Educate for the future, remember the past.
RAMAPO – Alexander Levy spent decades not speaking about his teenage life in hiding from the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.
He lived with his experiences fixed in his memory, like many other survivors.
Yet today Levy feels at home talking about hiding in a Catholic orphanage, living with a pseudonym, and reliving his heartbreaking life and death experiences. He shares his life with students and during the programs of the recently reconstructed Rockland Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education at Rockland Community College.
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At the museum, education and the memory of the past merge with a look to the future.
“It is a center for tolerance and education,” said executive director Andrea Winograd. “We are not just a Jewish museum. We are here to educate.
Vinograd said the museum gently reopened on May 23 after being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The official reopening is scheduled for October 10.
“We want to look at the Holocaust and the suffering of everyone, from genocide to human rights violations,” she said. “We bring history alive.”
Origins of Rockland Holocaust Center
The original museum opened in 1981 at the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, before outgrowing the annex and moving to Rockland Community College in 2015.
For the RCC museum, 7,000 square feet of space was demolished for the addition of several exhibits, multimedia and a classroom – work done by the Layman design team. Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar wrote the descriptions of the exhibits. Berenbaum also wrote the descriptions for the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC
Rockland is one of the smaller areas for a Holocaust museum, compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles, and Washington DC
The Rockland Center was born out of a national movement in the 1970s recognizing the Holocaust. Rockland’s original sponsors included Holocaust survivors and their families.
The RCC center includes a classroom and 4,000 square feet of exhibition space for the many artifacts too fragile to be taken off site.
Winograd said the museum has active programs to attract visitors and classes. In addition to the thousands on the RCC campus, Winograd said they hope “to bus 40,000 students from Rockland, Westchester, Bergen (New Jersey), Orange, Dutchess and beyond to learn these lessons and attend our educational programs. “.
Rockland has a large Jewish population, about a third of the county’s residents.
Education remains the goal
Levy and other survivors, like documentary filmmaker Paul Galan, discuss their near-death experiences, the brutality and murders of family members, and the estimated murders of six million Jews and five million others .
Their collective goal is to educate the next generation on the past and to hope that future genocides can be avoided. The center offers interactive videos and seminars on various topics related to the Holocaust and human rights violations.
Winograd stresses that the center is not just a Jewish museum.
The Rockland Center also features a permanent exhibit on the experiences of African Americans in the United States, from slavery to Jim Crow and systemic racism. The Haverstraw African American Connection, run by Virginia Norfleet, works in collaboration with the Holocaust Museum. Although a version of the exhibit is already on display, it is in the process of being increased.
“We are opening a dialogue between the Jewish and African American communities in the hope of bridging the gap,” Norfleet said in a statement.
First, the center documents the Nazi attempt to genocide European Jews, offering videos with survivors recounting their experiences.
Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933 with his blue-and-white-eyed theories of racial superiority, and in 1935 the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed, denying Jews property, education, and employment.
There were riots against Jews and their businesses, especially the “Broken Glass Night” pogroms called Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938.
National museum: American Holocaust Museum
Holocaust Museums: Across the country
Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center
Jews and other unwanted people were rounded up and resettled in walled ghettos, barbed wire camps and finally death camps with gas chambers and crematoria. Senior Nazi government officials presented their “final solution” in January 1942 at a meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee.
The walls of the center are lined with Holocaust horrors across Europe before the start of WWII and during the war and its aftermath.
Survivors personalize life and death
Galan, co-chair of the Holocaust Center, who chairs the board, oversaw a six-year project that began in 1981 to film 18 Holocaust survivors in Rockland.
Survivors recount their experiences, speak of brutality, murder, hunger and death.
There are videos of Nazis and their collaborators bringing together Jews and other Europeans, many of whom are emaciated; and piling people into graves or cattle cars for long journeys without food and water to death camps, mainly in Poland.
Levy, now 85 and a retired Columbia University administrator with a doctorate, has said for years he couldn’t look at archival footage or talk about hiding in Belgium in a Catholic orphanage with members of his family.
He and his family fled Berlin on November 9, 1938 – Crystal Night, the symbolic start of the Holocaust when the Germans rampaged in the streets, attacking Jews and torching shops and places of worship
“I used to avoid watching this,” Levy said, pointing to a video of Nazi soldiers brutalizing Jews and rounding up people to transport them. “The pictures are horrible.”
Upon returning to Berlin as an adult, Levy faced his past. He said he had started talking to students about life in a state of terror in German-occupied Belgium.
He said to himself and his family members that they were lucky to have found refuge and to avoid being captured. Levy was in hiding in a Catholic orphanage and had a pseudonym. More than a dozen of his family members were killed, while he and his parents survived and moved to America in 1949.
Winograd said survivors personalize the Holocaust. The center also has a touring speakers bureau, including survivors and liberators, like Alan Moskin. They affected around 20,000 people in 2019, Winograd said,
“When the survivors come into the classroom and stand in front of the classroom and start telling their own story, realization sets in,” she said.
Taking the students to Auschwitz
Galan survived the Holocaust in what was then Czechoslovakia, occupied by German forces and divided with pro-Nazi factions. He hid with his family members in the mountains.
For years, Galan did not share his experiences, wishing to integrate into his new home in America. After working in the 1960s as an editor on “Who Killed Anne Frank” and “The Warsaw Uprising” for CBS, he began to tell his story.
“I went to therapy,” Galan said. “I had nightmares. I experienced a real metamorphosis. I made a very conscious decision that whatever I could do to teach about the Holocaust, I would.”
Galan, a resident of Montebello, has spoken to thousands of school children and adults over the years. He has traveled the country, including Alaska, to speak.
For many families like the Galans and Levys, the United States and what became Israel in May 1948 became landing points for Holocaust survivors following the liberation of the death camps and the end of the war.
Galan chaperoned students on trips to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where several million people were murdered. He remembers their tears.
“To comfort them, to put my arms around them,” Galan said. “They get it, it’s a very rewarding experience. Poland is a horror of the past,” he said. “Israel is rebirth.”
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police and investigations. Contact him at [email protected] Twitter: @lohudlegal. Read more articles and biography. Our local coverage is only possible with the support of our readers.