Steven Shapiro, electronic resources librarian at Montclair State University, has been involved with programming for numerous Holocaust-related events on campus.
“I do a lot of reading,” he said in a phone interview. “When I come across relevant material, I make a mental note.”
That’s exactly what happened while he was reading author and journalist Alex Kershaw’s 2010 book, The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II.
“I had read other books on Raoul Wallenberg, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a community program on him.’” Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Nazi Hungary, led one of the most successful efforts to save Jews, rescuing tens of thousands.
Now, marking the 70th anniversary of Wallenberg’s mission to Budapest, MSU has launched an ambitious, multi-disciplinary series of public events on his life and accomplishments, including lectures, an exhibit, a concert, panel discussions, and films.
Beginning with the exhibit that opened Oct. 6, the series continues through Dec. 18. Events are being held around the Montclair area, including in synagogues and churches as well as on the campus.
Highlights include a talk at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield by journalist and author Marianne Szegedy-Maszak about her own family’s journey through the Holocaust in Hungary, a screening of The Last Days by Steven Spielberg with a lecture by Columbia University professor Ivan Sanders at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, and a concert of klezmer music from the Hungarian Empire by Yale Strom and his Hot Pstromi band at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair. Kershaw himself will give a lecture at the university on Wallenberg’s life and rescue efforts.
The exhibit features artistic renderings of deceptively sunny postcards that Jewish deportees were forced to send to their families to hide the horrors of their actual living conditions; it will run through Dec. 18.
Wallenberg’s fate is still unknown. He was last seen with Soviet officials in 1945 before disappearing mysteriously in Russia. He reportedly died in a Soviet prison in 1947, although details were never revealed.
The events are supported by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, Bnai Keshet, Temple Ner Tamid, the Consulate General of Sweden in New York, and the Montclair Public Library.
Shapiro conceived the exhibit, and Marina Cunningham, executive director of international affairs at the MSU Global Education Center, organized the series.
Together, they settled on three themes that pull the series together: human rescue, the Holocaust in Hungary, and the achievements of Hungarian Jewry.
“We want people to be aware of what went on and to have a discussion, especially our students and other young people who might not know what Raoul Wallenberg did or about the Holocaust in Hungary,” said Cunningham.
She added that the series carries particular significance today in light of “the growing anti-Semitism in the world and especially in Europe. It’s a good time for younger people as well, for whom the war is ancient history. I don’t think there’s that much information out there on Wallenberg — maybe in Jewish circles, but not among our students.”
Her goal? “We want people to know this history, to understand what a person like Wallenberg — one person, a Swede, a young man who had nothing to do with Judaism — could do…. And we want people to understand the horror of it all — and the Jewish contributions to Hungarian culture.”
Kershaw’s talk on Oct. 23 will be attended by the consul general of Sweden.
Cunningham added that they chose venues around Montclair to increase attendance. “Sometimes the campus is difficult to access. We thought by including churches and synagogues and the public library, we could get another kind of audience.”
In addition to the Global Education Center and the Harry A. Sprague Library, the event was mounted by the MSU College of the Arts, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, School of Communication and Media, WMSC Radio, Jewish American Studies Program, Office of Equity and Diversity, and the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Project.