Jewish Journal

Finding a future for Holocaust memory

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Nov. 3, 2010 at 6:00 pm

“Lonely Hope,” by Bailey Smith. Smith was in the eighth grade at Lakeside Middle School in Irvine when her photograph won first prize in Chapman University’s 2010 Holocaust Art and Writing Contest, middle school division.

“Lonely Hope,” by Bailey Smith. Smith was in the eighth grade at Lakeside Middle School in Irvine when her photograph won first prize in Chapman University’s 2010 Holocaust Art and Writing Contest, middle school division.

In the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library, books on the era line the shelves and display cases are filled with artifacts of pre-Holocaust European Jewish life. There’s a yellowing tallit, a velvet curtain from a Munich synagogue, an elegant apron and a first-edition Dutch copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” There’s also a crisp digital photograph of a single green pear balanced on a metal rail, a train track. Into the pear’s shiny green skin is carved a Star of David.

This photograph represents the future of Holocaust memory.

It is the work of an eighth-grader from Irvine and has been on display since April in this home to Holocaust studies on the fourth floor of Chapman University’s main library. The picture, one could argue, offers one possible response to a question Holocaust studies experts have been struggling with for years: How will we teach the Holocaust once its survivors are no longer alive?

The urgency of this question has been growing with every passing year, and Chapman — a small, private, Christian-affiliated university in Orange County’s eponymous city of Orange, which counts only 350 Jews among its 5,000 students — might not seem like the first place to look to find answers. But on this anniversary of Kristallnacht, which occurs Nov. 9, it is worth noting that Chapman might offer an outline for one way forward.

Over the past decade, the school has established a permanent chair in Holocaust education, a research center in its main library building, a regular visiting professorship and a Holocaust history minor for undergraduates. In August, the university received national attention when it announced that the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, had agreed to spend one week every year for the next five years teaching on campus and working with Chapman students.

Next week, more than 100 people are expected to attend the annual interfaith commemoration of Kristallnacht at Chapman. And last year’s art and writing contest drew about 300 entries from 101 schools in and around Orange County — including the photo of the pear by Bailey Smith, which is inspired by a story told by Ilse Diament of having been given a can of pears by a British doctor when she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

That all this is happening in Orange County — still home to some of the world’s preeminent Holocaust deniers — is surprising. That professor Marilyn Harran — who came to Chapman to teach religious studies as a Protestant Reformation scholar — is the driving force behind these efforts could seem even more unexpected. But unlikely though it may seem, Chapman’s undertakings represent a strategy to keep alive the memories of Holocaust survivors.

“Our members, some of whom are in their 90s, get on a bus and schlep an hour, or an hour-and-a-half to go to these programs,” said William Elperin, the longtime president of The “1939” Club, a Los Angeles-based Holocaust survivors’ group. For the past 11 years, The “1939” Club has co-sponsored a Holocaust Art and Writing Contest with Chapman, and its members regularly work with Chapman students.

“The reason they do that,” Elperin said, “is because they are treated with the utmost respect there. They have volunteer students who meet the bus, who escort the survivors, who provide golf cart transportation for those who have trouble walking — they do everything they possibly can to make sure the survivors feel good.”

The “1939” Club first ventured into Orange County because of the prevalence of Holocaust denial there. “It’s fairly quiet right now, but the so-called Institute of Historical Review is based in Orange County,” Elperin said, referring to the organization the Anti-Defamation League Web site says was “once a leading voice in the international movement to deny the Holocaust and vindicate Hitler and the Nazi regime.”

“There was very little counterweight to the deniers in Orange County,” Elperin said, “and we thought it was important to have a meaningful presence there.”

Starting in 1987, Harran began devoting a section of the school’s “War, Peace and Justice” freshman seminar to studying the Holocaust. She found that this section of her class was what engaged her students the most, which is what led her to shelve her own previous academic work to focus fully on Holocaust history.

It was a major change for her. Before coming to Chapman, Harran taught in the religious studies department at Barnard College. She also spent a couple of years at a Reformation institute outside of Stuttgart, Germany, and her decision to study the darkest period of that country’s past didn’t sit well with a few of her colleagues. “Some of my former professors,  when I started to do this, thought I had lost my mind,” Harran said.

Holocaust studies weren’t as common then as they are now. Although the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust” had advanced public awareness somewhat, it was the release of “Schindler’s List” in 1993, and the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier that same year, that began turning the attempted genocide of European Jews into the widely studied and discussed topic it is today. In 1988, Harran had to teach herself about it. “I started buying books,” she said. “I own about 3,000 now, just on the Holocaust.”

As a non-Jewish autodidact on the subject, Harran more closely resembles her mostly non-Jewish students than the Holocaust survivors she works with. As a result, she embodies the message she tries to impart — that remembering the Holocaust is a universal obligation that can change any person, no matter what her background.

