Remembering to never forget

  • Remembering to never forget

Remembering to never forget

Remembering to never forget

by Barbara Baals


First, Natalie Morris held the yellow star, a tangible symbol of discrimination and hatred toward Jews during the Holocaust. Then, she looked into the soft eyes of Alice Kraus.

“She was very at peace,” Morris, a junior history major, said. “She had no hate. She didn’t exhibit any victimization.”

It wasn’t always that way.

“At first, I hated it. I jammed it in a drawer. I wanted to spit on it,” said Kraus, whose paternal grandmother, a generous woman whom she adored, wore the yellow star. Her grandmother died in a concentration camp, a victim of Nazi experiments. Kraus lost three grandparents and four uncles to the Holocaust.

She almost lost her father, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp. Had it not been for her uncle’s pleas to her parents to escape Germany, Kraus, then only four, also could very well have perished.

“I am, of course, one of the incredibly lucky ones,” Kraus, 84, said. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”

In November, Kraus ’79 brought that message—and her family’s story—to Rowan as part of a commemoration marking the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Presented by the student organization of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (RCHGS), Rowan Hillel and Chabad at Rowan, Kraus’s talk helped the Rowan community learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust, when approximately 13 million people—6 million of them Jews—were slaughtered by the Nazi regime.


Terror, courage and forgiveness

In 1938 during Kristallnacht, known as the Night of Broken Glass, the Third Reich destroyed more than 7,500 Jewish businesses and hundreds of synagogues in Germany and annexed areas.

A successful clothing store owner, Kraus’s father was one of approximately 30,000 Jewish men removed from their homes and businesses, arrested and sent to concentration camps during that single night of terror and violence. Remarkably, her father ultimately escaped Buchenwald by hiding in a ditch during a work detail. The others in his group, who tried to run into a forest to escape, were gunned down by the Nazis.

Wearing a cap to mask his shaved head, her father found his way home on foot. Boarding a ship bound for Cuba, he stayed there nine months before emigrating to America.

Meanwhile, Kraus, an only child, escaped with her mother in 1940. Implored by her Uncle Herbert, her father’s brother, to leave Germany—“If it hadn’t been for him, I would have died,” Kraus said. “He was adamant that we must leave.”—the pair escaped by way of Moscow, Siberia, China, Japan, and Hawaii en route to California. Eventually, the family was reunited in America.

“I have such a love for this country,” Kraus said. “It saved my life.”

As Morris listened to Kraus, she was moved by her kindness, her grace, her resilience.

“I’m impressed at how survivors are able to be so forgiving. It shows me that we need to move forward. We can’t hold hate in our hearts forever.”

Morris, who helped Kraus digitize some of her records and artifacts, plans to pursue a doctorate in European history with a focus on Holocaust and genocide studies. She knows that people of her generation need to educate their peers about the genocide atrocities.


Learning from past and present

A 2018 study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany reported that 22 percent of millennials say they’ve never heard of the Holocaust.

“Mrs. Kraus asked me if I have any connection or ties to the Holocaust,” Morris said. “I said I didn’t. She said, ‘You are the inspiration because this was generations ago and, yet, you want to teach it… to educate others.’”

Morris does. And so do dozens of Rowan students, who, because of the interdisciplinary work of the RCHGS, have been inspired—and emboldened—to educate themselves, their peers and others about historical and modern-day genocides.

Founded just three years ago, the RCHGS is a collaboration between the College of Humanities & Social Sciences, the College of Education and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. The center serves as the focal point for students, faculty, teachers and community members to learn the history and lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, such as those in Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur.

Students, including Morris, intern with RCHGS, working with Stephen Hague, center director; Jody Russell Manning, program director; and Jenny Rich, research and education director. All three—Hague and Manning hail from history, while Rich teaches in interdisciplinary and inclusive education—share an abiding passion for the work.

Hague drafted the initial white paper that led to the creation of RCHGS. He’s a former museum curator who worked and conducted research for more than a decade in the U.K.

The center thrives for a variety of reasons, Hague said. Chief among them is the intellectual engagement—“We do some really, really interesting things,” he said—and, of course, the cause.

