As yellow mums bloomed behind them and the late-day sunlight streamed through the windows, visitors kneeled to speak with the survivors of the Holocaust who attended the opening of the new Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh in Greenfield.
More than 300 people attended, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, to see the new center and its inaugural exhibit, called A Celebration of Life: Living Legacy Project, which featured large portraits and stories of 12 of Pittsburgh’s remaining Holocaust survivors.
“The idea behind this project is to show different kinds of photos than the ones you might typically see of Holocaust survivors,” says Hannah Wilson, who oversees the collections at the Holocaust Center. “This show focuses on what survivors did after the Holocaust—and how they overcame. In the photos, everybody’s very happy and beautiful.”
There’s a portrait of 100-year-old Manny Kolski laughing; he survived Auschwitz and five other camps and ghettos and went on to work as a baker for 30 years, retired early and just recently gave up running.
Moshe Baran escaped a ghetto and joined the Russian resistance, saved several of his family members and met his wife at a displaced persons camp. He now speaks of their experiences at schools. He says, “Language can heal and language can kill. Do not be complacent.”
After being hidden in plain sight in Greece under the name Julia, Yolanda Avram Willis went on to be a Fulbright Scholar, earn a master’s in chemistry and a Ph.D. in sociology. She is publishing a book about her experience. “I talk in honor of my rescuers,” she says. “They were heroic people who risked their lives—literally.” In her photograph, Willis smiles broadly.
“It’s not what you expect to see at a Holocaust center, but it really celebrates the lives that these survivors created after the war,” says Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the center. “We have about 55 survivors left in Pittsburgh area. It’s a dwindling population—down from about 250—and this is a way of celebrating them.” More than half agreed to tell their stories for A Celebration of Life. There will be a few phases of the exhibit, with the next round to appear in a few months.
The Holocaust Center was founded in 1981 as an outreach and education center, but they had no space to hold events or exhibitions. “There was a desire for the Holocaust Center to have space of its own, a place to do all the kinds of programs we want to do—on our own turf,” says Bairnsfather. Now they have 5,300 square feet for programming and education.
In addition to the main gallery, a second gallery houses artifacts, including a yellow Jewish star and a concentration camp uniform coat, “which is one of the the most chilling pieces of fabric I’ve ever been that close to,” Bairnsfather says.
There also is a reflection and contemplation room. The library will be unpacked and expanded soon, and there’s a resource center for educators seeking to access records, testimonies and other teaching materials. In 2014, the state passed Act 70, which requires schools to provide lessons on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations for grades six through 12. Act 70 strongly recommends teaching these subjects and will make it mandatory in 2019, if schools do not comply. “We are really front and center in the effort to get information out about that,” says Bairnsfather.
The center offers a multi-use space for school groups—or any other groups who want to schedule a visit. The large room is outfitted for film screenings, classes and lectures. A lower floor houses administrative offices.
At this opening event, the first Holocaust Educator Award was presented to Dr. Barbara Burstin, a professor of history at both Pitt and CMU. Teachers of the Holocaust have “what I would consider almost a sacred mission to convey to students the enormity of events that happened during World War II and their implications and warnings for today,” Burstin says.
The Holocast offers lessons about the consequences of prejudice, anti-Semitism and racism, Burstin adds. And when you teach about the Holocaust, she says, “you teach about the horror that comes when a group or government promotes a culture of death and destruction. You teach about the passive compliance of bystanders who just stood and let it happen.”