• My Journey to Auschwitz

    My Journey to Auschwitz – By Helen Turner


    My heart felt like it had been ripped out. I could not believe what my eyes were seeing. Before me stood a case, the size of half a room, filled from floor to ceiling with human hair. This hair was all that remained of countless victims of Nazi atrocities at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

    What struck me most about my reaction was that I have seen this hair before. I specialize in material culture in Auschwitz-Birkenau and have seen countless images of human hair which was taken from Nazi victims. However, seeing these human remains in person, standing in the haunted grounds of Auschwitz, changed my perspective on Holocaust education forever.

    This summer I had the privilege of travelling with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants on an educators trip on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. This incredible trip would last fourteen days, spanning from New Jersey through Germany, Poland and back again. I was accompanied by 25 educators from across the United States and three incredible leaders who would shepherd our group through the physical and emotional terrain of the concentration camps.



    After eleven days of museums, concentration camps and Holocaust memorials we arrived in Auschwitz. For me, this was a place to fear. Auschwitz has loomed large in my mind due to my research and personal connection with many Auschwitz Survivors. The emotional complexity of experiencing the camp first hand daunted me as we pulled up in our bus. To my surprise, the information center was packed. It was a busy day for visitors and eerily the smell of cafeteria food wafted from the center, a stark contrast to the starvation that was experienced here 70 years prior. Our group was quickly outfitted with headsets and a tour guide. We began to make our way through the visitors area and approached the notorious entrance of Auschwitz. The gate loomed before us, surprisingly smaller than my imagination had conjured but menacing none the less. We passed through and were greeted by stone barracks, the first buildings of Auschwitz 1. These barrack s currently serve as a museum of the camp and it was here that we encountered the physical evidence of the murder of over 1.1 million people. We encountered room after room of possessions: shoes, pots, combs and hair. The devastation became manifested in what remained; the echoes of life. It was here I experienced the first punch to the gut. That hair. That hair that represented so many victims; mothers, daughters, friends. Human beings who were stripped of their dignity before death. I will never forget that hair.


    After completing the museum we made the short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The infamous death camp was so large and encompassing it stuck me as a movie set. How was this possible? The vastness, the economics that went into the destruction of human beings. It didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t. Our group walked among the barracks and stood within the buildings that housed prisoners. As we stood discussing the appalling living conditions of inmates rain, fat and heavy almost hail-like smacked the roof. To stand in that eerie space, hearing the rain attack the roof, to hear what those poor people must have heard on similar rainy days brought a reality to the moment which I had been struggling to grasp.


    We then walk the same steps thousands took to their deaths; from the railway tracks, past the camp to the final stop, the gas chambers. While the chambers and the crematorium were destroyed by the Nazi’s during their hasty retreat the remains emanate pain and suffering. From here we walked to our final destination, a memorial to those murdered at Auschwitz. It was here that candles were lit, kaddish was said and I recited the names of my friends who suffered here: Claire Heymann, Annie Bleiberg, Werner Reich, Alex Rosner and Ruth Mermelstein. In that moment, surrounded my new friends in a foreign county, my heart broke.

    As I sit here today, writing this blog I am still journeying to Auschwitz. It is a life-long journey to understand, to comprehend. My trip to these haunting camps has changed me. My eyes have been opened, my heart has been shattered and my knowledge has been expanded.


  • Megerian and Duvenjian Families are Donors of the Month for June 2015

    “Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.” Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery

    Washington’s words aptly describe the Megerian and Duvenjian families.  Last month, Judy Vladimir, our Director of Development, took a chance and called Megerian and Sons Rugs in Locust Valley, to inform them of our special event on the centennial commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. Without ever having been to our Center, Paul Megerian immediately demonstrated his extraordinary generosity by offering to loan us gorgeous antique Armenian rugs to enhance our Special Exhibit Gallery and event room. When Paul visited the Center for display measurements, he noticed the poor condition of the wooden floors in our lobby and gallery, and arranged for his uncle, Avo Duvenjian, to donate his floor restoration services to us. Our lobby and gallery floors are now truly spectacular.

    On May 30th, both the Megerians and Duvenjians participated in our Armenian commemoration along with our Holocaust Survivors and 200 other guests.  The poignant day was perhaps best represented by Christina and Paul Megerian as they held their 11-month old son and lit a memorial candle — demonstrating the cultural and generational legacies of the Armenian Survivors of the 1915 genocide.

    The Megerian and Duvenjian families’ generosity continues – they have offered to donate 15% of the charge from all purchases made at any of their stores to anyone who mentions the “Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center.” Please support these wonderful Upstanders, and by doing so, you also support HMTC.

