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Powerful stories, music at Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration

University Distinguished Professor Phil Brown

The uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity came together Thursday morning for the annual North­eastern Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion, which fea­tured pow­erful sto­ries and moving musical performances.

The uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity came together Thursday morning for the annual North­eastern Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion, which fea­tured pow­erful sto­ries and moving musical performances.

In his keynote address, Phil Brown, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Health Sci­ences, explored the cul­tural, polit­ical, and lit­erary world of the Catskills during the Holo­caust and in the years after. The Jewish resort and year-​​round com­mu­nity in south­eastern New York’s Catskill Moun­tains was a vibrant center of Amer­ican Jewish culture.

Brown noted the par­al­lels between the Jews’ return to Israel and their move to the Catskills, where Jewish immi­grants began arriving in the 1890s. “The Jews in the Catskills cre­ated their own sort of promised land, a place of safety,” said Brown, who has written five short sto­ries on the Catskills.

Brown said that when masses of immi­grants came between the 1890s and the 1920s and when the Holo­caust sur­vivors came in the 1940s, they built in America the largest Jerusalem out­side of Israel, a “mini Jerusalem” in the Catskills.

The Catskills would be a place where the Nazis could not threaten Jews again,” Brown said. “No wonder there were Zionist training camps to pre­pare people for making Aliyah to Israel. The safety of the Catskills helped to shape the safety of a post-​​Holocaust state of Israel.”

Brown recalled how as a boy and into adult­hood, he viewed the Catskills as “an end­less and time­less place,” and watching it dis­ap­pear pro­pelled him to be its chron­i­cler. Brown is the founder and pres­i­dent of the Catskills Insti­tute, an orga­ni­za­tion that works to record and remember the his­tory of the Catskills through var­ious events, sup­porting schol­arly research, and the col­lec­tion of mate­rials for the world’s largest archive of Catskills items.

The annual North­eastern Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion is part of the university’s Holo­caust Aware­ness Week, which pub­licly remem­bers the Holo­caust every year not only as a his­tor­ical fact but also as a memo­rial to its vic­tims. The week’s pro­gram­ming bears wit­ness to the Holocaust’s events and explores a range of issues that have arisen in the years since and their con­tin­uing impact today. Thursday’s event was held in the Raytheon Amphitheater.

Prior to his talk, Brown per­formed a musical piece with Elijah Botkin, S/AMD’15, the 2014–15 Gideon Klein Scholar. Botkin is a double major in math­e­matics and music, and his musical tal­ents include singing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston and serving as pres­i­dent and bass sec­tion leader of the NU Choral Society.

For his Gideon Klein Award research project, Botkin set to music a trans­la­tion of a poem—“The Closed Town”—written by a child at Terezin, a con­cen­tra­tion camp where more than 140,000 people were held during World War II before being trans­ported by train to Auschwitz and other death camps.

The musical piece fea­tures chorus, string quartet, and chimes, and took Botkin six months to write. He sang that piece on Thursday, and he will con­duct it at the NU Choral Society’s spring con­cert on April 18.

Writing an orig­inal score of this length with this many parts was a new and extra­or­di­nary learning expe­ri­ence,” said Botkin, who thanked North­eastern music pro­fessor Joshua Jacobson for his mentorship.

Each year, the Gideon Klein Award sup­ports a stu­dent exploring the work of a Jewish artist or musi­cian per­se­cuted by the Nazis. Scholars are asked to create an orig­inal work, pre­pare a per­for­mance, or do research. The award, which includes a $5,000 prize, honors the memory of Gideon Klein, a bril­liant pianist and com­poser who was impris­oned in con­cen­tra­tion camps until his death in 1945. North­eastern Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Chem­istry Bill Giessen, who grew up in Nazi Ger­many and passed away in 2010, estab­lished the award in 1997 in memory of his mother, Gustel Cor­mann Giessen.

Rud­erman Pro­fessor of Jewish Studies Lori Lefkovitz, who directs the Human­i­ties Center and the Jewish Studies pro­gram, said Botkin is an “exem­plary stu­dent” whose work honors the memory of Klein, an inspi­ra­tion to young com­posers during his impris­on­ment in Terezin.

Holo­caust Aware­ness Week is pre­sented by the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center with theHolo­caust Aware­ness Com­mittee. This year, Holo­caust Aware­ness Week was moved to Jan­uary to coin­cide with the 70th anniver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz where the Nazis killed more than 1 mil­lion people, most of them Jews.

In his wel­come remarks, Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said anti-​​Semitism or any form of hatred or dis­crim­i­na­tion due to race, reli­gion, or eth­nicity is unac­cept­able. Holo­caust Aware­ness Week, he said, pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to have mean­ingful dis­cus­sions around these issues. He stressed the impor­tance of fos­tering a safe envi­ron­ment where pro­duc­tive dia­logues can take place all year around and where intol­er­ance of any kind is unacceptable.

Let’s con­tinue to work together and be a model for society,” he said. “This is an oppor­tu­nity to send a mes­sage throughout the year, not only on campus but throughout the nation and the world.”

-By Greg St. Martin

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