Making a Difference at the Holocaust Center in Purchase, NY
Genocide knows no geographic or historical boundaries, but its numerous instances share a series of striking similarities.
“The first thing that genocidal governments know is that the world is not going to do anything,” says Donna Cohen, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center (HHREC) in Purchase, New York. Additionally, it’s often the educators that take a prominent position in spreading the party line on the subhuman status of the minority in question, says Ms. Cohen. HHREC’s mission obviously aspires to exist in stark contrast to that, be it taking a stand on Darfur or simply stepping up with a smile for the kid who sits alone everyday in the cafeteria.
“Our mission is to enhance the teaching and learning the lessons of the holocaust and the right of all people to be treated with dignity and respect. We encourage students to speak up and act against all forms of bigotry and prejudice,” she says.
Established in 1994, before the state mandate requiring that human rights be part of school curriculums, HHREC makes itself available to teachers who want to embark on in-depth study and share their knowledge with coming generations. “In our professional development conference, we have a program devoted to training teachers how to teach about the holocaust and human rights in their own classrooms,” says Dr. Marlene W. Yahalom, director of education at the Center.
HHREC also takes teacher workshops and seminars right to the schools when requested. But they don’t limit teaching strategies to just what is developed in-house: they also provide funding and grants, says Ms. Cohen. “If you want to do anything on human rights to improve the quality of your students, we will help you.”
Of course, hands-on teaching is most effective, so HHREC gives ample opportunity for young people to take advantage through their student institute. Taking on issues like hunger, torture, or the epidemic of child-soldiers, middle or high school students create fundraising events, or simply raise the level of awareness among peers and parents. “We’re in the substance business,” says Ms. Cohen. “The whole point is to make human beings feel like they can make a difference.”
In light of that, nothing is more inspirational than when a survivor addresses an audience as part of HHREC’s distinguished lecture series. “Any person who hears—it changes them forever,” says Ms. Cohen.
Additionally, as the number of living holocaust survivors dwindles, today’s students must assume their voice, and the importance and impact of this contribution is ever increasing. To this effect, Ms. Cohen and the Center have produced a documentary called, “Testimony of the Human Spirit,” which not only solidifies the stories on celluloid, but also teaches young people how to begin standing up in the face of injustice.
Still, she concedes that their efforts must begin with baby steps. “I wish I could start a smiling committee. Smile to somebody who’s down, you’ll see the difference it makes.”
Just as important, she hopes HHREC’s efforts more easily enable people to identify the subtle and often more dangerous signs of human rights abuse. In 1994, she remembers that The New York Times identified the unfolding genocide in Rwanda as a “tribal war.” Phrasing the conflict like a war between primitives where spears and stones were being exchanged, she says, made it easier to ignore.
Knowing there will always be more work to be done, she takes pride in where Holocaust awareness is today in comparison to her childhood in the early 1960s. “When I was growing up, nobody had this education,” she says.
She tries often to remind today’s young people of just how far awareness has come. Upon meeting a 21-year old filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary on HHREC’s “Garden of Remembrances” in White Plains, she had just that reflexive notion. In response, the young woman said, “I had a wonderful holocaust education.” At once, Ms. Cohen realized, “Oh my God, we have made a difference!” #