The Founding of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County

hmtc_about_borisBoris 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 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 expanded in 2014 with the completion of the construction of The Claire Friedlander Education Institute, a $1 million project that has significantly expanded programming and outreach efforts. The institute, which is 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.”

— Howard Maier

hmtc_about_steveSteven 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.”

— Peter Klein

“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.

hmtc_about_peterClaire 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.

Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County

The Mansion

Thanks to the determined efforts of several Holocaust Survivors on Long Island, the Holocaust Center found a home in one of Long Island’s storied mansions. Welwyn, considered at one time an American Palace, was originally constructed in 1906 for Mr. and Mrs. Harold I. Pratt and their three children. It was one of several homes built in Glen Cove around the turn of the 20th Century for the Pratt family whose family fortune originated with Harold’s father, Charles Pratt, who was a partner with J.D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company.

It was a time of great opulence on the north shore of Long Island, which earned the nickname, “Gold Coast.” Adjacent to the Welwyn mansion, Harriet Pratt, Harold’s wife, commissioned the Olmstead Brothers to design and construct a magnificent garden. Considering the Olmstead Brothers were part of the great family legacy that included Frederick Olmstead who planned Central Park, it should be no surprise that the result was an award-winning garden. Much of which can still be viewed today after being lovingly restored by a group of volunteers at the Center.

In addition to being an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, Harold Pratt was involved in banking, American Express, the New York/New Haven Railroad and a trustee of Pratt Institute. Harold died in 1939 but Harriet remained in Welwyn until her death in 1969 at which time the mansion and the land it resides on was gifted to Nassau County in perpetuity.

The Nassau County Department of Parks and Recreation maintained the home and the preserve faithfully after Harriet’s death and their work continues to this day. An excerpt from the book about the Center authored by HMTC board member Marcia Posner describes briefly how the facility was ultimately designated for the Center’s use:

“It wasn’t until February, 1993, however, that the New York Times reported that Welwyn, a 96 year-old mansion built in the Georgian style, was to become a Holocaust educational site. Boris’ dream of having a permanent home for a Holocaust Educational Center was realized. After almost 30 years of neglect the Welwyn mansion, once the scene of lavish parties and banquets attended by the Prince of Wales, Chiang Kai-shek, Henry Luce, the Morgans and the Astors was in terrible disrepair. Besides the ravages of time and nature, for ten years it had been a training site for the Nassau Sheriff’s Department and was now closed to the public. The cost at that time to repair it was estimated at $1.2 million, according to Isaac Blachor, a volunteer lawyer for the Holocaust Commission as the organizing group was then named.”

The Children’s Garden

Seven years ago the Holocaust Center launched a Million Pennies Project involving the schools of Long Island to provide seed money for a garden as a living memorial to the million and a half Jewish children as well as all other children who perished during World War II. The Children’s Memorial Garden is dedicated to all the innocent young lives that were lost during this time.

This Garden is located on the site of the one acre formal garden of Welwyn, the former estate of Harriet and Harold Pratt. Welwyn is currently a Nassau County preserve and the home of The Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center.

This project has rehabilitated the former garden, designed by the Olmstead Brothers, utilizing all the existing structures and adding brick and bluestone walks, two handicapped ramps and benches. The design for this garden includes plant material that will bloom each season of the year.

The central fountain will display a circle of jets arching water towards the center where an eternal flame and a sculpture of butterflies at various heights will be located. Butterflies have come to symbolize the innocence of the children as well as rebirth.

The arbor in the back is made of brick pillars with cedar beams. Wisteria, climbing roses and clematis will soften and enhance the arbor. An existing dolphin fountain will add another water element to the garden.

The public benefit upon completion of this project is twofold. The garden will have an area for an outdoor classroom for the thousands of schoolchildren that come through the Center each year. Additionally, the garden will attract many more visitors to the Center and will make them aware of how innocent children were the victims of this tragic period of history. This garden will emphasize to all the need for tolerance and prejudice reduction.

Below is an excerpt of Marcia Posner’s book about the history of the Center that reflects on certain plantings in the garden. The passage is authored by HMTC board member Jolanta Zamecka, who spearheaded the revitalization of this historic garden:

“A tree was planted to honor Janusz Korczak and the children of the Warsaw Ghetto at the Ceremony. Janusz Korczak was a children’s author, humanitarian, pediatrician and child pedagogue. When the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, his orphanage for Jewish children was forced to move there. Korczak decided to go with them, saying that he will never abandon them. In August of 1942, German soldiers came to collect the orphans and staff to transport them to the Treblinka extermination camp. Korczak had been offered sanctuary by Zegota but repeatedly refused, saying that he would never abandon his children. On August 5th, Korczak told his children that they are going on a long journey; they would go where the air is clean, meadows filled with flowers and streams and they would never have to suffer again. The children were dressed in their best cloths, each carrying a knapsack and a book or favorite toy and marched two by two, to Umschlagplatz, the deportation station. *

At the station an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite children’s books and offered him freedom. Korczak refused. He boarded the train with the children and staff. They were all killed in a gas chamber upon arrival at Treblinka (196 children, Korczak and 12 staff members). I wanted the first tree planted to be dedicated to him and the children; and to be a symbol of defiance in the face of adversity. I chose a tall and proud redwood not native to Poland but native to this country.”

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