Center of Hope
The Center's goal is simple, but challenging; to make sure the world does not forget.
by Steve Dodge
In 1969, “Whatever Happened to Old South Portland?” was playing at Portland Civic Theatre and the Jewish Community Center. The show was a nostalgic look at the scenes and characters of the community’s immigrant experience, written by the Cleveland-born Shirley Tanzer, who had come to Portland in the mid-1950s with her husband Hershal.
“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
- Pastor Martin Niemoeller, who was sent to a concentration camp for speaking out against the Nazis. He was liberated in 1945, and became the head of the World Council of Churches.
Playgoers that year were treated to a dose of little-known Portland history. What they didn’t know was that they were also helping make some. Out of her experience with the play, Tanzer became engrossed with oral history and began recording the stories of local victims of the Holocaust. Those audio and videotapes became the genesis of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center (OHRC), now at Pacific University. The Center was initially housed at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland under the guidance of Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and its first director, Dr. Sylvia Frankel, as a clearing house of information and artifacts related to the Holocaust, also known as the Shoah.
In 1993, the OHRC Board voted to seek affiliation with a university and opened an office the next year in Pacific University’s Warner Hall. By 1996 the OHRC had consolidated its headquarters at Pacific. Now just past its 20th anniversary, the Center is planning to move to larger, more modern quarters in the new Professional Studies Building on campus, slated for opening in summer 2007. It also has a large and relatively new task, the oversight and maintenance of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, which opened in Portland’s Washington Park in August 2004.
From the beginning, the OHRC’s mission has been largely educational: to tell the story of the systematic murder of 67 percent of Europe’s Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II, some six million people. A lesser known part of the story, also related in various ways by the Center, is that the Nazis killed millions more: Gypsies or Roma, political and religious opponents, artists and writers, homosexuals, the disabled, basically anyone the regime disliked or considered inferior. The Center’s goal is simple, but challenging: to make sure the world does not forget.
“I think that the valuable aspect of the OHRC is that it does provide a measure of what we should and could do by living together as a community.”
President Pacific University
In order to do that, according to Elaine Coughlin, immediate past president of the OHRC and an assistant professor in the Pacific College of Education, the founders of the Center felt it was imperative that a broad community of Jews and non-Jews be represented in the organization. Indeed, the Rev. Grover Bagby, a Christian minister, was the Center’s first president. “They didn’t want it to be a Jewish organization because the need for education goes through all faiths,” said Coughlin.
“(The Holocaust) goes right to the core of Western history, culture, and religion,” agreed Mike Steele, distinguished University professor of English and peace studies at Pacific, an OHRC board member at the time of the move to Forest Grove. “It’s about the power of the state to influence its citizens to direct them to evil ends. We have a moral imperative to teach that.”
Pacific has been teaching the Holocaust since 1982 when Rabbi Stampfer met with Professor Emeritus of history Marshall Lee and Steele. The duo taught the curriculum until Lee’s retirement in 2000. Lee also wrote the history panels at the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. These days Steele teaches a Holocaust writing unit and a history unit each year.
Shirley Tanzer died in 1994, but the OHRC still uses her tapes and others like them to help keep the story alive. In addition, the Center houses numerous Holocaust-related books, art, and artifacts for visitors and scholars. Events include a symposium for high school students and the annual Sala Kryszek Writing and Art Competition, named for a Portland woman and Holocaust survivor who died in 1986. The competition draws entries from all over the state and Southwest Washington from students who use their creative energies to explore and remember the Holocaust.
An important part of the Center’s work is also helping teachers with delivery of education about the Holocaust. Coughlin and other teachers put together an extensive curriculum guide and the Center’s Web site (ohrc.pacificu.edu) offers lesson plans and links to bibliographies and other Holocaust resources. (See sidebar, “Teaching the Teachers.”)
No doubt the most powerful component of the OHRC’s education program are the testimonies of the survivors themselves. The Center has an active speaker’s bureau, numbering about 20, who go to schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers, churches, and other organizations. According to Evelyn Banko, co-chair of the group and a Holocaust survivor, the speaker’s bureau reached some 30,000 students last year. “I am personally involved with the OHRC, the Speaker’s Bureau, and the education committee because I believe the message of tolerance and respect for others comes through in our stories and our messages,” she said.
“I am a retired teacher so the education component is one of my interests. I was born in Vienna, escaped to Latvia, and came to America in 1940 on the last train out of Riga, Latvia. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins perished in the camps, so I can relate their stories as well as my experiences as I speak to groups of students. History becomes alive when students hear stories first hand and not just out of a textbook.”
It not only comes alive, but has impact, according to other survivor-speakers. Miriam Greenstein Motola, at the dedication of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, noted: “It is gratifying to know that our message does make a difference. We know this from the tremendous number of thank-yous we receive from those who have heard us, that many of our listeners have turned away from racism and bigotry and embrace the idea of our common humanity.”
Greenstein Motola said she had remained silent about what happened to her and worked hard to forget until someone painted swastikas near Cleveland High School in southeast Portland several years ago. Then racist skinheads beat an Ethiopian immigrant to death in Portland.
“I was outraged,” she said, “I thought somebody ought to speak up. Somebody has to do something. Then I said to myself ‘how about you?’” She has been involved in the OHRC ever since and served a term as president.
Alice Kern, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, was speaking to school groups before there was a formal OHRC speaker’s group. When asked why she participates, she said simply, “Because I am a survivor.”
It was Kern and other survivors who began meeting to share their pain and their stories that then became the Oregon Holocaust Survivors, Refugees and Families Committee. Eventually, talk turned to the need for a memorial to honor those who perished with families now in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
“After 30 years I decided it was time to leave a legacy,” Kern said. “One of my daughters said there should be a place where we can touch the names of those who died, like the Vietnam Memorial.”
And so, after 10 years of effort, the memorial, located in a quiet corner of Portland’s Washington Park near the Rose Test Gardens, has engraved in black granite the names of those who died. But there is much more: panels that describe the history of the Holocaust, written by Pacific’s Lee; haunting quotes in brass from survivors; and a representation of a town square sprinkled with items like those dropped by doomed deportees. Greenstein Motola and others also went to the six “killing camps” to collect soil and ashes for internment at the Oregon memorial.
The memorial is now the financial and operational responsibility of the OHRC. The Center maintains the site, arranges for tours, and provides docents for school groups and other visitors.
Said Kern: “This is for our survivors to have a place because we don’t have any of our loved ones in cemeteries. This is our cemetery ... this is our legacy and we are proud that this could happen. It should last forever.”
For information on booking a speaker, visiting the OHRC or Oregon Holocaust Memorial, call 503-352-2930 or go to ohrc.pacificu.edu .