“Inherently, is there anything more important than thinking about what human beings can do to one another and facilitating what we can do to be better to each other?” he said.

The center is the academic home for Holocaust and genocide studies in Gloucester County. Its robust academic year calendar boasts upwards of eight events monthly, including book club discussions, remembrance nights, guest talks by genocide survivors, research talks by scholars from Rowan and other universities, films, presentations and performances. Most are open to the public.

Each year, a noted scholar delivers the Dr. Paul B. Winkler Annual CHSS Lecture, named for Winkler, the late executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and a titan in the field. On March 7, Taner Akçam of Clark University, the preeminent scholar on the Ottoman-Turkish Genocide of the Armenians during World War I, will deliver the lecture.

Each spring, the center presents workshops for area teachers to help them better teach about the Holocaust and genocide.


Grandmother’s story

On a spring day in 2008, Rich sat down with her grandmother and told her she was not leaving until her grandmother shared her own story of survival. Both of Rich’s maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Her grandfather, who died when she was five, was a member of the Jewish partisans, a group that lived in the woods and fought the Nazis.

Her grandmother, who lived in the Ukraine, survived with her father when the rest of their family was killed and buried in a mass grave. She and her father lived beneath the floorboards of a barn, surviving on a potato or a piece of bread daily for years.

Before their talk, her grandmother, who died seven years ago and to whom she was very close, wouldn’t discuss her experiences.

“I called her and said, ‘I’m coming to you and I’m bringing a tape recorder.’ I said, ‘This is for me. This is for my son. It’s important for your story to live on.’

“It was the first time she had ever told her story,” Rich continued. “It was important to her, I think, that my son, Ethan, and my cousin’s children know her story. She told me, ‘Be the writer.’ That meant to me to live a legacy of some sort.”

Through her work with RCHGS and her research—she’s writing a book on how surviving the Holocaust has affected generations of survivors—Rich is honoring that directive.

“We need to change society in positive ways,” said Rich, whose op-eds on social topics and education have appeared in national publications, including The Hechinger Report, where she’s a regular contributor. “I want to help the center think about what it means to be involved in social activism. We need to keep being conscious and thoughtful about how we create social change.

“Our students learn about the past in order to make change to the present. We can’t change what happened. But understanding what happened, you can use history to make positive social change.”


Small choices, hard histories

Activism, she maintained, can begin in the classroom.

“Teaching is inherently political… not in a way in which you push your politics,” Rich said. “But, as a teacher, you do have to take a stand. With every book you choose to read—or choose to omit—you are making an inherently political decision. With every choice you make, it’s very obvious to kids who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ in a classroom. It’s about very small choices.”

Every day, Manning teaches the hard history of genocide. The first American to intern at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, he first learned about the Holocaust when, while a middle schooler in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, he saw a documentary film.

“It changed my life. It was something I’d never seen. Every paper I did after that was on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. I went to memorials, looking into how it happened, why it happened,” Manning said.

In 2002, while in his 20s, he visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland, where more than 1.1 million people—1 million of them Jews—perished. He knocked on the director’s door and, through a translator, told her he wanted to work there.

The director told him the museum was state-run and they only hired Poles. Manning wouldn’t leave, volunteering to work for free. He returned for eight straight summers, sometimes living on site in quarters formerly inhabited by the SS, Hitler’s brutal paramilitary enforcement squad.


Life amid loss

He lived several summers in Oświęcim, the town around the 470-acre concentration camp.

“It’s overwhelmingly enormous,” Manning said of Auschwitz-Birkenau “You can’t believe how big it is.”

In 2010-11, Manning, who by then was pursuing his doctorate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, earned a Fulbright fellowship to study in Poland. He spent 18 months conducting dissertation research on Oświęcim, exploring how living in the town affected generations of residents.

“Visitors would ask, ‘How can you live in Auschwitz?’ There are so many layers to the history. It’s not monolithic,’” Manning said. “Nobody understood or knew that the residents were victims as well. Nobody has ever talked about how those living near the site of genocide are affected.”

Manning tells the story of walking to a meeting at the Auschwitz museum. The sun was shining. Birds were singing.

