The Colgate Scene
Learning, memory, conscience
Students moved by encounters with Holocaust survivors
|By Rebecca Costello|
In November, 90 Colgate students, accompanied by members of the staff and faculty, visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. [Photos by Jim Burger]
"She asked me, `What does it mean to you as a young person to see all of this?'" said Bancroft. "I told her that it was really powerful and intense, but I would not begin to think that I can understand what it would be like to have that as my bed for three years. She thanked me for being there and for passing it on. It was kind of weird that she would be thanking me when I felt I should have been [thanking her]."
This personal interchange between a student and a Holocaust survivor was only one of many that took place in early November when a group of 90 Colgate students, accompanied by faculty and staff members, visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. By coincidence, the museum was celebrating its tenth anniversary that weekend, and thousands of Holocaust survivors had come to participate.
Picking up common threads
"When I was at Colgate, I took a course on Israel. A student in the class denied that the Holocaust happened. That really stuck with me," said Dr. Robin Gottesman '78, whose daughter is Kate Levine '05. Her own father, Gottesman said, had a deep interest in history and often repeated George Santayana's quote, `Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Gottesman had been interested in making a gift to Colgate, and was aware that West Point, her father's alma mater, sponsors a student trip to the Holocaust Museum. "I thought helping to fund a trip at Colgate would be a fitting way to memorialize my father, who died two years ago, and do something beneficial for students. It's a way of showing the importance of tolerance, and if students can really be charged by this experience, they may become personally interested in not letting it happen again."
Among the Colgate travelers were students in two classes taught by Steven Kepnes, the Murray W. and Mildred K. Finard Professor of Jewish studies: Faith After the Holocaust, and the Core distinction class Modern Genocide and Holocaust, which he teaches with Peter Balakian, the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the humanities and author of a recent New York Times best-selling book on the Armenian Genocide (see page 16).
In addition, the trip was the first major event for the Sophomore Experience/Arts of Democracy program, part of the university's new Vision for Residential Education.
"The Arts of Democracy program focuses on current issues, philosophical issues, and issues such as social oppression," said Raj Bellani, dean of the sophomore year. "This was the first step in starting a dialogue. Students are learning about the Holocaust, and this trip was meant to bring it alive for them." More than 70 sophomores participated.
Tim Byrnes, professor of political science and the 2003-2004 director of the Center for Ethics and World Societies, brought the students in his first-year seminar, which he specifically designed to be tied to the center through this year's theme, `Politics and World Religions.'
The Picker Gallery was yet another sponsor, according to Jane Pinchin, vice president for academic advancement and interim director of the gallery, because "our art galleries should be engaging students in thoughts about what museums do in contemporary society."
Noting the many connections, Pinchin pointed out another way in which the trip "picked up several threads at Colgate. In its first year, the Center for Ethics and World Societies topic was `Art out of Atrocity,' which was the beginning of the study of just what Robin Gottesman put on our plates, and that year Peter Balakian was the director. With the theme this year of `Politics and World Religions,' the center is again examining this most important issue."
Students read the names of lost European Jewish communities etched into the glass panels lining a bridge in the permanent exhibition of the Holocaust Museum.
A growing awareness
The museum visit began with an introduction by educator Dan Napolitano, who provided historical context for the difficult subject matter the students would encounter as well as a discussion of the thought and planning that went into the architectural design and function of the building. (The museum defines the Holocaust as the period from 1933 to 1945, when Adolf Hitler's rise to power led to the systematic murder of millions of people in Europe, including six million Jews, at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators until the surrender of German armed forces ended World War II.)
"What we are currently doing seems normal," Napolitano told the gathering. "It makes total sense for university students to be interested in the Holocaust and to come to a museum entirely dedicated to it. But it only seems normal because it's 2003. It was a little bit familiar in 1993 . . . it wasn't even conceivable in 1973 . . . and in 1953 it would not have even come up."
Napolitano highlighted four significant dates that helped lead to the level of awareness in the United States that made the creation of the museum possible. First, the initial dialogue about the "Nazi Terror" began during the 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. "Millions and millions of people have been systematically murdered and no one knows how to talk about it," he said, "And to be true, nobody really wants to."
