December 28, 2006
Marilyn Harran: A Modern Righteous Gentile
Unbeknownst to her, his wife was a Holocaust survivor whose charcoal drawings depicted the horrors she had witnessed. A rendering of dead babies' bodies being stacked like lumber underscored for Harran the Holocaust's horror and brutality. From that moment on, she made a personal mission of bringing the Shoah to light out of the dark recesses of hidden nightmares. For Harran, who is Protestant, keeping these memories alive is nothing less than a human imperative.
"I want to create a generation that never believes some people are more human than others," she said.
A diminutive woman with an easy laugh, Harran, now 58, is a professor at Chapman University in Orange, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Over the past two decades, largely through her efforts, Chapman has come to offer several courses on the Holocaust; it also hosts annual lectures on the subject and even offers a minor in Holocaust history.
In 2000, Chapman opened the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and established the Stern Chair in Holocaust Education, which Harran holds.
In April 2005, again at Harran's instigation, Chapman opened the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library. The renowned Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, after two years of coaxing by Harran, attended the library's dedication ceremony.
With the help of her supporters, Harran "has been able to place awareness of the Holocaust at the center of Chapman's intellectual life, and, perhaps even more remarkably, as a topic of regular attention and concern in Orange County," said David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.
William Elperin, an attorney and president of the "1939" Club, an organization for Holocaust survivors and descendants that has supported many of Harran's endeavors, goes even farther in his praise.
"She is the person most responsible for transforming Orange County from a Holocaust denial center to a Holocaust education center," Elperin said.
Sitting in her Chapman office surrounded by books and a photo of Wiesel, her hero, Harran said she spends about 100 hours per week on Holocaust-related activities. She teaches three classes on the subject, arranges for guest lecturers and oversees her students' work on an ambitious survivor project she hopes will lead to publication of a book detailing survivors' experiences. She also participated in the publication of "The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures," which has sold 200,000 copies.
Looking forward, Harran dreams of establishing a visiting scholars' program at the university and growing the Holocaust library's small collection, although raising the needed money might prove difficult, she said, given her distaste for fundraising.
Harran admits her "obsession" with the Holocaust has taken a toll on her personal life, but she believes it's a small price to pay. She hopes that maintaining a focus on the Holocaust might encourage students and others to speak up against present-day atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere.
Still, she wonders whether she has done enough.
"I hope I've made a contribution," Harran said.