‘Appalled’: Pitt professor compared mask-wearing to the Holocaust


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

A Pitt student wears a mask.

By Betul Tuncer, Assistant News Editor

During a Politics of Water class, a Pitt instructor made a comment comparing mask-wearing to “being gassed in Auschwitz” — the largest of the German concentration camps, where the Nazis killed more then 1.1 million people. Shocked by this comment, a Jewish Pitt student expressed their uncomfort with the incident a day later on Reddit.

“I really just felt appalled to be honest. I’m not necessarily the most religious, but I’ve seen the pictures my family has of relatives we lost during the Holocaust,” the student, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an interview. “Beyond that, given the current rise in antisemitic rhetoric across the country and how right-wing groups often compare COVID mandates to Nazi Germany, it made me even more nervous.”

Vasili Rukhadze, a visiting lecturer of political science, began his class last Tuesday complaining about how his mask made him uncomfortable while lecturing, according to the student. The student said this was the second time Rukhadze went on a “lengthy rant” about how his mask made it hard to breathe, which made them more concerned about this behavior.

“I was already a little on edge as someone that has high trust in science and has had to do much physical activity in masks,” the student said. “But then during this rant he said something that really took me aback, he said that talking with a mask on was ‘like being gassed at Auschwitz.’”

Pitt spokesperson David Seldin said the University is aware of the incident, and the instructor’s use of “inappropriate and offensive language” in class. He encouraged students and others in the Pitt community to report incidents relating to harmful and offensive rhetoric and actions.

“The faculty member’s comments stand in direct opposition to our values and the appropriate offices have engaged with both the faculty member and students,” Seldin said. “As a University, we remain steadfastly committed to creating an inclusive environment that allows everyone to succeed. Events like this underscore how important this work continues to be.”

Rukhadze did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Pitt News.

Antisemitism has been on the rise in the United States, reaching its highest-recorded level for the last 12 years in 2020. The Tree of Life massacre, the deadliest antisemitic attack on American soil, took place in 2018 in the nearby Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and a man held a Texas synagogue hostage last month, further heightening tensions among American Jews. Some politicians and public figures have compared COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates to the Holocaust, despite the vast differences between mandates for public health and a genocide.

Melanie Silver, president of Pitt’s Hillel Jewish Student Union, said if the incident did indeed take place at Pitt, she condemns the instructor’s comments as an “act of antisemitism.”

“We would like to remind students that Hillel at Pitt is here as a resource to any student witnessing or facing antisemitism,” Silver said.

According to the student, it took them some time to realize what the instructor had said, given that they wouldn’t expect him to say such a thing. The rest of the class was either quiet or “gave an obviously nervous laugh” in response to the instructor’s remark, the student added.

The student expressed their discomfort and concern to Rukhadze via email, and posted on Reddit shortly after, trying to figure out if the University could take action against him if such an issue arises again. While the student doesn’t think that the incident is a “fireable offense,” they believe that some form of education regarding the topic and uplifting Jewish voices would be helpful.

According to the student, when they expressed their concern to Rukhadze over email, he responded, “Is this e-mail directed to me?”

Following their original post, the student shared an email apology that Rukhadze sent to the class, in which he claimed the remark was a “humorous attempt in class today to complain about my mask blocking my air,” and apologized for potentially offending his students. He noted that he had no intention of comparing mask-wearing “to the greatest genocide in human history,” and was “surprised” and “hurt” by the incident.

Rukhadze said in the email apology to the class that he understands the “perils of dangerous and divisive rhetoric” as an immigrant himself. He was born in Georgia, a former Soviet republic located on the Black Sea northeast of Turkey.

“I have been on the receiving end of such rhetoric many, many times and needless to say, I never engaged and never will engage in such a language,” Rukhadze said.

The student said they posted about the incident on Reddit to seek advice and support from others, and reported Rukhadze to the dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the political science department and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which was recommended to them on the Reddit thread.

“I decided to post on Reddit about it to get some advice and avenues for potentially reporting him, also no one said anything in class so I was looking to see if anyone else felt offended by his comments and maybe we could support each other,” the student said.

After reporting the incident to the political science department, the student met the day after the incident with the department chair. The student said the meeting went well, and the chair “seemed supportive” of their concerns. According to the student, the department is still working on creating options for the student, if they don’t feel comfortable returning to Rukhadze’s class.

The student said they wished Rukhadze had handled the situation better through a “genuine” apology.

“Digging his heels in like that really makes it hard to give him any benefit of doubt. I mean he was given a chance to try to make things right and was still trying to contend he did nothing wrong,” the student said. “If he had just made a genuine apology and clearly explained that he knew why what he did was wrong and if he had seemed to care at all about the concerns I would feel a lot better.”

The student said despite trying not to be “paranoid” as a Jew on campus, this incident reminded them of how common antisemitism is. They added that they are glad Pitt has a strong Jewish community that can support them and others.

“Thankfully this is my first time experiencing something like this at Pitt, obviously I’ve [faced] antisemitism in my life in the past,” the student said. “But I think the strong Pittsburgh Jewish community and the recent history of the City have led to a relatively inclusive environment for Jewish students.”

After the publication of this story on Feb. 6, The Pitt News received a Feb. 11 letter from an attorney for Rukhadze stating that “Dr. Rukhadze was falsely accused of comparing wearing a mask to the holocaust by a troubled student on reddit.”

This story has been updated.