Growing up as a “good Catholic girl” in Union, Melinda Hanlon said she learned a fair amount about the Holocaust in the high school history courses she took in parochial school.
But the subject did not become personal for her until she met her future father-in-law, Kenneth Hanlon, who had served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Sgt. Hanlon was part of the army’s 11th Armored “Thunderbolt” Division (part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army), which was one of the units that liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria at the end of the war.
Sgt. Hanlon, who died in 1997 at 75, rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but his daughter-in-law learned enough to stir her interest, which eventually brought her to play an active role in a program at Seton Hall University, the Roman Catholic institution in South Orange, which places education about the Shoah at the center of its mission to strengthen understanding and relations among Jews, Christians, and people of other religious traditions.
Hanlon, a resident of Watchung and a career teacher and administrator in the Catholic parochial school system, was recently named chair of the board of trustees of the university’s Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies (SRTF). It was an unexpected Mauthausen connection, she said, which led to her volunteer work with the fund.
A decade ago, Hanlon’s husband and teenage son attended a Holocaust program at an area library. They struck up a conversation with one of the speakers, a Jewish survivor of several concentration camps who had been liberated from Mauthausen, telling this individual about Sgt. Hanlon’s role in the rescue. From this, Melinda Hanlon’s interest was piqued, and she started meeting more members of the survivor community, and with board members of the Sister Rose Thering Fund.
After joining the board a few years later, and eventually serving as vice chair of the fund, Hanlon became chair this past summer, succeeding Deborah Lerner Duane, who served in the position for five years. As chair, Hanlon will be responsible for raising funds, working with the SRTF’s professional staff, and coordinating its 25th anniversary activities this year.
The fund, which operates within the university’s Jewish-Christian studies graduate program, is named for Thering, a nun of the Dominican order who was an activist, educator, and scholar. In the spirit of the advances inspired by the Catholic Church’s 1965 Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate,” a declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, Thering spent her career as a pioneer in forging Jewish-Catholic relations and fighting anti-Semitism in the Church. She came to Seton Hall in 1968 and led 54 tours to Israel for teachers and lay leaders over the next three decades. She retired in 2005 and died the following year.
SRTF’s outreach activities include scholarship aid for educators who enroll in Seton Hall’s master of arts in Jewish-Christian studies program, an annual Evening of Roses that celebrates the achievements of “notable humanitarians,” an annual middle and high school students’ essay contest, a pair of end-of-semester round-table discussions, and an endowed lecture series. Earlier this week a panel composed of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors discussed “The Next Generation: Will The Story Survive?” as part of the fund’s eighth annual Dr. Marcia Robbins Wilf Lecture.
Hanlon never had the opportunity to meet Sister Rose, but the fund’s emphasis on social justice and education, she said, appealed to her.
“Education is transformative,” a key to changing people’s beliefs and attitudes, said Hanlon, who now serves as president of the Academy of the Holy Angels, a women’s Catholic high school in Demarest.
“Since our inception 25 years ago, the Sister Rose Thering Fund has supported approximately 400 teachers” with scholarships, Hanlon said. “This translates into an outreach impacting more than 400,000 students in their classes.”
Education about the Holocaust is especially needed today, she said, when anti-Semitism is on the rise in many European countries, surveys indicate that a growing number of young people in the United States have little knowledge about the Shoah, and intolerance toward many minority groups is on the rise in this country.
“It’s certainly challenging. It makes education all the more important,” Hanlon said. “Today, more than ever, the influence of teachers on the lives of their students is critical.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.