“It wasn’t my family; it wasn’t part of my experience,” Harran said. “By doing what I do, it represents to the students what I believe.”

A select few Chapman students get to engage with survivors directly. “It’s a privilege to meet a survivor,” Harran said, and she believes this is why the 25 or so spots in her undergraduate classes are always full. “They don’t take the course for me,” she said. “They take the course for the people they are going to meet.”

Harran is overly modest. She has received awards for her teaching — including one from the Anne Frank Center in 2008. At 62, she wears her jet-black hair in a sharply chiseled bob, a few strands of which she dyes a contrasting color. In October, those locks were a deep purple, matching her eyeglasses and blouse. But if there lurks an inner punk behind Harran’s professorial exterior, she doesn’t let it show more than that.

Harran encourages her students to engage with their very serious area of study in creative ways. Take the three Chapman seniors who will graduate in the spring with minors in Holocaust history: One is a filmmaker, another a dancer, the third a musician. Together they plan to create a work of performance art using recorded survivor testimony that will combine the different art forms. “They have to make the stories their own for [the memories] to survive,” Harran said of her students.

Everyone dedicated to preserving and transmitting Holocaust memory knows that introducing survivors to as many young people as possible simply isn’t sufficient — or sustainable. “We have to start looking at the words themselves, the testimonies by the witnesses as another form of memory,” said Holli Levitsky, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Jewish Studies Program.

Levitsky calls Harran her mentor (“I study everything [Harran] does,” Levitsky said), who like Harran, teaches courses related to the Holocaust to mostly non-Jewish students at a university affiliated with a branch of Christianity. Levitsky, too, is concerned about what will happen after the last survivor dies. “It worries me that soon these people will be gone, and what will happen to the memory?” Levitsky said. “I don’t want it to simply end up in a textbook. That’s the wrong way to go.”

That’s part of what makes projects like Chapman’s Holocaust Art and Writing Contest so exciting. “This is the student’s memory of the memory,” Harran said pointing to the photograph of the pear, which won first prize in the middle school division last year, an honor that came with a cash award and an expenses-paid trip for the student, a parent and a teacher to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Like all the contest entries, Smith’s “Lonely Hope” responds to a survivor’s videotaped testimony. Smith photographed the pear after watching a video of Diament’s testimony. 

Diament, 82, was at the awards ceremony at Chapman in March, one of about 80 members of the “1939” Club who attended. In the contest’s first year, students surprised the survivors by lining up to get their autographs. “They actually felt like rock stars,” Elperin said, noting that the practice has become institutionalized since then. And the event is moving for survivors as well. “I think it affects the members of our group even more so than it does the students, because it validates their experience,” Elperin said. “They see that people are really interested in what they went through and concerned in making sure that it never happens again.”

But sometimes, that which affects an older generation might not have the same impact on members of a younger one. The tallit on display in the Chapman library, for instance, belonged to “1939” Club member Cantor Leopold Szneer’s father, a tailor who was killed in Auschwitz. “He didn’t say, ‘my father’s tallit,’ “ Harran said, remembering Szneer’s reaction in 2009 upon first seeing the object behind glass, gently lit and draped as if hanging over a person’s shoulders. “He said, ‘my father,’ and tears began streaming down his face.”

To another viewer, however, that tallit might not look like much more than an aging piece of cloth. The same could perhaps be said of Case Takata’s pea coat. When Takata took the stage in the Chapman auditorium in March to accept the award for his prize-winning essay “Intertwined,” the 10th-grader from Santa Ana wore a standard-issue U.S. Navy coat given to his grandmother by a guard at the U.S. internment camp where she was held during World War II. Knowing that she, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, had been held in camps “behind barbed wire, guarded by machine guns,” Takata was uniquely prepared to hear and respond to “1939” Club member Leon Leyson’s story of survival, and in particular the part about the bolts of cloth that Oskar Schindler gave him and his family at the end of the war, when usable and tradable goods like cloth were easier to exchange than paper money was.

“I wear the coat often,” Takata wrote in his essay, which he read at the awards ceremony to a crowd of 1,000 people, including his grandmother. “I am wearing it now. The Leysons’ cloth symbolized hope and one man’s humanity in a time of inhumanity. My grandmother’s coat symbolizes the intolerance of the U.S. then and the directive for a responsible future passed to me, her grandson.”

Who can say what will move a person to the point of tears? The power of the art and writing contest stems in part from its open-endedness. “It’s truth and memory as perceived by the student,” Harran said.

If the memories of the Holocaust are to survive another generation, it is the youngest among us who must learn its lessons. They also must apply these lessons to their own lives, no matter whether their grandparents are Jewish or Japanese American. As Takata put it in his essay, “These memories speak to the suffering of people of all races, and of all religions, particularly children. We must all remember.”

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