    Megerian and Sons Rugs, www.megerianrugs.com or (877) MEGERIAN
    Archetypal Imaginary Corporation, www.archetypalgallery.com or (800) 509-5548

  • Janet Danforth is HMTC’s Volunteer of the Month for June 2015

    Janet Danforth, HMTC’s Volunteer of the Month for June 2015, grew up on Long Island, left 42 years ago, and never thought she’d be back to live here.  But, four years ago her mother’s need for support and health care brought Janet back from Israel to the house she grew up in, now in the role of caregiver. After the six months of frequent doctor and physical therapy visits ended, and her mother’s house put in order, she then thought, “now what?” Her mother could no longer live alone, but she also didn’t need minute-to-minute care. This left Janet with lots of time and an itching to do something useful with it.

    Janet eagerly registered for HMTC’s summer institute which consists of a week-long Holocaust training program for new educators. She recalls that it was one of the most exciting educational weeks of her very-educated (three master’s degrees: social work, bioethics, and religious studies) life. As a 45-year reader of Holocaust literature, she often felt like an anomaly, even in the Jewish Community: without any rational reason why it mattered to her so much, she wondered why she chose to read about this massive suffering when those around her were reading light fiction. Coming to the Center has been a profound coming home. Not only did she find a community of like-minded people, she also stopped asking what was wrong, and started thinking about what was right.

    Regarding her work as an educator and docent at HMTC Janet states; “the Center is an always-current place to study history and its implications for us, especially considering the state of the world today. Until the world practices ‘Never Again’ by making genocide something we read about in history books, the role of the Center in teaching  tolerance and “doing the right thing” will always be relevant, timely, and vitally important.”  Janet dedicates countless hours to serving the mission of the Center and has become a key member of our volunteer community.

    Janet, thank you for your time and dedication; congratulations on being volunteer of the month.

  • “Impounded” – Book of the Month – June


    “Unflinchingly illustrates the reality of life during this extraordinary moment in American history.”—Dinitia Smith, The New York Times

    Censored by the U.S. Army, Dorothea Lange’s unseen photographs are the extraordinary photographic record of the Japanese American internment saga. This indelible work of visual and social history confirms Dorothea Lange’s stature as one of the twentieth century’s greatest American photographers. Presenting 119 images originally censored by the U.S. Army—the majority of which have never been published—Impounded evokes the horror of a community uprooted in the early 1940s and the stark reality of the internment camps. With poignancy and sage insight, nationally known historians Linda Gordon and Gary Okihiro illuminate the saga of Japanese American internment: from life before Executive Order 9066 to the abrupt roundups and the marginal existence in the bleak, sandswept camps. In the tradition of Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World, Impounded, with the immediacy of its photographs, tells the story of the thousands of lives unalterably shattered by racial hatred brought on by the passions of war. A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2006.

    Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company Inc.

  • Julia Yablans & Zachary Shallat are Upstanders of the Month May 2015

    On April 19, we had the wonderful opportunity to spend an afternoon honoring student artists who participated in our annual Creative Arts Competition. Meeting these young artists and listening to their descriptions of their award winning works reminded us all of the transformative nature of the arts. Two of the students especially stood out, and we are thrilled to honor them further as our Upstanders of the Month for April and May. Together they represent all of our student artists this year who understand the power of art to heal, to educate, and to inspire.

    Julia Yablans is a fifth grader at Schechter School of Long Island, and has been thinking about her submission to the 2015 Arts competition for some time. When Tracy Garrison-Feinberg, the director of the Claire Friedlander Education Institute at HMTC, visited Schechter in the fall to meet with fourth and fifth grade classes, Julia had amazing questions about the history of the Holocaust, and expressed her interest in the arts competition. She and her father visited the museum to view Objects of Witness, a special exhibit featuring numerous artifacts from our archives. Julia took that experience as inspiration, and interviewed Holocaust survivor Michael Bornstein, a family friend who had his own object of witness, a Kiddush Cup that his family had buried before being forced from their home. They were able to retrieve the cup after the war. Julia captured Mr. Bornstein’s testimony in a video project that won second place in the “Video/Film” category of this year’s competition. For helping to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and for her award-winning smile, Julia is our Upstander of the Month for April 2015.

    Zachary Shallat, also a fifth grader at Schechter School , won first place in the “Sculpture/Multi-media” category for his work “Miracle of Light.” Zachary was inspired by the light bulb featured in our Objects of Witness special exhibit, a lightbulb that was the only intact artifact to survive the destruction of the synagogue in Drama, Greece, during World War II. His piece, pictured here, captured the fragility of the lightbulb and the hope and the light epitomized by survivors. Zachary further impressed us when he donated his cash award back to the Holocaust Center, bringing his mother, grandmother, and Friedlander Education Institute director Tracy Garrison-Feinberg to tears. His artistic talent and his generous spirit make him our Upstander of the Month for May 2015.

