Salem State University will carry on mission to remember genocides

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By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

After the death of Sonia Weitz, cofounder of the Holocaust Center, Boston North Inc., three years ago, observers wondered what would become of the 31-year-old Peabody institution and its mission to prevent atrocities through education.

Now the mission will continue. In an agreement announced Wednesday, the center will give its collections to Salem State University, where a new Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies is bringing a higher profile and expanded scope to the work of remembering the horrific past and preventing future genocides.

The new center, which launches a graduate certificate program in Holocaust and genocide studies this summer, will make Salem State a hub for scholars researching firsthand accounts by survivors of mass atrocities from Poland to Rwanda. Yet what makes the center rare in academe is its capacity also to support outreach to local schools, churches, synagogues, and other settings, according to one of its coordinators, Christopher Mauriello, the chairman of Salem State’s history department.

Survivors “have gone through probably the most horrific experiences you or I can ever imagine,” Mauriello said. “Somebody’s got to capture it. I hope our center can play a role in capturing it, helping them tell their stories and having a place to tell their stories.”

The Salem State center will bring a three-pronged approach to improving understanding of genocides, or the systematic destruction of particular groups, he said. Research, teaching, and community engagement mark the pillars of the initiative, which is designed largely to empower resistance to genocidal campaigns before they gain overwhelming traction.

On the research front, one Salem State project draws on geographic information system data to pinpoint how genocide unfolded in Sudanin the early 2000s through the systematic burning of villages. The research findings, coupled with models that explain how genocidal patterns work, can enable scholars in the future to advocate for intervention in burgeoning international crises, according to Mauriello.

What’s more, materials transferred from the Holocaust Center in Peabody, including more than 100 videotaped testimonials, along with some 1,000 books, memorabilia, and artwork, will be readily accessible to a rising generation of teachers as they are trained at Salem State.

“For at least 10 years while Sonia was still alive, we wondered, ‘What’s going to happen when we’re not able to do this anymore?,’ ” said Harriet Wacks, the Peabody center’s executive director and cofounder with Weitz. “It’s gratifying to know that my life’s work and Sonia’s life’s work will be carrying on.”

Perhaps no one is more hopeful for the center’s prospects than area residents who escaped genocides in their home countries. From Bosnian and Rwandan enclaves in Lynn to Cambodian neighborhoods in Lowell, memories of genocide are all too real, and must be shared, along with lessons learned, advocates say, to counter widespread ignorance and naïveté.

Claude Kaitare, 30, of Lynn, still has nightmares tracing to 1994, when he was a 12-year-old living in Rwanda. Members of the ruling Hutu ethnic group avenged the Rwandan president’s assassination by targeting Kaitare’s group, the Tutsis, in an explosive conflict that claimed more than 800,000 lives over the course of several months, according to United Nations estimates.

Kaitare said he passed by countless bodies of villagers who’d been killed with machetes and clubs. His extended family members were never found, but he escaped with his father and siblings to a refugee camp. Relief agencies eventually resettled the family in Maine.

When Kaitare discovered how little his fellow students at Clark University in Worcester knew about Rwanda, he resolved to become a teacher. He wants others to understand how scapegoating happens, and is grateful for the center’s Rwandan Genocide Oral Histories Project, set up to capture his and others’ stories on video.

“I would like to pen a memoir so I don’t really have to relive these horrific things I went through” by repeating the stories, said Kaitare. “Repeating it . . . makes me not sleep good at night.”

In the Peabody center’s Holocaust Legacy Partners project, volunteers paired with individual survivors will continue to share publicly what happened to Jews during World War II. Survivor numbers are dwindling with age, but volunteers — there are 45, but the list is growing — will keep telling their individual stories even after their partners have died.

That’s important in a time when visible figures, such as Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dismiss the Holocaust as a fabrication, according to Eric Kahn, 83, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Swampscott and is involved the legacy project.

“I tell the story to counteract the deniers,” said Kahn, who was born in Germany in 1929 and was interned in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia that was liberated by Allied forces in May 1945. “I also give the message for kids and adults not to be bystanders when it happens, but speak up and do something about it,’’ he said, because genocide “can happen again.”

The Woburn-based Cummings Foundation has provided a four-year, $100,000 grant to help pay for transferring the Holocaust Center’s resources to Salem State. Founders Bill and Joyce Cummings were moved by a visit to Yad Vashem, a Jerusalem museum that honors the Holocaust’s 6 million victims. The couple now is involved in various efforts, including projects to rebuild Rwanda.

“The seeds of genocide start long before the acts of genocide,” Bill Cummings said. “Recognizing the intolerance and injustice and speaking out about them is a significant part of what Salem State University wants to do’’ through its new research center.

Some area groups hope the new center will bring attention to the ongoing needs of local survivors of genocide. In Lowell, home to an estimated 30,000 Cambodian immigrants and their offspring, older members of the community include many who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. They still lack education, financial literacy, and English-speaking skills, according to Rasy An, executive director of the Lowell-based Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.

It’s wrong to assume “people who have been here 30 years are assimiliated,” An said. “They’re still needing help. Maybe they need some counseling or some things that would help provide some understanding or closure for their children.”

Others say the Salem State center can help with tasks as basic and important as passing down family history, including difficult memories, from one generation to the next.

“It’s not something all families feel comfortable talking about,” said Meaghan Culkeen, education coordinator for the Lynn-based Bosnian Community Center for Resource Development , a refugee assistance agency. For some, she said, the center’s repositories of accounts “might give you better insight into what’s happened to your own ethnic community.”

Through the Salem center’s outreach, organizers hope, area residents might come to better understand some of their neighbors, what they’ve endured, and the lessons they carry for future generations.

“We had two generations of Cambodians that grew up in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, and then all of a sudden, here they are in Lynn,” said Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center cocoordinator Robert McAndrews, also a professor at Salem State. “People that shop next to them, live next to them, and work next to them – do they know this?

“It’s up to us as a university to bring some clarity and context to the lives of people who live around us.”

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