UMass opens Holocaust museum

By Katie Landeck

 

Facebook
Facebook

On March 28, the University of Massachusetts opened the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies with an exhibit that commemorates the Holocaust through the stories of five families.

The main attraction of the institute, located at 758 North Pleasant St., is the permanent exhibit “A Reason to Remember: Roth, Germany 1933-1942,” which was donated by the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts.

The exhibit tells the stories of five German-Jewish families, starting before the Holocaust began. Using photographs, historical documents, audio and a documentary about the Holocaust, it shows the ways the individuals it depicts were persecuted. Only 11 of the 31 members of the five families survived.

“My favorite part is getting to know the families,” said UMass professor James Young, the new director of the museum. “They were just trying to live normal lives, when the Nazis rose and everything changed. They were Jewish-German families that were suddenly told they were no longer German. It is an intimate way to know a much greater event,” he said.

Young was approached with the idea of creating the institute two years ago by the Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center in Springfield. Running out of money, the center’s organizers knew the center would have to close and wanted to make sure the exhibit was not lost.

“The exhibit needed a new home,” said Lara Curtis, a doctoral candidate at UMass and assistant director of the institute, who is the member of the Hatikvah community that originally developed the idea to bring the exhibit to UMass.

“I was teaching French Literature as a TA and representation of the Holocaust came up, and I noticed students had a desire to learn more about it,” said Curtis. “So I thought it would be great to bring the center here.

Despite having no place to put it and no money at the time of the offer, Young “couldn’t help but say yes” to the project.

“There was a time when I didn’t think it would happen,” said Young. “But I already knew some very generous donors who had been giving money to the Department of Judaic studies, so I went down to visit them and they were very generous.”

One anonymous donor who purchased the house where the institute is located is charging only $1 of annual rent.  In addition, UMass alumni Pamela and Robert Jacobs, based in Washington D.C., have donated the funds necessary to pay for the institute’s operating budget and endowment.

Now that the doors are open, Curtis said, business is booming. She estimates the institute had over 1,000 visitors in the last two weeks, ranging from classes of middle school students to Amherst community members.

According to Young, thus far the reaction has been positive.

“If they come away knowing one small thing they didn’t know before and they walk away feeling just a little bit changed inside, I think that is all we can ask for,” he said.

The institute has yet to establish formal operating hours, but Curtis said she is available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or by appointment.

Over the next few years, Young hopes to expand the institute to include information on other genocides, such as Rwanda.  This will include expanding one wall of the exhibit to include more photographs.

“It is important to keep remembering genocides like the Holocaust and Rwanda and think about the ways that learning about them might lead to intervening in modern genocides,” said Young.

He will be donating his own personal collection of over 3,000 books on genocide and memory studies to the institute. He also plans on incorporating computers, archives, classes and other resources that will help students learn.

“We want it to be a really homey resource,” said Young. “A place where they will come sit down and read stuff they can’t find anywhere else.”

He also hopes to bring visiting exhibits into the other rooms of the house, as well as to host guest speakers.  Curtis shares the same vision.

“I am hoping to have many, many programs for both the academic and non-academic community,” said Curtis. “I want people. I want this to be a place where the community can come together and learn. I feel like we are creating a new center of gravity.”

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected].