Finding a future for Holocaust memory

In the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library, books on the era line the shelves and display cases are filled with artifacts of pre-Holocaust European Jewish life. There’s a yellowing tallit, a velvet curtain from a Munich synagogue, an elegant apron and a first-edition Dutch copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” There’s also a crisp digital photograph of a single green pear balanced on a metal rail, a train track. Into the pear’s shiny green skin is carved a Star of David.

This photograph represents the future of Holocaust memory.

It is the work of an eighth-grader from Irvine and has been on display since April in this home to Holocaust studies on the fourth floor of Chapman University’s main library. The picture, one could argue, offers one possible response to a question Holocaust studies experts have been struggling with for years: How will we teach the Holocaust once its survivors are no longer alive?

The urgency of this question has been growing with every passing year, and Chapman — a small, private, Christian-affiliated university in Orange County’s eponymous city of Orange, which counts only 350 Jews among its 5,000 students — might not seem like the first place to look to find answers. But on this anniversary of Kristallnacht, which occurs Nov. 9, it is worth noting that Chapman might offer an outline for one way forward.

Over the past decade, the school has established a permanent chair in Holocaust education, a research center in its main library building, a regular visiting professorship and a Holocaust history minor for undergraduates. In August, the university received national attention when it announced that the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, had agreed to spend one week every year for the next five years teaching on campus and working with Chapman students.

Next week, more than 100 people are expected to attend the annual interfaith commemoration of Kristallnacht at Chapman. And last year’s art and writing contest drew about 300 entries from 101 schools in and around Orange County — including the photo of the pear by Bailey Smith, which is inspired by a story told by Ilse Diament of having been given a can of pears by a British doctor when she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

That all this is happening in Orange County — still home to some of the world’s preeminent Holocaust deniers — is surprising. That professor Marilyn Harran — who came to Chapman to teach religious studies as a Protestant Reformation scholar — is the driving force behind these efforts could seem even more unexpected. But unlikely though it may seem, Chapman’s undertakings represent a strategy to keep alive the memories of Holocaust survivors.

“Our members, some of whom are in their 90s, get on a bus and schlep an hour, or an hour-and-a-half to go to these programs,” said William Elperin, the longtime president of The “1939” Club, a Los Angeles-based Holocaust survivors’ group. For the past 11 years, The “1939” Club has co-sponsored a Holocaust Art and Writing Contest with Chapman, and its members regularly work with Chapman students.

“The reason they do that,” Elperin said, “is because they are treated with the utmost respect there. They have volunteer students who meet the bus, who escort the survivors, who provide golf cart transportation for those who have trouble walking — they do everything they possibly can to make sure the survivors feel good.”

The “1939” Club first ventured into Orange County because of the prevalence of Holocaust denial there. “It’s fairly quiet right now, but the so-called Institute of Historical Review is based in Orange County,” Elperin said, referring to the organization the Anti-Defamation League Web site says was “once a leading voice in the international movement to deny the Holocaust and vindicate Hitler and the Nazi regime.”

“There was very little counterweight to the deniers in Orange County,” Elperin said, “and we thought it was important to have a meaningful presence there.”

Starting in 1987, Harran began devoting a section of the school’s “War, Peace and Justice” freshman seminar to studying the Holocaust. She found that this section of her class was what engaged her students the most, which is what led her to shelve her own previous academic work to focus fully on Holocaust history.

It was a major change for her. Before coming to Chapman, Harran taught in the religious studies department at Barnard College. She also spent a couple of years at a Reformation institute outside of Stuttgart, Germany, and her decision to study the darkest period of that country’s past didn’t sit well with a few of her colleagues. “Some of my former professors,  when I started to do this, thought I had lost my mind,” Harran said.