When Seymour Siegler and Jack Needle founded the Center for Holocaust Studies at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft in 1979, the “center” consisted of one bookshelf in an outlying building.
Today, 33 years later, the center has a new name and a state-of-the-art facility, including a large gallery space, offices, storage, and a classroom with “smart technology” located smack in the middle of campus.
The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education, otherwise known as Chhange, celebrated its new facility on Nov. 18 with a reception honoring the founders, the Office of the Monmouth County Prosecutor, and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
Approximately 170 people, including about 30 Holocaust survivors, attended the program and toured the inaugural exhibit, “Recovering Memory: The Art of Claire Boren.” An additional 75 people came to the open house later in the day, according to executive director Dale Daniels.
The center was born of a professional development program given in conjunction with the 1978-79 television series Holocaust and taught by Chhange codirector Siegler, a psychology professor, and director emeritus Needle, a historian.
The center is now recognized as a leader in anti-bias education, aimed at both students and law enforcement agencies, as well as a repository of Holocaust archival items, all donated by local survivors.
Past president Albert Zager, who presented plaques to Siegler and Needle at the reception, noted in his remarks that for many years “the story of the Holocaust was only about horrors. Sy and Jack realized that the center’s focus should be on how humans survived those horrors, and even more importantly, their resilience.”
This philosophy extended to the design for the new center. “We made a deliberate decision not to follow the lead of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, with its concentration camp environment,” said Daniels in her remarks. “Instead, we decided to create a comfortable, inviting place for learning.” This is particularly important because over the years requests by teachers to bring their classes to the center have risen. “Now,” she said, “we can design curriculums in our own classroom using the most up-to-date technology.”
Daniels also previewed exhibits planned for the new gallery, including one on the Armenian genocide and, in the spring of 2014, “A Journey to Life,” featuring personal items donated by survivors. “Holocaust survivors are the soul of our center. And we never forget our responsibility for their keepsakes,” Daniels said.
The program also honored the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and Detective Dave D’Amico of its bias crimes unit for their dedication to fighting intolerance. Acting prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said he was grateful to Chhange. “We have partnered with the center for over 10 years, taken concepts from their presentations, and brought them back into the community.” D’Amico was lauded for his tireless work educating students and for creating programs to train police officers who are confronted with bias crimes.
Special mention was given to the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education and its chair, Philip Kirschner, for its ability to uphold and expand on the 1994 bill mandating Holocaust education in NJ public schools.
‘Reconnecting to the past’
The audience got a taste of the types of programs offered by the center when artist and survivor Claire Boren spoke. The Polish-born Rumson resident related how her suppressed memories of two years spent in hiding between 1942 and 1944 came to light through her artwork.
“When I immigrated to the United States in 1949, I didn’t want to think about the past. I just wanted to be like everyone else,” Boren told the gathering. “But in 1995, my past caught up with me.” She was taking an art class in mixed media and picking up pieces at random. After gluing them to the canvas, she said, she realized she had created a piece from a childhood memory: a public hanging she witnessed looking out a window. “After that, the memories started flooding back. I worked feverishly creating Holocaust pieces,” she said.
A painting titled The Hole evokes the memory of the three months when Boren and her mother hid in a small space dug in the dirt floor of a farmer’s barn. It was like hiding in “a grave,” she said, and after a while, she couldn’t tell if it was day or night and began to lose touch with reality. The artwork whose theme was provoked by that horrific episode, Boren said, “stayed in my basement for years. It was my nightmare.”
In an interview with NJJN after her talk, Boren elaborated on about her initial reluctance to face the terrors of her childhood. She noted that her late husband, Adam Boren, also a survivor, spoke about his wartime experiences all the time. “Friends told me they were afraid to ask because I gave off strong signals that the subject was off-limits,” she said. “My art enabled me to reconnect to the past.
“And I am grateful to Chhange for encouraging me to tell my story to educate others.”