History A Passion for Human Rights

In a short time the survivors of the Holocaust will have joined its victims, and that great catastrophe will be but a footnote in the history books. To our children, to a new generation who may regard the Holocaust as remote and difficult to understand, let us, while we are still able to do so, pass on the memory of the Holocaust as a living experience.

– Gerda Schild Haas, 1982

The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine sprang from a 1984 seminar at Bowdoin College, the inspiration and legacy of Gerda Haas, Holocaust survivor and author of Tracking the Holocaust and These I Do Remember: Fragments from the Holocaust.

Gerda Haas at Bates College, 1981

Gerda Haas at Bates College, 1981

“Gerda’s seminar – Teaching the Holocaust in Maine Schools – was a turning point in my life,” recalls Ragnhild Baade, Boothbay High School teacher of German and a past President of HHRC. “It gave me courage to face my heritage and share my story. Gerda’s passion for human rights education inspired all of us.”

In April 1985, following the Yom HaShoah service at the Blaine House in Augusta, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center announced its official birth, with Gerda Haas as Founding Director. Meeting at Temple Shalom in Auburn with its only office a cubicle at Maine State Library, the fledgling non-profit sponsored lectures at Bates College, and developed a Summer Seminar for teachers and librarians into an international colloquium on Holocaust education.

Sharon Nichols, 2004

Sharon Nichols, 2004

With the arrival of Sharon Nichols as Executive Director in 1989, HHRC launched the Diversity Leadership Institute, an intensive retreat for teenagers to confront prejudice through games and challenges. A former OB nurse, Sharon brought tireless industry and determination to the HHRC mission, developing curriculum, teacher workshops, study tours, traveling exhibits, and a Speakers Bureau of Holocaust survivors and human rights activists to visit Maine schools. As Education Coordinator, Jacqueline Littlefield worked with Sharon to expand HHRC into a state-wide provider of human rights resources.

Two decades of patient growth culminated in October 2005 at the ground breaking of HHRC’s permanent home in the Michael Klahr Center, a Maine architectural highlight on the UMA campus at Augusta. HHRC opened its doors to the public in May 2008, with Maine sculptor Robert Katz’s acclaimed mixed media installation, Were The House Still Standing, on permanent exhibit.

A new building opened a new chapter for HHRC, with Holocaust scholar Robert Bernheim succeeding Sharon Nichols as Executive Director in 2007, and playwright/teacher Jeffrey Pressman joining the staff as Program Director.

“Holocaust education is at a crossroads,” says Bernheim. “When Gerda Haas founded this agency, our focus was memory – teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. Have we learned those lessons? History will record that we have not. On playgrounds and computers, in modern cities and remote refugee camps, we are not yet safe from intolerance.

Lessons unlearned call for new ways of teaching, and compel us to innovate – as educators, as citizens, and as organizations like the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.”

May 25, 2008 The Beginning

HHRC Founder Gerda Haas speaks at the public opening of the Michael Klahr Center.
From a distance of sixty years, Holocaust stories are much alike: the fear and anguish, the loss of property and dignity, families torn asunder, Jews brutally killed because they were Jews. My story is no different.  Except I survived.

HHRC Founder Gerda Haas speaking

Survivors’ stories also are much alike. We became proud, industrious citizens. We practiced our religion openly. We were free and happy again. As for me, I married Dr. Rudy Haas, who practiced medicine in Lewiston for fifty years. I had a family. I got an education. Like many other survivors, I didn’t speak about the past.

When my children were teenagers, Governor Longley appointed me to the State Board of Education. This meant a great deal to me, but when my notice for the confirmation hearing came, my heart sank. The hearing was set for the second day of Rosh Hashana, a day on which orthodox Jews don’t travel. Timidly, I called Senator Katz and told him I couldn’t come to the confirmation hearing. “Why not?” a booming voice answered. I told him the reason. And then, the answer that channeled my life: “We will re-schedule it.” I was stunned.

That evening at the dinner table, I rhapsodized until my daughter Hedy interrupted. “Why do you think that’s so special, Mom?” I couldn’t sleep that night. My children, my own children, didn’t know how privileged they are to practice Judaism openly and unafraid. They didn’t know about my past.

I served on the State Board of Education for five years, and saw very quickly that Maine children as a whole didn’t know about the Holocaust. Their teachers didn’t teach it.

In 1982, while employed at the Bates College Library, I submitted a rough proposal to Dorothy Schwartz at the Maine Endowment for the Humanities in Portland. I envisioned a conference day, followed by a month-long state-wide education on Judaism and the Holocaust.

Dorothy was receptive and helped me shape this vision into a workable, fundable proposal. I needed two sponsoring institutions. I already had the support of President Reynolds at Bates, and Dorothy suggested I ask Chichi Levine of the Jewish Federation in Portland to be the other. We called our emerging project The Holocaust Remembered.

On the day of the conference, Schaeffer Auditorium at Bates was filled. We had speakers, panel discussions, an address by Judith Isaacson, and a superb exhibit of drawings by Luba Gurdus. Today, I also know that there was one attentive student from Bowdoin in the audience: Robert Bernheim.

Soon afterwards, Maine colleges introduced Holocaust studies: Steven Cerf at Bowdoin, Steve Hochstadt at Bates, Professor Mizner at Colby, my friend Christine Holden at USM in Portland. But still nothing stirred in the public schools.

Then one day at the Bates Library, a tall red-headed young man named Burke Long came to see me. Burke had an idea for a three-day workshop for high school teachers. The mission? Bring the Holocaust into the classroom. I went for it at once.

Walt Taranko worked with us. Walt, though not Jewish, was a survivor. Walt’s father had been the Mayor of a Ukrainian town when Hitler overran the Baltic states in 1940. When he openly opposed the Nazis, he and his family had to flee for their lives. Walt was a very special soul, and the Holocaust & Human Rights Center owes him a great debt.

Our 1984 workshop at Bowdoin – