Academy Award Winner Michael Berenbaum delivered the inaugural lecture for Western’s new Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity on Wednesday, Oct. 19.
The institute was created by "a group of dedicated staff, faculty, and administrators from across the university who worked on and put forward a proposal according to established WWU policies," Sandra Alfers said in an email response.
Alfers received a grant from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. This grant was awarded to develop a minor at Western in Holocaust and Genocide Studies for Western students in 2015. Alfers teaches Holocaust Representations classes at Western and is now the director of the institute.
The namesake of the institute is Ray Wolpow, a former Western professor who created the Northwest Center of Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education in 1998. The institute was created with the mission to “advance knowledge about the Holocaust and genocide, including ethnic and religious conflict as well as attendant human rights abuses,” according to the institute’s website.
Nearly 400 people filled Arntzen Hall 100 for the event, signaling interest in the topic of Holocaust studies, Alfers said.
“I’m very pleased about the student and community response and look forward to having events like this in the future,” Alfers said.
The importance of educating others about the Holocaust was a key point in Berenbaum’s lecture, in which he applied the implications of history to the current Syrian refugee crisis and other humanitarian crises around the world.
“The way to make it less of an unspeakable topic is to become comfortable with it.”
Studying the Holocaust in today’s society illustrates the destruction that can be caused by racial prejudice and mass genocide, Berenbaum said in his lecture.
Junior Leah Sauter, president of Hillel, Western’s Jewish student organization, said getting a better understanding of the Holocaust can be as easy as talking to somebody new.
“Get to know a Jewish student because [the Holocaust] is in living memory and is something that impacts Jewish society as a whole.” Sauter said. “The way to make it less of an unspeakable topic is to become comfortable with it.”
Student volunteer and junior Joshua Stromberg said knowing about the Holocaust is necessary in order to gain understanding about social issues today.
“I think being relatable to students is really important in Holocaust teaching today, especially because [the Holocaust] doesn’t come to the forefront of social issues like Black Lives Matter, but it’s still a relevant issue,” Stromberg said. “Western had instances on campus last year with anti-Semitism, so I think the Holocaust teaches people why it’s still important.”
Senior Celeste Hufford, another student volunteer, agreed.
“He brought up the genocide in Rwanda. We’re still experiencing these things. It’s not like the world learned from what happened in Europe in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Hufford said.
Both Hufford and Stromberg are German Studies majors and are enrolled in Alfers’ Holocaust Representation class.
In his lecture, Berenbaum focused on the need to discuss difficult issues like the Holocaust to improve awareness about problems in the world today — a point that especially resonated with Hufford.
“He brought up the point that you just have to talk. Uncomfortable topics are uncomfortable because we don’t talk, and bringing them into the open is how we solve them.” Hufford said.
Holocaust survivor and local resident Noemi Ban will give a speech at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9, in Arntzen Hall 100 about loss, inspiration and how future generations can work to avoid catastrophe.