From Holocaust to Hope

In the Holocaust Center's soaring exhibition area, flat screens showing a continuous film and kiosks with photos, videos and text are geared toward educating a younger audience.

A new campus education center at Queensborough Community College uses the ultimate hate crime to teach the consequences of prejudice and the value of social responsibility.

For more than two decades, the state's only Holocaust repository housed at a college was tucked away in a windowless basement beneath the Queensborough Community College library in Bayside, Queens.

Now - after four years of planning and close to two years of construction - the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives has emerged from this obscurity in its new home atop a grassy slope overlooking the main entrance to the campus.

There the $6 million, 8,000-square-foot glass, steel and brick structure adjoining the administration building is the first facility everyone coming to the college sees, and that is by design. Queensborough President Eduardo Marti wanted it to be sited conspicuously.

"The first day I was being shown around the campus I saw the center, and I decided that it had to be taken out of the basement and placed in a prominent location on campus," Marti says. "It's not a memorial. It's a place where we show what happens when prejudice becomes institutionalized."

What happens, as history has documented, are horrors like those that are the focus of the new center: Six million European Jews and other minorities viewed as racially inferior were exterminated by Nazi Germany during World War II, an occurrence that Arthur Flug, the center's executive director, calls "the greatest hate crime ever committed."

Mindful that there is a resurgence of bias-motivated attacks in New York City and nationally, Marti says: "Having students from more than 130 countries in the 15,000 student body, I believe that using the lessons of the Holocaust to examine the consequences of unbridled prejudice is important for students attending our college."

With its new prominence, Marti says that the center will serve "as a constant reminder to our students and to the community of Queens the value that this institution places on educating current and future generations about the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping. It will be a beacon of civility for the residents of Queens," the most diverse county in the United States.

Because the facility "is about the root causes of prejudice, whether it be expressed in a massacre or genocide," Flug says, it acknowledges mass killings that took place in Armenia; Bosnia; Cambodia; Rwanda; Nanjing, China; and Darfur. All were hate crimes, he says, but the Holocaust was "the ultimate."

Customized multimedia and interactive displays in the center's box-like, glass-enclosed, 2,000-square-foot exhibition space present the story of the Holocaust - whose lessons will be used "to encourage awareness of and appreciation for the value of diversity, and to create a sense of responsibility among all ethnicities," Marti says.

Permanent features of the exhibition space include:

  • A wall designed as a cracked windowpane recalling Kristallnacht ("The Night of Broken Glass"), Nov. 9, 1938, when Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party unleashed anti-Semitism. Hundreds of synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and people were killed in streets that were strewn with shards of glass.
  • Gray cement flooring, a reminder of the bare floors of concentration camps.
  • Seven-foot-high kiosks with photographs, video and text that record Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust.
  • Touch screens that enable visitors to hear survivors now living in Queens talk about their experiences, and the voices of student interns who interviewed them for oral histories.
  • Four flat screens showing a continuous movie about the origins and development of the Holocaust.
  • A peach-colored wall of Jerusalem stone where, with a wave of the hand, you can scroll through images of families who escaped and learn about their history.
  • Listening stations where visitors can hear survivors' stories on phones and type a response.
  • An open trapdoor in the floor, suggestive of the crevices in cellars, sewers, barns and attics where Jews hid. Visitors can hear, rising from below the trapdoor, voices of survivors describing their escape.

At night, the glass building becomes a glowing beacon, beckoning people to come
in and learn about what occurred during the Holocaust and how to keep it from
happening again

"The new space enables us to present the Holocaust in a very powerful way," Flug says. "Rather than get standard newsreel footage that we would use in explaining the stories, we use the stories of Holocaust survivors in Queens." At night, "the glass box is a shining light that beckons people to come in and study what went on and how to avoid it."

There are also changing exhibits - currently "From the Star of Shame to the Star of Courage: The History of the Yellow Star," which traces the lengthy history of the yellow Star of David that the Nazis forced Jews to wear to mark them in public.

The kiosks can be aligned to form a Holocaust mural and moved so that the space also serves as an auditorium with a capacity of 150 for lectures, films, receptions and concerts. Warm-weather presentations can be hosted on an open terrace.

Starting this semester, student volunteers are being trained as docents and teamed with Holocaust survivors to conduct guided tours of the exhibit. "Survivors can tell their story using the exhibit, and students can get a better understanding of the Holocaust and develop relations with the survivors," Flug says.

Construction of the expanded center - originally housed in two large rooms - was paid for with public and private funds. The architect, Charles Thanhauser, says it was "a challenging CUNY commission, because you don't want to make it seem like a celebration of death. On the other hand you don't want it to be something that ignores the somberness of the topic…. We did want it to have a hopeful feeling."

The new facility, which bears their names, is the legacy of Queens College alumna Harriet Kupferberg, who died last year, and her husband, Kenneth Kupferberg, who died in 1993. Her gift of $1 million to the college in 2007 kicked off a fund-raising campaign for a $5 million endowment that will ensure the center's programs "operate in perpetuity," Flug says. "I don't think the project would have happened, both financially and the energy that went into it, without her," Thanhauser says. "I just wish she'd seen the end of it."

Flug and a two-member staff run the center with help from 24 Holocaust survivors who volunteer. The archives include 5,000 books - some written by Queens residents; 1,200 videos; 500 videotaped interviews of survivors; dissertations; periodicals; paintings and carvings by world-renowned artist Rosemarie Koczy, who was a child victim but survived; and 1930s art created by U.S. cartoonists depicting Superman and other superheroes battling Hitler. Use of the holdings is open to all.

Traveling exhibitions and a speakers bureau are among the center's public offerings. Educational brochures for the exhibitions are made available to schools nationwide as learning materials. On special occasions, a quartet of Juilliard School graduates associated with the center performs music composed during the Holocaust.

It's all part of a holistic education of students to make the Holocaust relevant to a younger audience. Queensborough offers courses on the Holocaust and genocide as electives.

"We don't address the Holocaust as simply a lesson in history," says Flug. "We address it as a way of presenting our students with real-life skills that have to do with understanding who they are, the society they're in, and what their rights are. The survivors' stories have an amazing impact on them. They really don't think something like that could happen. That becomes a powerful way of creating lessons of social responsibility."

A hate-crime curriculum for schools statewide grew out of that recognition. It was developed by the center two years ago in collaboration with the New York State Division of Human Rights, the New York City Department of Education, Teachers College at Columbia University and the New York City Police Department.

"The most important message I would want people to take away when they visit the center is that we must all speak out when we see prejudicial acts, and that includes bullying in schools," says Marti. "It starts with bullying."

Flug comments: "There was no recourse for the millions lost in the Holocaust, but that's not true for the victims of hate crimes today."

The center is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m; it's open Sundays for special events. All are free. For more information, go to www.qcc.cuny.edu/hrca.