The Founding of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County
Boris Chartan took a seat on the grassy field inside a Polish labor camp and glanced at the sky as it melted to black.
Chartan, only 16 at the time, and his father, both imprisoned for being Jewish, figured this was a better time than any to make their escape. They sprinted through a nearby forest under the cover of darkness, the start of an exhausting three-day trek that ended at a farm 80 miles away, where a Polish farmer promised to hide his mother from Nazis.
The man had risked his family’s safety on a number of other occasions, traveling by horse and wagon once a month to the Gestapo-run labor camp where he would sneak Chartan and his father food.
It’s that bravery, sacrifice, kindness and selflessness when so many others—bystanders—turned a blind eye, fearful of repercussions if caught protecting Jews, that Chartan harkens back to when he tells the story of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, which he founded with the help of local officials, clergy and other survivors two decades ago.
The Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, an independently run 501c3 is tucked inside the Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove at the former Pratt Estate, it was the first Holocaust museum and educational center to serve the nearly 3 million people on Long Island.
It’s stated goal was not only limited to teaching the history of the Holocaust. Chartan believed a broader mission statement was necessary, one that would put education of anti-Semitism, intolerance, racism and bullying at the forefront. It was to be a sanctuary for all people no matter their faith or ethnicity, a place where the lessons of the Holocaust could be used to encourage people of all ages to promote dignity and respect of all human beings.
“I wanted to bring in the other people in the community,” he says, “not for the fundraiser part but to be comfortable to bring their kids and learn and teach.”
He wanted parents and children alike to hear the stories of rescuers such as the Polish farmer, and other brave men and women—upstanders, a term the center uses to define those who stand up for others and who embody the center’s message of tolerance—who risked everything to do what they believed what was right.
Chartan was bullied and beat up on his way home from school “only because I was Jewish,” he says. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to walk into his home in Poland with tears rolling down his cheeks.
It’s a story that many children on Long Island can relate too. That’s why the center has become an integral part of the community, championing anti-bullying causes and speaking out against prejudice and bigotry of all kinds.
“I want them to learn what had happened and what indifference means when you stand by and you don’t speak up,” Chartan says.
The Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County celebrated its 20th year in existence last year. It held its fourth annual golf outing, which raised more than $190,000 for the center, and hosted several events, including the “Righteous Conversations Project,” which brought together survivors and teens to speak about injustice in today’s society. Other events included the “Upstander Walk for Remembrance” and “Greece and the Holocaust.” The center also brought its message of tolerance to the LI GLBT Community Center in Garden City for its “Be Like Others” event.
The center’s state-of-the-art museum, which chronicles in heart-wrenching detail the atrocities of the Holocaust, welcomed thousands of parents, children and educators, as it has done every year since it opened.
Tens of thousands of other visitors poured into the center for seminars and lessons about the dangers of anti-Semitism and intolerance, and how to become upstanders.
The center’s education initiative will expand in 2014 when it completes construction of the Claire Friedlander Education Institute, a $1 million project meant to significantly expand programming and outreach efforts. The institute, which will be located on the second floor, includes four new classrooms outfitted with modern technology.
“Ten years ago it was a small little mom-and-pop shop with two employees and many wonderful volunteers,” Howard Maier, the center’s former chairman who stepped down at the end of 2012, says of the center.
Building up the center’s education department—headed by Beth Lilach, senior director of education and community affairs—was one of the four key goals Maier had when he took over as chairman.
It was important for the center “to deal with the fact that there is significant intolerance and hatred and prejudice among people,” he says. “Because the Holocaust started with that kind of prejudice, that it was an important aspect of the mission…to fight prejudice and hatred on Long Island.”
Maier also thought it necessary to evolve the board from one of volunteers to one of governance, which he did, and he sought to embed the staff with individuals with professional expertise in education and programming, which he also accomplished.
“The fourth significant objective,” Maier adds, “was to bring the museum up to the kind of stature that we needed to better represent how important our mission was.”
During Maier’s eight-year run as chairman, the center was successful in “dramatically increasing” the number of tolerance workshops it was offering, in part by expanding the program to include adults and police departments across Nassau and Suffolk counties, he says.
“Because the Holocaust started with that kind of prejudice, that it was an important aspect of the mission…to fight prejudice and hatred on Long Island.”
Steven Markowitz, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, who succeeded Maier in 2013, and who previously served as vice chairman, says the center’s staff teaches the lessons of the Holocaust in a way that “people can easily understand” and resonates today.
“There’s no question, I think there’s some degree of Holocaust fatigue out there, people have heard a lot about it and you very often hear people say, ‘Enough already, I’ve heard enough about this, I’m tired of it,’” he says. “We can never let that happen because we can never let anybody forget about the Holocaust. But I think what we’ve succeeded in doing, is making it relevant to life today, teaching the lessons of the Holocaust and reminding people that the Holocaust did not start with concentration camps and gas chambers, it started with name calling and bullying and discrimination and it just grew from there.”
“We live in an incredibly interesting dynamic time in the United States and right here on Long Island with just a rapidly changing population, becoming more and more diverse,” he adds. “None of us live in the kinds of neighborhoods we grew up in, nor could we ever expect to—you’re not going to find this kind of homogeneous areas that we were used to, and people need to learn to live with each other.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until kids are not jumping off of bridges because of their sexual orientation or because young men aren’t beaten on their way home from work because of their cultural background. Until that kind of idiocy, that inhumane behavior, is stamped out, we got work to do. As a man and as the foundation’s head I support the work that we do here wholeheartedly.”
“I’m very proud of the relations that we have developed with different communities—Asian communities, Muslim communities, Hispanic communities— to show them that our message of tolerance, of anti-bullying, anti-discrimination, is going to help us all learn to live better together.”
Markowitz sees the Claire Friedlander Education Institute as another example of the center’s growth since its humbling beginnings 20 years ago.
Claire Friedlander, a Holocaust survivor, started her own foundation as a vehicle to spread the message of tolerance and Holocaust remembrance. The foundation, which also supports nonprofits and charitable organizations committed to education, provided a $1 million grant to the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center to help fund the education institute named after its founder.
“I think she’s smiling down on us,” Peter Klein, president of the Claire Friedlander Family Foundation and Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center board member, says of Friedlander, who has since passed on. “I think she’s very happy with the work we’ve done and the work we’re still doing in her name and the name of the foundation.”
Friedlander supported other Holocaust remembrance organizations, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where the archive room is named after her and her family, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
Klein told her about the important work that was being done at Nassau County’s lone Holocaust center and that conversation later translated into the seven-figure grant bestowed upon the center. Friedlander died before she could visit, but “her name certainly lives on and her legacy does as well,” Klein says.