The Holocaust remembered
A UNR academic center that studies genocide honors both the victims and the liberators
You’d think the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies would sit in a somber granite Manhattan building guarded by stone lions.
In fact, the center resides in a little-known part of the University of Nevada, Reno. It’s housed off campus in a shlightly seedy apartment building with minimal outside identification.
The surroundings disguise the great amount of work that goes on inside. Founded to promote peace and to research and investigate the causes of the Holocaust of World War II and other cases of genocide, the center is a beehive of issues, studies and events. In just six years , the center has produced films – one of them nominated for an Emmy – and a university course of study.
“Mostly the community says, “What? You have a what here?” That’s the biggest obstacle,” said Viktoria Hertling, the center’s director.” People don’t know we’re here. But with our current resources, we couldn’t handle all the interest we’d have if people knew about us, but that would also be a strong message to the university. More avenues are opening to us.”
Year by year, the center is growing. This year, the government of Austria is including the center among the organizations approved for its commemorative service intern program, an alternative to mandatory military service.
That’s brought two young men, Andreas Feuerstein, 22, and Heinz Boesch, 25, to work in the center and the community for 14 months each rather than spend eigth months in the Austrian army.
Hertling first pitched the idea for a center for Holocaust studies to university officials in 1984. At the time, she was a professor of German. She first approached Robert Hoover, who was then vice president for academic affairs. “I credit him with listening to me, picking up on my vision,” said Hertling, who still is nominally a language professor. “He made it possible for me to devote time to it.” Hertling has published several books on Nazism. German by birth and born at the end of World War II, Hertling didn’t know until after the war that her mother had helped Jewish friends flee the country. Her mother also traveled twice to Switzerland in 1935 to tranfer money out of Germany for Jewish friends who couldn’t do it themselves.
“The first I found out about it was after the war when Jewish friends began to visit us in Cologne from Argentina and Colombia,” Hertling said. “Then I became aware my mother had helped them.”
The center was founded in 1993. During the first three years, most of the work focused on events honoring the legacy of victims and the people who freed them.
“We interviewed survivors and liberators,” she said. “You cannot save survivors without liberators. We found several here who had served in the armed forces in 1944 and 1945.”
At the center’s first community function in February 1995, organizers expected about 50 people to come hear the survivors and liberators, about 800 showed up. The guests of honor were two local Holocaust survivors and former Greater Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce director Allen, a concentration camp liberator.
“The mere fact of being present at the liberation had enough impact on me to last a lifetime,” Allen said. “It stretched my emotions more than anything before or after.”
Leopold and Mila Page, two of the people on the factory employee list of Oskar Schindler that saved so many Jews from death, attended the event. The list became the subject of a book by Thomas Keneally and the Academy Award-winning movie “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg in 1993.
After that event, the center began work on a videotape pogram. KNPB Cahnnel 5 ran with the idea. Hertling wrote and produced it and selected the photos. “Memories of the Holocaust” aired for the first time on Nov.9, 1995, the anniversary of Krystalnacht, the 1938 pogrom in which many Jews in Germany were killed and Jewish homes and businesses destroyed by mobs. The film was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Area residents were featured in the film:
– A woman who was a Jewish teenager in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1930s.
– Another woman whose German-Jewish mother fell in love with and married a Japanese man and had to leave Germany for Japan.
– A professor who as a student in his native Netherlands worked in the Underground that helped Jews leave the country.
– Two soliders , one o them Allen ,wo were among the liberators of the concentration camps.
Hertling hopes to raise funds to reunite the five people in the television studio to film a follow-up to be shown in 2000.
Despite the welcome the center has received from many members of the community, Hertling said, not everyone has been so supportive.
“Early on, we did receive some hate mail,” she said. “Probably there are people in the community who are watching us.”
The center doesn’t advertise its street address; police ar advised of any event, and security people are on hand.
“But all this is outweighed by the tremendous response of the studensts, ” she said. “also the response of the people who donate their time, money and good will to the center.”
Outreach continues. The center has sent letters to 150 middle and high school teachers in the area telling them that Boesch and Feuerstein, the Austrian interns, will come to schools to talk about the center and why they came to the United Stated to work and study.
The interns also are producing the center’s newsletter and developing exhibits on the Internet:
– One on the center’s 1996 Festival of peace, held in Reno.
– One on Oskar Schindler.
– And a third of a phot exhib held last year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Krystalnacht.
“We’re not bookish,” Hertling said. “We’re proactive, honoring victims of genocide by making sure we plant peace consciousness.”
Heinz Boesch and Andreas Feuerstein, the Austrian interns who will work in the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies until autumn 2000, applied through their national government for the program because they agreed with the center’s mission statement and were ager to work with an organization that is active in efforts for peace, instead of just remembering the Holocaust.
“There was intense negotation,” said Viktoria Hertling, the center’s director. “The government wanted to make sure we were affiliated with the universtiy and that we have the projects we say we have.”
Because the internship is an alternative to military service, the interns are paid a small amount by their government to live in the U.S.
No funding comes through the center or the universtity.
“I was happy that the center ist involved in community activities,” Feuerstein said. “So we’re not just here trying to conserve history. It’s reaching out and educating.