“They were sitting on the barbed wire. I started whistling,” Manning recalled. “I realized, right where I was standing, people had died. The barbed wire and the birds hit something deep inside of me. I was literally standing where 1 million people died… and I was whistling. That never leaves you.”


Today’s genocides

Each semester, Manning teaches an introductory historical methods course at Rowan. Every course focuses on genocide, both past and present. Hague, Rich and Manning emphasize that genocide continues today. The RCHGS programming reflects that.

“Myanmar is happening now. We are literally living through a UN-recognized genocide right now,” Manning said, referring to the genocide of the Rohingya people by the Burmese military. “The dialogue on genocide continues to shape and shift. And it’s so important.

“This is about humanity and how we can do this to each other. How does it come to this? How did we get there? The work we’re doing in the center… the debates… the discussion… I have to do this work.”


Faith and strength

Julia Gibbins feels that way, too. A sophomore history and law and justice studies major pursuing the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration in the Honors College, Gibbins is vice president of the RCHGS student association. As a freshman, she earned a coveted Warren Fellowship for Future Teachers at the Houston Holocaust Museum, where she studied with prominent Holocaust and genocide scholars—and alongside mostly doctoral students.

Her interest in the work is fueled by her own thirst for knowledge and her interest in political activism.
“It’s difficult to not be politically active in our current climate,” said Gibbins, whose goal is to become a judge. As an RCHGS research assistant, she examined how the Christian faith of citizens of Rwanda was affected by genocide in that country.

“I found that people got deeper in their faith,” Gibbins said. “I thought I’d find the opposite to be true.”
Her involvement in RCHGS has changed her, Gibbins said, particularly when it comes to hearing survivors’ stories.

“There’s incredible strength for them in getting up and continuing on,” said Gibbins. “The life that survivors have built outside of their stories is humbling. Someone was trying to get rid of them, but they survived—and created a life for themselves.”


“Why? I had to.”

Theatre major Darby Pumphrey understands that better than most. For her senior capstone project last fall, Pumphrey presented “Forever Lost: Manya Perel’s Shoah Experience.” The one-woman show, co-sponsored by RCHGS, tells the story of Perel, who survived eight concentration camps before escaping a death march from Auschwitz. Perel lost almost all of her family members to the Holocaust, including her beloved 8-year-old niece.

Pumphrey performed the play, written by Rowan theater instructor Anthony Hostetter, before a rapt audience that included Perel and her family. Pumphrey’s late great-grandparents survived the Holocaust.

“It is my generation’s job to tell the story,” said Pumphrey, who took dialect lessons to master Perel’s Polish accent. “When I met her, she asked me, ‘Why would anyone want to do this play?’ I had to do it. Who else would? We have to keep the story going. It was a privilege.”

“There was a really strong connection between Darby and Manya,” Hostetter said. “Our hope is to get this piece into high schools in the spring semester.”

For sophomore international studies major Alex Rossen, involvement in RCHGS and Rowan Hillel is a deep labor of love. His grandmother, Selma Rossen, is a survivor. In a talk arranged by her grandson, she spoke at Holocaust Remembrance Night.

“She was all for coming to Rowan the minute I brought it up,” said Rossen, who is eyeing a career in international aid, perhaps in disaster relief. “She was really impressed with our students. My passion for helping people is something my grandmother instilled in me.

“I’m so proud of the person she is. She went to college and got two engineering degrees. She eventually learned business, too. She’s very empowered. That’s her defining trait.”


Different and lucky

Today, Kraus considers her grand-mother’s yellow star to be part of her family’s history. She and her husband, Ernest, raised two children and have nine grandchildren. While a young mother, she earned her history degree, magna cum laude, from then-Glassboro State College.

Returning to the University last autumn, she was awed by the students and faculty she met. Kraus regularly shares her story with students of all ages. Recently, a sixth-grade student wearing a hijab approached her after her talk at a local school. The girl softly kissed her cheek.

“You know,” the girl said, “what it’s like to be different.”

“My greatest joy has been the way my story has been received,” Kraus said. “I speak as often as I’m wanted. Every day, I know how lucky I am.” ♦


Assistant Director of Media & Public Relations Barbara Baals is in her 13th year at Rowan.