Holocaust Center Makes a Difference in Life of Community
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Coincidentally, the very day Education Update paid a visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, a leading regional newspaper with national reach ran a front-page piece on bullying in schools. To Beth Lilach, the senior director of education at the center, the headlined feature underscored the mission of HMTC, which, despite its name and nearby Children’s Memorial Garden, does not restrict itself to telling the tragic story of Jews murdered during World War II, or of state-sanctioned antisemitism in history. Indeed, the center has also taken on a broader charge — to depict, explain and prevent behavior such as bullying that all too frequently erupts as racial, homophobic and ethnic intolerance and genocide. In the words of center chairman Howard S. Maier, “the Holocaust did not begin with concentration camps and killing. It started with stereotyping, intolerance and prejudice.” This theme is impressively on display in gallery rooms along with Holocaust artifacts and mixed-media testimonials, not just to the Holocaust but to those who stood up against oppressors.
Located in an elegant neo-Georgian mansion set deep in the woods of Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove, the center, the former home of oil industrialist Harold Irving Pratt, still seems to be relatively unknown even though it has been in existence for 16 years, reopened several months ago after extensive renovation, and has been engaged for some time in significant community outreach. And not just in Nassau County. HMTC serves the greater New York City area, including Queens and Suffolk Counties, by providing free on-site programs and tours for schools, sponsoring lectures and conferences for adults, and offering traveling exhibitions.
The connection between memorializing Jews — and non-Jews, such as people with disabilities and the Roma — as well as others murdered by vicious regimes in the last century — and more recent victims of genocide in Cambodia, Burma/Myanmar, Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda, Iraq — is at the heart of the lessons the center would teach. This theme is only one feature that differentiates — and distinguishes — the center from other museums and educational institutions with similar goals. Another is its choice of teachers: survivors and liberators come to the center to talk about their experiences and to provide, by their very existence, inspiration. As Beth Lilach points out, however, time is running out. These eyewitnesses were children when history cast them in their roles, but of course their indelible stories are part of the center’s permanent exhibit of films, photographs and written accounts.
Begun in 1994 in response to a felt need expressed by survivors and their families who lived in Nassau County, the 2,500-square foot center has the advantage of scale. It is small enough to engage children and adults in manageable time periods. HMTC is essentially an educational institution, serving public, private and parochial schools, and to that end it has assembled an impressive array of age-appropriate curriculum materials that teachers can borrow for free. It also provides classroom space for tolerance workshops that follow presentations and tours. For example, the center has two DVDs for middle school and high school students that focus on survivors discussing how they suffered intolerance in their childhoods. Their narratives are set against a background of archival footage. One DVD is 14 minutes long, the other 15. Why the one-minute difference? Because a very graphic scene has been edited out for 5th-graders, Ms. Lilach says. Even so, as she notes, when she and Howard Maier look in on presentations, they can often hear collective gasps, even crying. The point, however, is not to terrify youngsters but to educate them, to hope that being at the center will constitute “life-changing moments” for them and to encourage their continuing interest (the center sponsors literary and art competitions), an important consideration as staff members discuss program plans for K through 4.
Another unique feature of HMTC of Nassau County is its offering of professional development tolerance programs for employers, educators, law enforcement and other professionals, such as school superintendents, curriculum directors, the North Shore-LIJ Health System employees, attorneys and physicians. The center also provides full-day training to every new recruit class in the Nassau and Suffolk County Police Academies.
It is important, Ms. Lilach points out, that the last gallery all visitors go through is one that emphasizes two critical lessons: 1) that liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 did not end tyranny, racism, antisemitism or genocide; and 2) that there were, are, and can continue to be “upstanders” — those who refuse to be passive in the face of intolerance and violence. Awareness is fine, action is finer. “There is no such thing as neutrality in terms of genocide.” HMTC of Nassau County is an important resource that all people should put on their must visit list. Now. #
100 Crescent Beach Road, Glen Cove. (516) 571-8040. http://www.holocaust-nassau.org