Northeastern University has been observing Holocaust Awareness Week since the 1970s. This year, in keeping with the time-honored mission to study the Holocaust to prevent future genocides, the committee renamed the commemorative week Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week. The theme this year was “Never Again to Again and Again” and many of our speakers, and our audience of students, faculty and guests, addressed the question of how to recognize the milieu that fosters genocidal behavior and how to prevent genocide from occurring and reoccuring. Events ranged from the annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture and the Philip N. Backstrom, Jr. Survivor Lecture, both addressing the Holocaust, to two events marking the 25th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. We were privileged to hear from distinguished and memorable guest speakers, as well as Northeastern political science students presenting their capstone projects.
We also launched the digital archives of the Holocaust Awareness Committee, preserved and maintained by the NortheasternUniversity Library. The archive includes videos of survivor lectures over the years as well as the Robert Salomon Morton lectures, the Gideon Klein Scholar presentations and other lectures, programs and records of the committee itself. The archives can be found at holocaustawarenessarchives.northeastern.edu and is available as a resource for researchers the world over. Numerous librarians, students, faculty and Jewish Studies Program staff worked over the course of several years to bring this project to fruition. The original source materials for much of the archives reside in the Library’s Archives and Special Collections in 92 Snell Library.
This year’s Gideon Klein Scholar, Elizabeth Levi, presented her research into three female refugee artists. Each escaped from Germany or Austria before the Holocaust, and they rebuilt their lives in the United States but never reclaimed full recognition of their talents. Levi’s work, conducted under the supervision of Jewish Studies Program Associate Director Laurel Leff, will be incorporated into the Rediscovering Refugee Scholars project database, found here: https://www.northeastern.edu/refugeescholars/home. An alumna of Northeastern, Levi is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Media Advocacy at Northeastern.
The week began with a visit from Northeastern parent and United Nations Under-Secretary General Adama Dieng. Mr. Dieng is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and he delivered a stirring speech about his work visiting troubled spots the world over and identifying when conditions are ripe for a genocide to take place. He explained that violence does not happen overnight and there are warning signs along the way. He has used his position at the UN to learn what the risk factors are so as to create warning systems and prevent genocides from happening at all. Mr. Dieng also detailed his work with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda which helped bring to justice participants in the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda while also rebuilding a country torn apart by neighbors killing neighbors. (Please see side box.)
The question of how and why people can turn on their neighbors en masse was addressed in detail by Omer Bartov in this year’s Robert Salomon Morton Lecture. Studying the town of Buczacz in the border area of Poland and Ukraine, a place no different than many others in the area, yet famous for some well-known former inhabitants, such as the Nobel Prize-winning author S.Y. Agnon and Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal, Professor Bartov examined the cultural and political strains in pre-war society and how the Nazis were able to play on those tensions to eventually kill all the Jewish inhabitants. A handful of Germans stationed in Buczacz for a year, with responsibility for an entire region, the Nazis had no qualms about killing the people they had come to know, or to using the local police forces to hunt down their own Jewish neighbors. Professor Bartov, the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University, is the author of several books on the Holocaust and genocide, including most recently Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. (Please see next article.)
This year’s Philip N. Backstrom, Jr. Lecture featured Gerald Holton, who escaped Austria on a kindertransport in 1939, speaking to a packed hall. Professor Holton, Professor of Physics Emeritus at Harvard University, addressed himself particularly to students as he explained what his childhood had been like and how it came to an abrupt, overnight, end with the Anschluss in 1938. On the 80th anniversary of the kindertransport, Professor Holton explained a little of its history, how he and his brother were fortunate to be on it, and what it was like arriving in England. He also described how he was able to get his parents to England and then immigrate to the United States. Having used “loopholes” as he described them — which others might describe as luck and savvy — to survive, he exhorted students to study as wide a range of subjects as possible, to increase one’s resilience and ability to navigate the future.
Demonstrating the ability to synthesize their exposure to different fields of study at Northeastern, 25 political science students shared their capstone projects examining different aspects of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Addressing categories of context, responses, aftermath, and society today, the students each examined a different angle, tying their research about Rwanda to their other academic interests. It made for an enlightening and powerful symposium and showed Northeastern students at their best. It was a fitting end to a week of deep thought and engagement on remembering the past and grappling with repetition and prevention.
Please see www.northeastern.edu/hac for photos and videos of this year’s Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week.
Read the rest of the Spring 2019 Newsletter here.