were passionately committed to education, with Hans serving as president of the Olean Public Library Board, raising the funds for a new, handicapped accessible library, long before it became fashionable and counter to some opposition from the local community. Hans also served as president of the local American Field Service Committee, which sent high school students from Olean to foreign countries, and was the western New York State fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund. Having lived through the Holocaust, both were committed to civil liberties and racial equality and were card carrying members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union soon after arriving in the United States in 1952. An example of this commitment occurred at the height of the Viet Nam War, when a young female high school student was chosen by the AFS Committee to go abroad. During school, she refused to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance. The Committee met to take away the award and Hans pointed out that when he was made a US citizen he was asked to uphold the Constitution, not salute the flag. After his passionate speech the Committee agreed to continue the award. Although, Hans, himself, was not Jewish, as a scholar he was interested in Judaism and Jewish history. He was also very supportive of his wife’s beliefs. All of these ideals made the decision to fund a professorship at a public university an easy one.

The decision to fund a professorship in Jewish Studies was easy as well. With the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era (AD), the beginning of a great diaspora of Jews took place. Jews spread out from Israel throughout Europe. In 1481, the Spanish Inquisition instituted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, led to the murder, forced conversion and expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, another diaspora, and the beginning of the “early modern era‿in Jewish history. A little more than five hundred years later, he Nazi’s goal was eradication of everything Jewish. Not only would the Nazi’s implement the Final Solution in January 1942 to murder all the Jews in Europe, but they began a systematic effort to destroy any evidence of Jewish culture, including music, books, artifacts, synagogues, and even the cemeteries that could be found in these flourishing diaspora communities. The JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship will focus on the period from the destruction of the Second Temple to the Spanish Inquisition, exactly what the Nazis tried to destroy.

The van der Horst family, although immigrants in the United States, have grown to appreciate all the benefits they received from this democratic country including superb and free public education and freedom of the press, separation of church and state and the freedom to practice our religion without fear of persecution or conversion. We also have deep ties to the State of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina system. Three of the four children of JMA and Sonja van der Horst reside in North Carolina. Six of the sixteen children and grandchildren have either trained at or obtained degrees from the University, including Jacqueline Sergent (UNC-CH, MPH 1982), Charles van der Horst (UNC Hospitals, 1985 Fellowship), Derek Schwendinger (UNC-CH, MBA 2005), David Sergent (NC State, BA 2006), Whitney Sergent (UNC-Wilmington, 2009) and Maureen van der Horst (UNC-Greensboro, 2007).

Starting in the 1960s Sonja began receiving Wiedergutmachung or reparations from the German Government for the deaths of her parents and her younger sister. This small monthly stipend has continued for the last forty years. Through wise investments the amount has increased enough to fund the Professorship, a fitting tribute to JMA and Sonja and an appropriate use of the funds. This legacy will ensure that for generations to come, thousands of University of North Carolina students will learn of an important period in European and Middle Eastern history and that research conducted by the Professor, eventually named, will continue to enlighten and advance the cause of University.

The Carolina Center for Jewish Studies

With nine full-time faculty members housed in a variety of departments in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-CH, the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies is well on its way to developing one of the premier Jewish Studies programs at a public university in the United States. Center faculty now offer thirty regular courses in Jewish Studies, including three years of instruction in Modern Hebrew and both large lecture courses and small seminars in the humanities and social sciences. Particular areas of strength are ancient Judaism and the archaeology of ancient Israel, modern Judaism and the Jewish-American experience, Jewish culture in Germany and Eastern Europe, Jewish-American literature, and the History of the Holocaust. Currently, close to 1,000 undergraduates take Jewish Studies courses each year at Carolina, and the Center has more than a dozen students enrolled in its undergraduate minor program.

The Center for Jewish Studies‿faculty steering committee has identified the field of Jewish history—a linchpin of any interdisciplinary Jewish Studies program that aspires to national excellence‿as one of its major priorities for future faculty positions. Currently, the UNC History Department is home to Frank Porter Graham Professor Christopher Browning, one of the world’s most distinguished experts on the Holocaust. Browning teaches a popular lecture course on the “History of the Holocaust‿every year to more than 150 undergraduates and has several graduate students working under him on Jewish Studies and Holocaust-related research topics. The Center now wishes to build on these strengths in the modern period with an additional position in Jewish history, the JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish History and Culture.

The initial appointment for this distinguished professorship would be in medieval Jewish history, the period between the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the modern era. Hiring a medieval Jewish historian would serve as a crucial bridge between our curricular offerings in ancient Judaism and the courses we offer in the modern era. The JMA and Sonja van der Horst professor would teach both survey courses in Jewish history as well as more specialized courses in medieval Jewish studies. These courses would be of interest to students specializing in Jewish Studies, to history majors and graduate students, and to the general undergraduate population that has shown such tremendous interest in Jewish Studies courses throughout the last decade.

In addition to this professorship, the College will fill three new Jewish Studies positions: the Sara and E. J. Evans Distinguished Professorship in Israel and the Middle East in the Department of Political Science; the Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Distinguished Professorship in Modern Jewish Thought in the Department of Religious Studies; and a lectureship in Modern Hebrew in the Department of Asian Studies. The JMA and Sonja van der Horst Professorship in Jewish History will have an immediate impact on the shape of Jewish Studies at Carolina, creating an important further link to the history department and dramatically increasing the course offerings as UNC moves towards the creation of an undergraduate major in Jewish Studies.