"I still remember the first time I met someone who didn't know about the Holocaust," said Joshua Cusano, dressed in a dark suit, addressing the crowd of more than 100 at the Hunter College Hillel opening reception December 9th for the One Soul: When Humanity Fails exhibition.
It was not that the girl was a Holocaust denier, Cusano, a Hunter undergraduate, explained. She just did not know, and she is not alone.
Survivors of Dachau greet U.S. troops, April 30, 1945. Photograph Sydney Blau, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy National Archives.
Commissioned by the Afikim Foundation - a nonprofit dedicated to developing educational and communal programs - When Humanity Fails is an exhibit designed to reach out to people who would not ordinarily visit a Holocaust museum. A four-walled structure with two openings, it contains photography, video, text, and recorded audio of testimonies from survivors and liberators.
Hillels Provide Access
Speaking to guests - Hunter alumni, fellow students, faculty, and family - at the reception, Lisa Pollack, executive director of Hunter Hillel, thanked UJA-Federation of New York for their "unwavering guidance and support." Although UJA-Federation is not directly involved with the project, it contributes by supporting Hunter as part of "12 local Hillels that provide an opportunity for increased access to Jewish life and experiences," said Suzanne Peck, chair of UJA-Federation's Task Force of Hillels. "The Hillels reach and engage more than 16,000 Jewish college students in a broad range of Jewish learning and living activities."
"One of UJA-Federation's priorities is to support and inspire current and future generations by drawing on Judaism as a source of purpose, meaning, and community," Peck said. "Exhibits such as One Soul: When Humanity Fails not only connect students to a painful era in world history, but also help them understand the necessity of taking a stand. For many college students, social-action activities are their link to Jewish values, and exhibits such as One Soul encourage this connection."
Cusano and fellow student Leya Schwartz spoke at the event, drawing parallels between the exhibit and a Holocaust class they had taken. Through the class, each was paired with a survivor with whom he or she met weekly. Schwartz said that all four of her grandparents are survivors, and she has thought that "as nature takes its course," we lose the people who can tell us about what happened. The firsthand accounts will still exist in movies and textbooks, she said, but it's not the same.
Cusano added that when we have first-person testimony or an exhibit like When Humanity Fails, we "can utilize it to raise awareness of other genocides."
Fighting "Holocaust Fatigue"
"People suffer from what they call ‘Holocaust fatigue,' " said Dr. Rabbi Israel Singer, a former CUNY graduate and teacher who spoke at the event. Singer is the former president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Singer said many people are tired of reading about the Holocaust, about genocide in Rwanda and Darfur. We need to fight this, he said, and one way is to focus on "what man can be, not . . . how bad man has been."
Singer said he first thought the exhibit might not be a good match with Hunter College. But upon learning how "the demography of City University has changed," he said he realized the lobby at Hunter is the perfect place. Much of the Hunter College population is made up of students who are the first generation to go to college or the first generation to be born in the United States.
The exhibit will be on display through Wednesday, December 16th, in Hunter College's West Building lobby, East 68th Street at Lexington Avenue in New York City.