By Jenna O’Donnell
LINCROFT – A new exhibit on the Brookdale Community College campus explores three of the 20th century’s worst genocides through the eyes of local survivors and their families – and also challenges visitors to think about the important lessons to remember about the Holocaust and genocide in today’s world.
“Sadly, it is so relevant,” said Dale Daniels, executive director at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (Chhange). She and project co-director Susan Yellin spent the past decade putting together “Journeys Beyond Genocide: The Human Experience” exhibit, located in Brookdale’s Bankier Library Building. “In the past several years we have seen such a rise of racism and anti-Semitism that we feel we need it even more now.”
Visitors to the exhibit, which opens April 8, will not find the emaciated photos of survivors that many might expect to see at a Holocaust museum. Instead, one has an opportunity to trace the full life of each survivor through family portraits, mementos, letters and other keepsakes to get a sense of vibrant and ordinary lives uprooted by hatred and preserved through the intervention of neighbors, communities and sometimes strangers – all driven to act during times of great danger and hardship.
The idea for the exhibit came from the community members, both sur vivors and descendants of sur vivors, who had shared personal testimonies of what it was like to live through the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
“The main driving force in bringing these three genocides together was that we had survivors – or descendants of survivors in the case of the Armenian genocide – in our community,” said Yellin. “Since we wanted to tell the human story and the survivor’s perspective, not the perpetrator’s history, it was really important to us to go with these three genocides.”
Chhange, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit independent from the college, was founded 39 years ago by two professors with a mission to educate people about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights and to eliminate racism, anti-Semitism and bias. That mission has been supported over the years by local survivors whose testimonies and keepsakes have long brought these stories to life for the many students and community members who have heard them.
Those survivor stories are preserved and enriched with interactive displays featuring family heirlooms and collectables with notes from the survivors to add context – along with historical anecdotes, newspaper clippings and propaganda to help illustrate how hate, bias and indifference can lead to tragedy – all of which has been vetted by Brookdale Community College staff for historical accuracy.
More than 100 archived items make the journey of survivors intensely personal at times. John Woolf, a Chhange volunteer whose family lived in Hungary, donated love letters exchanged between his grandparents, which were thrown out the window when the Nazis came for them and preserved for his family by their Christian neighbors. He also shares a concentration camp uniform, worn by his mother in Auschwitz. Erica Tichauer Rosenthal, another local survivor, donated a book with a note written by her father before she departed Germany for England in 1939 on the Kindertransport, an organized rescue that moved nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children prior to the outbreak of World War II.
These stories, many of which center around survivors who were children during the genocides, will be available in audio for visitors to hear survivors recount their experiences in their own words.
In the audio, which visitors will access using tablets at the exhibit, Rosenthal talks about arriving with her father at the train station, where he was told by the SS that he had to sign paperwork. While the parents were away signing papers, their children, including Rosenthal, were brought on the train and sent away – many of them never to see their parents again.
“She very painfully talks about how she never got to say goodbye to her father,” said Daniels. “So it’s those kinds of things that children especially can really understand.”
Such lessons of how hate and bullying can lead to terrible abuses of human rights are always present in the exhibits and have resonated with the students who have had a chance to preview it.
“The students get it,” said Yellin. “This is what happens when you allow dehumanization to take place and you do nothing. Those are the parallels and pitfalls that we’re trying to avoid.”
In the midst of this dehumanization and suffering, the survivors’ stories always of fer glimpses of hope, resilience and of the difference people can make by choosing to stand up for others. Survivors made it through – often thanks to those in their community who risked their own safety to help them – and were able to pick up the pieces and continuing living.
Several Holocaust survivors shared photographs and crucifixes they wore – mementos of their time hiding in plain sight as Christian schoolgirls in Poland. Eugenie Mukeshimana, a Rwandan survivor, shares a story of a stranger who hid her in her house during the genocide at great risk to herself and her own children. Consolee Nishimwe, another survivor of the Rwandan genocide, shared a letter written to her mother by a man named Sanani who was her neighbor, asking her forgiveness for killing Consolee’s three brothers. Remarkably, noted Yellin, Consolee’s mother forgave him.
“It is a weighty topic,” said Daniels, noting that visitors should know that the exhibit does not aim to upset people with the stories, but to inspire them. “This is an uplifting exhibit because it talks about survivor resilience and it talks about the importance of being heroes, leaders and role models. The smallest acts can make the largest difference.” That point is driven home by the final section of the exhibit, “Stand Up for Human Rights” where students and visitors can explore one of the many human rights crises in their own communities and became empowered to make a difference, too.
“Journeys Beyond Genocide: The Human Experience” opens to the public on April 8. Visitors are encouraged to contact Chhange at chhange.org or 732-224-1889 to arrange a tour of the exhibit.
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