Do you think it’s human nature that people have to hate other people, or is it something you learn?” This question was asked to docent Linda Milstein by a seventh-grade girl while Milstein was guiding students through an exhibit on three historic genocides at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.
Milstein responded that it is natural for people to want to be in groups, but that doesn’t mean one group has to hate another. It’s when an individual or individuals crave political power that they often dehumanize the “other” and treat them as a threat.
During the three genocides covered by Chhange’s permanent exhibit — the Holocaust and the Rwandan and Armenian genocides — “that’s exactly what happened,” said Milstein, a Princeton resident and former vice president at The Jewish Center there.
Milstein holds master’s and doctoral degrees in adult and continuing education from Rutgers University; she considers her work as a docent an extension of her education and of her professional experiences as vice president of outreach, business, and community development at the college, where Chhange was part of her portfolio.
In that role, Milstein learned the critical importance of Holocaust survivors as master teachers in schools and community settings. Testimonies of survivors of all three genocides continue to be a key component of Chhange’s education programs.
In the case of the Shoah, Milstein told NJJN, those personal stories “make people understand the ‘Six Million’ number. It is six million individuals, who had six million lives. Everything the survivors had before was destroyed by the Holocaust, and they had the resilience, ability, and courage to move forward and create new lives for themselves.”
That impact is central to the exhibit, which documents the lives of victims and survivors before, during, and after the tragic events.
After Milstein retired in 2012, she helped Chhange with writing grants and board development, but once the exhibit was put up in 2018, she said, “I wanted and needed to be a docent, especially because of everything happening in our own country — the increase in hate speech, hate acts, and violent acts.
“In terms of doing something more active to make a difference,” she said, “for me, this is what does it.”
As a docent, Milstein has focused largely on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the Hutu political elite targeted the Tutsi and which resulted in the brutal slaughter of an estimated one million people. Much of the killing “was very personal,” said Milstein. “It was one neighbor killing another, using machetes and clubs.”
One key common factor in all the genocides is dehumanization, Milstein said. Perpetrators can’t think of their victims “as human beings. In the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsis were characterized as ‘cockroaches,’ an insect that should be eliminated.”
After viewing the exhibits, visitors are asked to champion human rights by committing to a specific action that can make a difference — for example, not purchasing items made by victims of human trafficking.
Some of the students who visit the exhibit may not be as engaged as others, Milstein said, “but I feel that even if they don’t do something right away, sometime in their lives they will remember it, and it will affect the way they behave.”
Milstein also expressed the hope that the students’ impressions will trickle up to their parents, because, she said, “in most cases where you have a child who expresses hate speech or is a bully, it is from what they hear at home.”
Milstein was part of the committee that helped set goals for the exhibit, reviewed its thematic structure, and discussed how technology would be integrated. She also worked with the executive director and board to plan the move to a larger space on campus that could accommodate Chhange’s extensive library and archives and, most importantly, the exhibit itself.
When teachers in one school expressed concern about an increase in hate speech and acts and asked Chhange “to present a program that would help their kids understand what the type of speech they were using could lead to,” the Building Bridges program was initiated. Combining in-school activities with a visit to the exhibit, the program’s aim is to help build a culture of mutual respect and understanding in area schools that have experienced an uptick in hate speech, anti-Semitism, and violent acts.
In one Building Bridges activity, a science teacher shared with her students the diary of a girl whose family was forced to live in a ghetto in Europe. After retrieving rations for her family, she was so hungry, she took a bite on the way home, leading to a severe reprimand from her father.
After hearing this story, the students were given a list of the rations for the girl’s family of five, which were expected to last two weeks. “It was the same amount of calories that each child [in the class] would consume in a day and a half,” Milstein said. “They understood in a very direct way in science class how these people were starving.”