Seventy years ago, Allied troops rolled into Nazi concentration camps and started uncovering the extent of the Holocaust’s horrors.
Seventy years later, amazing stories of courage and survival against all odds are still being told, heard, and appreciated — in some cases, for the first time ever. And new generations are still struggling with the questions this historical episode leaves in its wake: How and why did this happen? And, most importantly, how can we prevent it from happening again?
In this context, Wagner College has launched an effort to establish a Holocaust Education and Programming Center.
Staten Island is the only borough of New York City that does not already have a Holocaust center, notes Lori Weintrob, professor of history and director of this new initiative.
“This is something the community really needs at this particular moment, when Holocaust studies are slowly disappearing from curriculum of public schools, and we’re losing survivors,” says Weintrob. “Yet there still are survivors who can inspire students with their stories of courage and determination and resilience.”
The Chai Society, a group that has supported Jewish life at Wagner College for the past 12 years, is in full agreement. They have sponsored a rabbi in residence and scholarships for Jewish students, and now they are focused on raising funds to establish the new center. Dr. Ron Avis, a Staten Island dentist who is a co-founder and former Chai Society chair, made a lead gift of $100,000 toward Wagner’s Holocaust center.
“This center is a dream, a place where the history and the memory of the Holocaust will not be forgotten,” says Dr. Avis’s son, current Chai Society co-chair Dr. Victor Avis.
Rescue and Bravery
Weintrob is particularly interested in connecting students with Holocaust survivors who live in Staten Island — she knows there are at least 40, and probably as many as 75.
“This is something that Wagner College students and younger students can really get excited about, because amid the tragic stories and the loss of family and the conditions in the ghettos and the camps, there are also stories of helping each other, of rescue, of bravery,” Weintrob says.
During last academic year, Wagner student interns began documenting these stories, teaching in four local schools, and bringing Holocaust survivors to the schools to speak directly to the children and youth of Staten Island.
One of the Wagner student interns and teachers was Julia Teichman ’15. A psychology major and president of Hillel at Wagner, she connected Holocaust history to a contemporary issue that the kids could relate to: bullying. “They really get the importance of standing up to bullying and not letting bullying happen.”
Teichman also participated in the first Wagner trip to Germany and Poland, as part of Professor Weintrob’s course, Confronting the Nazi Past. In March, the group of 18 students and community members traveled to Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, and Auschwitz to view Holocaust sites, memorials, and museums, and meet with people to talk about past and present Jewish life.
Studying the Holocaust, Teichman says, has helped her connect with her own history: “I have family that perished during the Holocaust and family that survived the Holocaust, so it’s part of my history. So essentially I was confronting my own Nazi past.”
A Moral Compass
For other students, the course and trip made Holocaust history become alive and relevant in a way they had never experienced before. “This is my first time getting away from the books and getting to see the topics and experience them first hand,” says Leslie Lopez ’17. “It’s not in the past, it’s still here today. I think it’s really important to apply it to today. Because if we see what happened before, we can try to correct it so it doesn’t happen again.”
For Weintrob, this is the essence of the value of studying the Holocaust: “The Holocaust story can become central to a 21st-century education, a moral compass in times that are fast changing and when young people might not know how to define ethical leadership.”
Documenting Tragedy and Survival
“The Holocaust Education and Programming Center is important because it documents the tragedy, the horror, and the epic survival of those who came through the Holocaust,” says President Guarasci. “It is also important to give witness to the fact that these kind of things still occur in different populations throughout our world today, and that we need to educate young people to be prepared to encounter that and be prepared to defeat that kind of thinking and behavior.”
Professor Weintrob’s students researched the materials for a fascinating exhibit at Wagner in the spring of 2015, “Tragedy and Resilience: Holocaust Survivors of Staten Island.” Curated by Weintrob and Lauren Citarella ’17, the exhibit documented the stories of 16 Holocaust survivors. (A selection is seen on this page.) These materials will become the permanent collection of Wagner’s Holocaust Education and Programming Center.
One striking story is that of Rachel Roth, who was born in 1926 and grew up in Warsaw, Poland. After the Nazi occupation of Poland in the fall of 1939, her father — a respected journalist — was quickly targeted and forced to flee to Palestine. The remaining family members were forced into the Warsaw ghetto, where Roth suffered hunger and endured forced labor.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis deported and killed all of her close family members. Still working, Roth managed to smuggle in a few weapons used in the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. The Nazis deported the survivors of that struggle, and Roth faced hard labor, illness, and deprivation in Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
A born storyteller, she sustained her fellow inmates’ hope by telling them about the Shabbat dinners in her home before the war. One woman made Roth promise to write about her experiences if she survived — and she did. Her book is entitled Here There Is No Why. She was reunited with her father after the war, and she married and raised five children in Staten Island.
In March 2015, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Roth spoke at Lavelle Preparatory Charter School and at Wagner College, in one of a series of talks by Holocaust survivors and experts.
Sara Signorelli M’15 made photographic portraits of Roth and the other Holocaust survivors for the exhibit. “It is really inspiring to meet people who have gone through such tragedy and shown such courage and to meet them now when it’s so far in their past and they are full of life,” she told the Staten Island Advance.
“You look at Rachel Roth, you see the sparkle in her eye, then you see the tattoo on her arm; it’s shown without sadness or defeat.”
Credits: Story by Laura Barlament. Portraits of Rachel Roth, Gabi Held, Romi Cohn, Arthur Spielman, and Brenda and Moritz Perelman by Sara Signorelli. Headline background photo by Leslie Lopez. "Jude" star and Torah fragment from the collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.