SALEM – “We don’t say ‘never again’ anymore.”
The sentence landed like a lightning bolt when it was delivered by Salem State University Professor Christopher Mauriello. The weight of his comment – containing the symbol of determination that has been used for decades about the Holocaust – speaks volumes about the state of the world today.
While Mauriello is realistic about the potential for acts of inhumanity on a large scale such as what happened to Jews in Eastern Europe, his mission as director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State is to shed light on those horrific mass slaughters and their aftermath so that people are alert to the possibility they could happen again.
The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies operated for decades in Peabody, where it was founded by Harriet Wacks and the late Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz. Weitz, who was born in Krakow, Poland, survived five death camps – including Auschwitz – before, near death, she was liberated at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945. After the war, she settled in Peabody, and in the early 1980s, she began to talk about the Holocaust in public.
Soft-spoken and possessing a delicate beauty to the end, she was the heartbeat of the Holocaust Center Boston North, delivering her story wherever she went and by extension, that of millions of others. She lived to make good on her vow to her father, “I Promised I Would Tell,” which is the title of her book of poetry. A member of the council advising the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, she died in 2012.
The Holocaust Center Boston North held 2,000 books and video, and included more than a dozen local survivors’ testimonies.
After her death, the center moved to Salem State University. It is located in the university’s Enterprise Center, and is open to the public.
The archives brought from Peabody are held separately in the university’s Frederick E. Berry Library. There is a Holocaust photo collection, donated papers from survivors and families, and notes from Weitz’s book, speeches, and private correspondence. On the second floor are the Harriet Tarnor Wacks and Jill and Scott Sullivan Holocaust and Comparative Genocide Book Collection.
To walk through the doors at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and see the small glass display case holding artifacts makes one stop and wonder. It holds a framed sign stating “Juden Verboten, Deutches Über Alles,” (Jews Prohibited, Germans Above All). A yellow Jewish star labeled “Juif” was a mandatory badge the Nazis forced Jews to wear to distinguish themselves from gentiles.
There is currency from the Theresienstadt concentration camp donated by survivor Eric Kahn of Swampscott. A prayer book and other artifacts are courtesy of soldiers who liberated the concentration camps in 1945.
Included in the trove of documents that were transferred from Peabody to Salem was a box that was only recently opened. Inside, Mauriello found notebooks of post-World War II interviews with Polish-Jewish children who survived and were living in displaced persons camps in Germany. Now, Beverly residents Harold and Zelda “Zellie” Kaplan have funded research to translate the notebooks. The project has just begun and promises to yield new information about the aftermath of that period in history seen through the eyes of children.
The center also opens its doors to middle and high school educators and students for lectures, films, and discussions with faculty. It partners with faculty to develop workshops on difficult topics such as gender discrimination, violence, racism, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ issues, and Islamophobia. It keeps the memory of Holocaust survivors alive through the Holocaust Legacy Partners program, in which individuals have been trained to tell the stories of survivors through public lectures, workshops, and classroom presentations to ensure that future generations will learn from the past.
Mary Kiley, a teacher at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, is one of a dozen Legacy partners. “She continues to tell Sonia’s story to her classes and others,” said Mauriello. “Last spring, Anne Richardson presented the story of her survivor, Netty Vanderpol, at the Firehouse Theater in Newburyport. We have more work to do to continue and expand this important program.”
The center offers a graduate certificate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and it provides study travel seminars to international sites of war, genocide, and human rights abuses. Led by Salem State professors, groups visit the sites where the Holocaust unfolded. This summer, as he has done before, Professor Dan Eshet will lead a student group to Rwanda focusing on its culture, history, and the genocide of 1994, in which a massacre of at least 800,000 people occurred over the span of 100 days.
The 12-day trip is primarily located at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which houses and educates orphaned and vulnerable Rwandan youth. It is funded in part by the Cummings Foundation.
Anna McCoy, a history teacher at Pingree School in Hamilton, called the center’s impact on her teaching “profound.”
“My connection to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has allowed me the opportunities to meet with survivors and their families, to travel to Germany, to participate in professional development workshops, and to attend lectures from leaders in the field,” she said. “After each one of these experiences, I return to my course syllabus and adjust it to reflect what I have learned.”
McCoy developed a unit of study in one of her classes to help students grapple with the fact that millions of deaths in the Holocaust did not occur in the death camps. “Rather, they were conducted face-to-face and often facilitated by neighbors,” McCoy said.
McCoy has brought her students to Salem State to have discussions with Mauriello and Eshet. Her high school students’ writings have been showcased at a Yom HaShoah commemoration hosted by the Holocaust center.
“All of this helps my students to connect to the here-and-now element of genocide studies rather than to just see these catastrophes as events of the past,” said McCoy.