  • Vivian Rick is HMTC’s Volunteer of the Month May 2015

    HMTC is excited to honor Vivian Rick as our volunteer of the month for May!

    Vivian’s parents were both Holocaust Survivors from Vienna, Austria. Her father was a lawyer and the head of the law department in a large firm. He had the foresight to leave Austria and went underground. Somehow he managed to immigrate to Kingston, New York. He immediately joined the United States army as an interpreter. Her mother was a design student in gymnasium and worked in her parent’s haute couture store. It took two years for her family to get papers so that they could leave Vienna for Brooklyn where Vivian’s grandmother’s brother already lived.

    Vivian’s parents met on a subway when her father was on leave and her mother was going to work. They married in 1942 and Vivian was born in 1948. Vivian says “I would like to believe that they named me Vivian because it means lively, vivid; a new beginning.” Though her parents were not in the camps, their lives were totally uprooted. Her father died when she was 5 and half years old and neither her mother, nor the rest of the family, spoke of their experiences in Europe. Vivian remembers that their past “was a taboo subject that wasn’t even in my consciousness until much later and even then I couldn’t ask my mother for fear of unearthing deep wounds.”

    After college Vivian married and raised two children. She worked as a merchandiser for Mattel Toys for ten years and then as a sample books productions manager for Stroheim and Roman, a design fabric, wallcovering and trim house, for 21 years. This month Vivian has just received her real estate license to being a new venture.

    On choosing to volunteer with HMTC, Vivian says “how people treat each other in the world has always been an issue for me. Even as a young girl my motto was “live and let live.” Maybe as a second generation all those unvoiced words were imparted to me, or maybe it’s just in our souls.” When Vivian retired she knew exactly where she wanted to volunteer, HMTC, where she could educate children and help bring awareness to who they are and who they can become. Vivian feels that “the world is counting on them as individuals to do the right thing and repair the world.” Of her experience with HMTC Vivian says “I am honored to be in the presence of the Survivors and am privileged to facilitate, educate and docent with people of like minds and spirits, especially in these unsettling times. As a second generation, HMTC represents a place of hope: where all people can learn to respect each other if they open their minds. Thank you to my husband Bill, who understands who I am and why I must do this.“

    Congratulations Vivian!

  • “The Magician of Auschwitz” – Book of the Month – May

    HMTC is delighted to feature Holocaust Survivor and HMTC speaker, Werner Reich’s book “ The Magician of Auschwitz” as our book of the month.

    Werner was a youThe Magician of Auschwitzng man when he entered Auschwitz death camp. While imprisoned, Werner befriended a famous magician, Herr Levin. While imprisoned, Levin was forced to perform magic for the concentration camp guards. By entertaining them, night after night, he was able to survive. In the midst of this terrible prison, Herr Levin showed Werner great kindness and taught Werner magic tricks. Herr Levin believed that “magic has helped keep me alive . . . perhaps it will help you too.” As Werner recalls upon learning his first magic trick from Levin; “it was nearly impossible to think about a future . . . but in that moment, he felt less afraid and less alone. Someone had cared about him and given him some hope. There was enough real magic in that for Werner to hold on to.”

    This beautiful and emotional children’s book explores the power of hope and friendship even in the most harsh of circumstances. “The Magician of Auschwitz” is a fantastic introduction for children into understanding the great brutality of Nazism and also the strength of human kindness.

    ” The Magician of Auschwitz” is available for purchase at the HMTC gift shop.


  • Center Moriches Middle School is Donor of the Month for May

    Center Moriches Middle School

    8th grade students at Center Moriches Middle School have been very busy the last two months, drinking a lot of water and collecting a lot of water bottles as they raised $49.75 for the Nassau Holocaust Museum and Tolerance Center.

    Rebecca Kopcienski, CenteDonor of the month- Mayr Moriches Middle School AIS teacher was moved by a project by one of her daughter’s teachers in Mount Sinai to put this project together. Karl O’Leary, English teacher from Mount Sinai, sent home a notice about collecting discarded water bottles to have the students understand the enormity of lives lost during the Holocaust. 1.5 million Children perished during the Nazis attempts to exterminate the Jewish people and both teachers were inspired to help the students grasp the large numbers.

    In Center Moriches, the 8th grade students read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Boy on the Wooden Box, a memoir of Leon Leyson , the youngest Schindler Jew. During their study of these pieces of literature and the time period, the students met during their 10th period class to prepare boxes to collect the empty bottles, make signs and posters reminding students to donate and wrote announcements to be read in the morning. They also collected the bottles each week and sorted them.

