French and Francophone studies head retires after 33 years at Penn State

Susan Burlingame
June 18, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Willa Z. Silverman, Malvin E. and Lea P. Bank Professor of French and Jewish Studies and head of the Department of French and Francophone Studies in the College of the Liberal Arts, is retiring after 33 years at Penn State. She began her tenure in 1988 as an assistant professor, was promoted to full professor in 2008, served as the department’s director of graduate studies from 2012 to 2017, and assumed the role of department head the following year.

Silverman holds a bachelor’s degree in history and literature (focused on France) from Harvard University and master’s and doctoral degrees in French studies from the Institute of French Studies at New York University (NYU). Though she focused on French history, literature and culture in college and graduate school, her curiosity about all things French dates back to her childhood.

“I began to learn French in the second grade in an all-girls school in New York, where I grew up,” she said. “At the time, speaking French was part of being a cultured young lady. I had wonderful teachers, and I really grew to love language and culture.”

That love, Silverman said, was magnified by her grandmother, Bessie Silverman, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who was a great world traveler.

“I was always fascinated by my grandmother as she took off on her journeys. She would bring me gifts and trinkets from around the world,” Silverman said. “She was a great reader and spoke Russian, Yiddish and English. Tales from her travels enthralled me.”

Silverman became a world traveler herself at 16, when her parents, recognizing her strong interest in language and culture, gave her the opportunity to spend a summer in France.

“I was entranced by everything about the experience — the food, the language, the customs, everything,” she said.

Other immersion experiences would follow, including a semester in France as a junior in college and a year between college and grad school, during which she taught English to French high school students in Avignon. These trips gave Silverman two important insights that would influence the arc of her career. As an undergraduate, she rented a room from a Jewish woman who had lived through World War II. “Madame Bloch” shared stories about her family’s survival during the Holocaust and gave Silverman the yellow star she was forced to wear during the Nazi occupation of France. This sparked Silverman’s lifelong interest in France’s Holocaust history and informed some of her future scholarship. Additionally, Silverman’s “gap year” in Avignon made her realize she both greatly enjoyed and had an aptitude for teaching.

Two consecutive years in France during graduate school followed. Silverman completed her doctorate in 1988 and joined the Penn State faculty the same year.

“I came to Penn State and never left,” she said. “I was on the job market, and the position at Penn State was open. It was a perfect fit for me because it focused on culture and society and gave me the opportunity to help build a graduate program with that emphasis.”

“For more than three decades, Willa Silverman has been a powerful force in French and Francophone studies as well as Jewish studies,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “She is a prolific scholar who has been a strong advocate for incorporating culture and history into language studies. As a leader, she has gone over and above — exceeding expectations and doing so with both energy and enthusiasm. A talented teacher and a valued colleague, Willa will surely be missed by her students and fellow faculty members.”

Silverman has published three books in her primary research area, French social and cultural history during the so-called Belle Epoque (1880-1914). She also has authored dozens of book chapters, scholarly articles and conference presentations and served in leadership roles for several organizations. She has garnered prestigious grants and fellowships to support her scholarship as well as several awards recognizing her work. She was a visiting fellow at the Van Gogh Museum/University of Amsterdam and received the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies. Silverman has taught courses ranging from "French Grammar and Composition" to "Cultural Traditions in French Cuisine" and from the "Dreyfus Affair in History and Memory" to "France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature."

Silverman credits her fellow faculty members and students for enhancing what has been a very rewarding career.

“I have had wonderful colleagues. It has been rewarding to build a program with them, one that focuses on a vision of excellence in teaching, research and mentoring,” she said. “I also have had outstanding undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have become faculty members themselves and are producing quality students of their own.”

“Willa strives for the best in all that she does — from her meticulous research to her innovative classes, from editing students’ texts to a beautifully set table and delicious meals,” said N. Christine Brookes, professor of French/world languages and cultures at Central Michigan University and one of Silverman’s former graduate students. “All of us who have worked and shared with her closely have come to know this as one of her many stellar qualities, and we are all the better for it.”

Reflecting on her proudest accomplishments, Silverman recalled study abroad trips to Paris with small groups of students. They visited Jewish neighborhoods, museums and other sites, including the Drancy internment camp, where Jews were confined before being deported to extermination camps. Additionally, they were able to meet with Holocaust survivors, “who are so very few in number now.” Silverman said these conversations had a profound impact on the students, on Silverman and on the survivors themselves, who were glad to have people hear their testimony.

“The trips were really powerful,” she said. “They helped make the reality of what happened during the Holocaust and other genocides much more tangible, and they brought us all a feeling of commitment to what the French call the ‘devoir de mémoire’ — the duty to remember.”

“Professor Silverman has been instrumental in making the Department of French and Francophone Studies the innovative and vibrant community of scholars and teachers it is today,” said Bénédicte Monicat, professor of French and women’s studies and interim department head. “She has brought rigor and passion to her work with undergraduate and graduate students and has been equally committed to working on behalf of the department. She will be sorely missed.”  

As she brings her Penn State career to a close, Silverman said she hopes she will be remembered for having “boundless enthusiasm” and for being both kind and rigorous as a scholar, a mentor and a teacher. In her retirement, she plans to continue to work on monographs in progress and, not surprisingly, “likely do some teaching, too.”

Silverman is also the proud mother of a Penn State alumnus. Her son, Benjamin Berkman, majored in French and economics and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at New York University.

  • SilvermanJourney

    Students in Willa Z. Silverman's 2019 course on France and the Holocaust tour memory sites in Paris with guide Flora Goldenberg.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Willa Z. Silverman
Last Updated June 18, 2021