Then came the arrest in 1960 of Adolf Eichmann, the "Architect of Death," whose trial was broadcast on television. "For the first time, the world opens its eyes and says, `what is this history all about?'," said Napolitano. With the 1978 television miniseries "The Holocaust," he continued, Hollywood put a definitive name on the massacre and "woke up the American public, so much so that President Jimmy Carter said, `we must memorialize this history.' It would take 15 years, but Carter's deceptively simple order established the beginnings of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum." Since the museum's opening in 1993, "the Holocaust has been permanently marked in the American experience," Napolitano said. "Ten years later, it is common for universities to have intelligent courses about it."
Before the students began their exhibition tour, Napolitano stressed that this history is one of prejudice, racial hatred, and violence. He left them with a final thought, a hint of how the museum's architecture and layout were designed to reflect its subject matter and mission.
"When you first come in, you don't know what to do. You get in line and go up an elevator into a darkened passage. You are twice removed from your original setting. The architect wanted that to happen. This is a history about people whose lives were turned upside down and taken away," he said. "This is hard history. Take the time."
The main exhibition takes the viewer through dimly lit, winding hallways where thousands of photographs, informational captions, and artifacts line the cases, and small theaters cycle brief films on specific topics such as the history of anti-Semitism. At various points, displays such as the Auschwitz bunks as well as a railroad car and a bleak room full of the shoes of victims are meant to evoke a visceral reaction, and brighter, open areas with abstract art on the walls provide visual counterpoint to the dissonance of the experience.
With the large number of survivors among the crowds visiting that anniversary weekend, often accompanied by family members, the exhibition experience took on an added dimension for all present as, time and again, visitors became witness to survivors who were not only reliving their own terrible stories, but also making new connections between past and present. One man was heard to cry out that he had found his own father in a photograph of a ghetto in Poland.
After touring the exhibition, the students reconvened with Napolitano for an intense, heartfelt discussion of what they had seen and heard. Their questions ranged from the museum's emphasis on certain historical elements, to the Nazis' true intent, to how survivors themselves have responded to the museum. The session ended with a short video about UN peacekeeper Romeo Dellaire's experience with the recent acts of genocide in Rwanda.
"Our hope is that the Holocaust Museum is creating a movement giving voice to victims throughout history," said Napolitano. "Survivors tell us, `make sure the young people know the story.' Memory, education, conscience. Your life can be those three missions by remembering this."
Following their time at the Holocaust Museum, one group of students led by Pinchin and Kepnes were the first visitors ever to the future site of Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, where they met with Rouben Paul Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute. Byrnes's class took a side trip to tour the Capitol building, thanks to another alumni connection [see A behind-the-scenes tour].
Raj Bellani, dean of the sophomore year, and Catherine Regan, assistant director of the Center for Leadership and Student Involvement, kconfer about the day's schedule before the Colgate group enters the museum.
The impact on students
Student response to the trip was overwhelmingly positive, with many saying they wished they could have spent more time at the museum and in the city itself.
Alisa Levine '06 felt that the experience "gave our class a chance to bond and meet fellow sophomores in a unique setting," she said, adding, "Being a Jewish student at Colgate, I felt honored to have a trip dedicated to learning about an event so close to me personally as the Holocaust."
"Since I never been to the capital before, understanding the layout and significance of the buildings and monuments was amazing and inspiring," said Saraswati Singh '06, who remarked that she came away from the Holocaust Museum with a deeper understanding of the history's complexity. "It also made me think about what I would have done had I been alive and there during that time period."
Nathan Skinner '06 said that "the idea of hatred really struck me. I tried to imagine what went wrong in the minds of people that allowed them to justify the killing of an entire people group and thought about what could go wrong in our minds in the present day, and how we might avoid that."
A member of the Modern Genocide and Holocaust class, Lisa Rogoff '04 said that although she had been to the Holocaust Museum before, "this trip was so much more meaningful. I felt like I had a good background on the history [this time]. Since the trip, I have been seriously considering doing my honors thesis on an aspect of the Holocaust."
Reflecting on the impact the Holocaust Museum experience had on her, Andrea Smith '04 spoke of watching as a survivor held her own tattooed arm up to a life-sized photograph of number-tattooed forearms: "I learned more in that split second than in the entire trip, seeing how it's not just a museum, but that there are people who are still living with this."
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