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Now it is More Important Than Ever

February 18, 2020

At home on a Saturday morning, October 27, 2018, I suddenly received a frantic phone call from my sister. “Where are you?!” she shouted. It was reasonable to believe that I might have been at the Tree of Life building. As director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, I am regularly invited to attend Shabbat services at one of Pittsburgh’s many synagogues.

The day became a blur of phone calls from all over the world, from journalists, friends, colleagues. The most pressing call came from Rochelle Rainey, daughter of Magda Brown, the Holocaust survivor who was planning to fly to Pittsburgh from Chicago that very morning to speak at a Holocaust Center program the next day. Magda did not know what was happening in Pittsburgh, and it was time to leave for the airport. Rochelle wanted to speak to her mother to see if she still wanted to come.

An hour later Rochelle called  – upon hearing what was happening in Pittsburgh, then-91-year-old Magda, Grandma Magda to many, declared: “Now it is more important than ever! Let’s GO!”

Magda Brown’s bravery and kindness set the tone for the days immediately following the tragedy at the Tree of Life building. Her fighting spirit has motivated the Holocaust Center’s programming and outreach for the last 16 months.

Turning Holocaust Education into Action

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh connects the horrors of the Holocaust and antisemitism with the injustices of today. Through education, the Holocaust Center empowers individuals to build a more civil and humane society. 

The Holocaust Center, an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, anchors Holocaust education in the region, communicating with more than 1,000 teachers in Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and Northern West Virginia. We work with a network of experienced and enthusiastic educators. So how is it that surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Conference for Material Claims Against Germany have found that the public displays a lack of basic knowledge about the Holocaust? 

Educators face an uphill battle to offer Holocaust content that is relevant and relatable for students, and sometimes fall short of creating safe spaces where students from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to explore their reactions to Holocaust history and literature with honesty and empathy.

The understanding that “now it is more important than ever,” has bolstered all of our activities, beginning with a version of the exhibit OpticVoices:Roots that challenged visitors to connect personally with Holocaust history and with the problems our region faces.

Simultaneously, we hosted the Lest We Forget exhibit, displayed at the University of Pittsburgh, where an estimated 100,000 people engaged with large-scale photographs of Holocaust survivors. In January 2020, the exhibit was displayed on the Place des Nations at the U.N. in Geneva for International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The exhibit in Geneva included photographs of Pittsburgh area survivors.

Partnering with the Next Generation

The field of Holocaust remembrance is becoming more inclusive. Once devoted strictly to “the Jewish Holocaust,” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other large institutions, like the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, are leaders in the fight against global genocide and injustice closer to home. The Holocaust Center’s expanding mission has tracked with similar developments at our sister organizations.

The Association of Holocaust Organizations met in Mobile, Alabama, in June 2018. I encountered two innovators in Holocaust remembrance, David Estrin, the grandson of four Holocaust survivors, and Kiel Majewski, the grandson of a liberator. The legacy of Holocaust remembrance is now in the hands of the third generation.

I met with David and Kiel again in Chicago in June 2019. David presented to the conference about #TogetherWeRemember, a movement to empower the next generation of leaders to bridge the gap between education and action to counter violent hatred in schools, communities, and on social media. David passed around pledges he had gathered from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at a TWR vigil in Parkland, Florida some months before.

As the session ended, one by one, my colleagues from around the country came to me with the pledges to remember the eleven kedoshim of October 27, 2018.

Next Year in Pittsburgh!

David and I decided to have regular phone calls to design a meaningful program for Pittsburgh in April 2020 to mark Genocide Awareness Month and launch #TogetherWeRemember’s annual global campaign. 

The first order of business: introduce #TogetherWeRemember to the Center’s Educational Outreach Committee. David joined our meeting by video-conference. I watched the experienced teachers around the table, as they heard much of the story that David told in last week’s Slingshot blog post: about his family history, the vigil he started at Duke University, and the global movement that #TogetherWeRemember has become.

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s 2017 Holocaust Educator of the Year, Nicholas Haberman, sat silently in that first meeting. The usually outspoken founder of the LIGHT Educational Initiative, a school-based program to embed Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights education inside schools, Nick later told me that he couldn’t say anything because he was having an epiphany – #TogetherWeRemember, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, and LIGHT were meant to come together! To finance the first step in this partnership, the Holocaust Center received funding from the SteelTree Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to support the development of LIGHT Centers in 10 schools in the Pittsburgh region.

Next year is Now 

We are looking forward to hosting a daylong summit in Pittsburgh on April 5, 2020, to launch Genocide Awareness Month with sister organizations in Dallas, Los Angeles, Skokie, and Terre Haute, Indiana. We will assemble teachers, students, elected leaders, journalists, clergy, and experts on identity-based violence, atrocity prevention, and dangerous language.

On April 5, we will gather at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center with diverse organizations and the next generation of leaders to join together to turn memory into action. We will consider the meaning of “never again” in today’s world and how we can collaborate to make it a reality.

You are invited!

  1. Join us in Pittsburgh on April 5, 2020, for #TogetherWeRemember: What Does Never Again Mean to You? Register Now
  2. Sponsor the April 5 summit and the #TogetherWeRemember Partnership Donate
  3. Get to know the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh 

Thank You Slingshot

I am grateful for the opportunity to write for the Slingshot blog and for the light that Slingshot is bringing to the essential work of #TogetherWeRemember. The Holocaust Center is a proud partner and sponsor of #TogetherWeRemember through local fundraising efforts, and we are grateful to bring our collective work to larger foundations. As David said in his Slingshot blog post last week, “This is our L’dor V’dor Moment.” Join us as we rise to it.  

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather is Director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Be on the lookout for our final blog post about TWR’s work from Nick Haberman, Together We Remember’s Director of Education and the Light Education Initiative.