    As the bottles were collected, students traced their hands and for every 5 bottles returned they were able to put a hand on the bulletin board outside their classroom. Every hand represented 5 children who died during the Holocaust and soon the whole middle school could see the sea of hands. It didn’t take long for the whole bulletin board to be covered.

    The project culminated with an art presentation from Renee DiMeo-Bridgwood, Center Moriches Middle School Art teacher. Mrs. DiMeo-Bridgwood, had taken images of artwork from the book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”, which highlights children’s artwork and poetry from the Terezin Concentration Camp. There were also works of art of children from Aucshwitz. She created an art gallery in the hallway for the students. During the last week of February every 8th grader got to hear about the children who created those pieces of art. Mrs. DiMeo-Bridgwood spoke to the students about the artists and their lives, whether they survived the Holocaust, and how making art played an important role in their grieving process and self-expression

    Both the students and teachers felt that the lessons learned throughout thisunit were incredibly valuable and many students have even been moved to read other books about the Holocaust and the attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe. In a discussion after the unit was over most students felt like they now understood why they needed to learn about this important period of time and the loss of life that scarred the world forever.

  • Stephen Berger is HMTC’s Volunteer of the Month April 2015

    The Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County’s April 2015 Volunteer of the Month is Stephen Berger who was born and raised in Debrecin, Hungary, where he attended elementary school and Jewish Gymnasium. After the German occupation of Hungary he was forced into the city ghetto. From there, he was sent to Strasshof concentration camp and then to a slave labor camp in Austria.

    After being liberated by Allied Forces, Stephen briefly returned to Hungary, where he discovered the Germans, and their Hungarian collaborators, had murdered 26 members of his family. He joined the Zionist movement and later left Hungary. He worked to help Europeans and Jews emigrate to Palestine and was active in Israel’s war of independence.

    Since retiring, Stephen dedicates his time to educating young people about the dangers of intolerance. Stephen is now a speaker for the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, speaking to hundreds of children per year about his experience. Stephen also regularly engages with children all over the world through HMTC’s state of the art video conferences. He tirelessly devotes time and energy to the continuation of the promise “never again.”

    Congratulations Stephen, thank you for all that you do.

  • Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka: Ideal Guest Speaker for “Farewell to Manzanar”

    This Sunday at 12:30 the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County (HMTC)  will screen the film “Farewell to Manzanar,” and Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka will talk with us about it, bringing in his own family’s incarceration and raising the broader issues involved.   Knowledgeable of both the Japanese and Jewish experience during the war, he offers a unique perspective to help us explore the significance of these deplorable events.

    Born and raised Christian as a second generation Japanese, teen-aged Theodore began searching for God outside his inherited faith and formally converted to Judaism in his early twenties.  At fifty-two, after twenty years in business, realizing he needed to do something more satisfying, he enrolled in the Academy for Jewish Religion’s Rabbinic program and graduated six years later.  Since that time, he has served as Spiritual Leader for the Reform Temple Isaiah in Great Neck.

    The Rabbi’s parents and grandparents were relocated from California to an internment facility in Posten, Arizona, and his parents actually met in the camp.  Notwithstanding the unfairness of the shocking  forced transfer, the restrictions and discomfort of their circumstances, and the loss of most of their possessions, his family didn’t feel their situation to be unbearable, says the Rabbi, probably due to the Japanese stoic mentality.  For years afterward, similar to many survivor families, there wasn’t much talk about what had happened.  Eventually, though, some resentment was expressed, although it never hardened into a “chip on the shoulder” attitude toward America.

    Struck by the parallels between the Japanese and Jewish camp experiences, one of the Rabbi’s congregants and long-term HMTC Educators asked him if he’d be interested in presenting his views and family’s stories and facilitating a discussion.  The Rabbi agreed, recognizing the opportunity to raise awareness that “since it happened in this country, it could happen again” and to promote reflection on what it might take “so that it won’t happen again.”

    Although our government eventually formally apologized for harm caused by the illegal incarceration and awarded each victim twenty thousand dollars in reparations, this breach of justice left an indelible red stain on the American conscience. The questions of how we deal with human and minority rights, particularly in times of fear and duress, are vital concerns for all of us who wrestle with the legacy of the Holocaust.

    I encourage you to see this film and participate in what promises to be an enlightening conversation.  With Rabbi Tsuruoka’s guiding wisdom, we can put our hearts and minds together to create greater understanding of how to deal with the bigotry threatening our world.

    • Frank Miller-Small