This year, the Center for Holocaust/Genocide Studies at Drew University is celebrating its 30th anniversary. At the time of its founding in the 1990s, there was a rising trend of Holocaust denial in America. Today, as history education is under attack on a national scale, the Center remains vigilant in its mission to “commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust and to celebrate those who survived; educate upcoming generations to ‘remember for the future;’ and to dedicate our energies to ongoing research and scholarship;” all this in pursuit of preventing further tragedies—those rooted in bigotry and hatred—within and beyond Drew’s community. While it would be impossible to cover every accomplishment that the individuals who have dedicated their passion to the Center have achieved, this week’s article will be devoted to celebrating the work that the Center has done for communities around the world and will provide an overview of the Center’s 30-year history.
Education lies at the heart of the Center and its history. Professor of Psychology Ann Saltzman began to teach a course on the psychology of the Holocaust in 1990 while Professor Emerita Jaqueline Berke of the English department started teaching courses on the literature of and related to the Holocaust. In an interview with the Acorn, Saltzman noted that the study of the Holocaust had become a point of passion for both herself and Berke. In the ‘90s, the women worked to combine their passions and their courses to pursue intersectional Holocaust education. According to a May 1992 edition of The Acorn, the women came together to establish the “Holocaust Studies Committee” to achieve this goal.
Saltzman’s and Berke’s work extends beyond the classroom and into the campus community. In the last week of April 1992, The Committee, as it was known at the time, invited Sister Mary Noel Kernan, the director of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill College, to Drew’s campus. The lecture was planned to commemorate Yom Hashoah, an annual day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust, and focused on intersectionality between the Christian community and non-Christians. Kernan’s hope was that Holocaust education could serve as a call to action for Christians to stand with their peers against hatred and prevent further tragedies. In the words of Kernan, “No one is exempt from moral responsibility.”
Kernan’s mission was echoed in the work of Saltzman and Berke, who would receive a grant from the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education to continue their community-oriented work. As a side note, the New Jersey Commission was originally established in 1982 by previous Drew University president Thomas Kean as the very first Council of Holocaust Education in the country. Berke served as the first Center Director with Saltzman as first Associate Director and then Co-Director. The Center began hosting annual Kristallnacht conferences in 1993 and continued to offer annual Yom Hashoah commemorations. The conferences, which have explored a variety of interesting and nuanced topics, have been well documented and preserved in the archives on Drew’s campus. The Center would also go on to host various trips to places such as the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to foster education both inside and outside of the classroom.
Connection with the wider community continued to expand and culminated in the creation of the first Leave-a-Legacy writing group intended for Holocaust survivors. Led by Berke, Professor of English Robert Reedy and Dr. Ellen Gerstle, the group was created for people without professional writing experience and aimed to record the stories of those affected by the tragedy. Some members of the writing group had never before shared their stories and the space created by the Center allowed them to process their own histories and share their experiences with others. The stories, written by 30 New Jersey and New York residents who had survived the Holocaust, were published over time as part of the Center’s publication “Perspectives on the Holocaust” in 1999, 2000 and 2004; all the stories were then compiled into a book entitled “Moments in Time” in 2005. The collection of writing was published in collaboration between Drew University and the state Commission, and physical copies of the book were distributed to middle and high schools throughout New Jersey with the intention to “eliminate bigotry, prejudice, bullying, and intolerance—all breeding grounds of Holocaust/Genocide,” according to a note included in copies of “Moments in Time.”
In 1995, Saltzman further integrated her Psychology of the Holocaust class with the Madison community by inviting local resident Imre Farkass to speak to her students. Farkass, originally from Hungary, served as a rescuer during the Holocaust. According to his account, he “personally rescued 13 people during the Nazi occupation of Budapest in 1944.” Copies of Saltzman’s students’ responses to Farkass’s story can be found in the Drew Archives. In 1997, after months of coordination from the Center led by Saltzman, Farkass was nominated to receive the title Righteous Among the Nations. This title is given to an individual who saved the lives of Jewish people during the Holocaust by Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Martyrs and the Heroes Remembrance Authority. The ceremony in which he was given the honor was held in the Baldwin Gymnasium and served as an impactful way to close out days worth of educational conferencing. The Center worked to contact those whom Farkass had saved, submit written testimonies and file the proper paperwork to ensure that Farkass received the title he deserved. For more on Farkass’ fascinating story and its impact on the Drew community, visit the Drew Archives website.
Sadly, in 2017, the influential Berke passed away. Those who have worked with her in various capacities throughout the Center searched for a way to honor her legacy. Saltzman and Reedy had worked together to hold the second and third writing workshops, but by the 2010s many Holocaust survivors had passed away. The second writing group was a six-week program designed for the children of survivors. Many of the members of the group had begun the endeavor by focusing on the stories of their parents, yet the writing was intended to help them tell their own stories. As Saltzman states in an interview, the space the group created allowed the children of survivors to build a community around their shared identity. Several themes quickly emerged from the writing, one of which Saltzman describes in the foreword of one of the anthologies. She writes: “The unresolved grief of their parents had textured their ability to attend to their children’s needs.” Collections of the essays produced by the groups can be found in two anthologies published as “Second Generation: Seventeen Holocaust Essays” and “From Generation to Generation: Essays by Children of Holocaust Survivors.”
One of the members of the group, Center Board of Associates Co-Chair Dr. Eva Vogle, had been working with the Center for close to 20 years before actively partaking in the second round of writing workshops. In an interview with The Acorn, Vogle reflected on her experience as a part of the group, saying the “second generation had a moral obligation to keep their stories alive” and to honor their parents. Most importantly, Vogle said, “ [their parents] were people and not numbers,” and the writing workshop focused on how to tell their human stories. Vogle said that the workshop allowed her to determine how to best tell the stories of survivors and the new generation contending with these issues. This sentiment continues to be reflected in the work of the Center as well as in Vogle’s work.
The Center continually works to serve its mission. Real-world actions beyond New Jersey have also been key components of the Center’s effort. For example, board member Joyce Rilley has worked extensively to build a curriculum around the Darfur genocide. Riley’s actions also extend beyond the classroom: she has organized conferences on the topic and aided in refugee resettlement projects for those displaced by the tragedy. Saltzman also noted that students and others involved with the Center have been able to attend marches in D.C. and New York City in efforts to demand action from U.S. policymakers in regard to the Darfur genocide. This tangible action allows the Center’s mission to reach beyond the classroom and have a real-world impact.
On Sept. 12, the Center held their 30th anniversary celebration for those who have been involved with the Center. President Hilary Link and several vital members of the Center’s board, including Director Dr. Joshua Kavaloski, Director Emerita Saltzman, Center Coordinator Dr. Angela West, Board Member Joyce Riley, Co-Chair Vogle and Co-Chair Dr. Larry Greene, spoke at the event. The importance of education was echoed by each speaker. As politicians at state and national levels wage war on books and curriculum in the U.S. in an attempt to distort the true history of injustice around the world, it is important to continue supporting the Center’s mission.
For those who are interested in supporting the Center, there are several events you can attend each year. These events include educational webinars and lectures. Students may also explore the various publications put out by the center; copies of work from those involved in all three writing groups can be accessed in the Drew Library. Students can also pursue a minor in Holocaust Studies, which has proven to be valuable for Drew students post-graduation. Some of the projects that students have produced in classes associated with the program have been included in digital resources of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The Center hopes that the students who actively interact with them are able to take the Center’s mission statement with them out into the world and continue the legacy of those whom they represent.
Jocelyn Freeman is a junior majoring in history, English and Chinese.