The exhibit is small but powerful. Seven panels link the massacre of the Assyrian people in Iraq in 1933 to the coining of the word “genocide” by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.
In turn, the inaugural exhibit at the Museum of Human Rights, Freedom, and Tolerance deals with contemporary genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and Bosnia.
“From a Crime without a Name to Genocide” ran for a week in April in the campus center of NJIT: New Jersey’s Science & Technology University in Newark, the first public event for a project founded by four former refuseniks from Livingston.
Igor Kotler, Boris Shapiro, Alexander Mushkin, and Luba Sindler launched the museum concept in 2008 in an effort to promote the values they fought for as activists in the former Soviet Union and appreciate as immigrants to the United States.
“We were able to rebuild our lives here,” said Kotler. “Tolerance is very important to us because we knew what it means to live without tolerance, and we appreciate very much this country.”
All four emigrated when they were 31, in 1987. Three of the four were friends in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg; Sindler and Kotler did not know each other but formed a bond when they met on the plane leaving the former Soviet Union.
Kotler holds a doctoral degree in history and has spent the last 12 years working in Holocaust studies and education at museums. He documented Holocaust survivor’s stories for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles and most recently serving as senior historian at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City.
His vision is to create a new kind of museum about genocide, one that transcends a single ethnic group’s pain in favor of a more universal message.
“We have many Holocaust museums, and it’s very good,” he told NJJN at the exhibit. “But I decided the Holocaust story should be told in conjunction with many other stories — in the context of America. Many people [are] living here and hundreds of languages are spoken.”
The museum will aim to foster tolerance by creating conversation among people of all backgrounds and cultures.
“It’s going to be in a very protected, friendly environment for people to interact, to talk to each other, to have different speakers, and to learn about each other,” said Kotler.
Plans call for the museum to have a permanent location in Newark, which Kotler views as “the political and cultural heart” of New Jersey.
In addition to exhibitions, the vision of the facility includes three major divisions: one that will highlight refugee experiences; another that will focus on genocide, persecution, and prejudice and will serve as a kind of reference library or resource for experts; and a school of cultural diversity that will offer courses for children and adults.
The inaugural exhibit will be shown again at a 2011 conference on forgotten genocides to be held at Rutgers University.
The wheels started turning for Kotler several years ago when he saw an exhibit about the rape of Nanking at a conference in California. Several “brutal” photos had their effect. “I was moved. I have seen so many pictures of what Nazis did in Europe, but this was something different. And I realized there is something else I need to know and feel,” he said.
Meanwhile, while his wife, Alla, was working for Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest in East Orange, she started sharing with him the stories of other immigrants she met. They were from places outside his experience — places like Cameroon and Haiti and Liberia.
“It all started to come together,” Kotler said.
Shapiro, executive director of technical services at NJIT, is the treasurer and senior financial officer of the museum. Sindler, a concert pianist, is director of cultural outreach.
Mushkin, product manager for the Dialogic Multimedia Platform in Parsippany, is the museum’s vice president and director of communications and public relations.
Kotler, who is working on the museum full time, is its president and executive director.
For the opening exhibit, Kotler’s research led him to what is known as the Simele Massacre, which led to the deaths of 3,000 Assyrians in northern Iraq in 1933. An earlier massacre at the end of World War I had claimed as victims an estimated two thirds of the Assyrian population, and those atrocities, together with the 1915 massacre of Armenians in Turkey and events in Poland caught the attention of Raphael Lemkin, who, as a legal scholar based in the United States, coined the word “genocide.”
The Armenian and Assyrian massacres “were a turning point in his evolution in thought,” said Kotler.
NJIT officials said the exhibit was a good match for a school whose 9,000 graduate and undergraduate students represent 125 different countries and every religion.
“We’ve never had an exhibit like this,” said NJIT Campus Center director Donna Minnich Spuhler. “We’ve had student exhibits that talked about different aspects of tolerance and acceptance, for Black History Month, or on women’s issues, but we’ve never had an outside group do something on genocide and tolerance. It was a no-brainer for us.”
The effort attracted the attention of an Assyrian Christian church in Yonkers, NY. Its minister brought members of his congregation to the exhibit opening, where he spoke to the gathering.
“This exhibition is a kind of a warning,” said Kotler. “There are no small tragedies.”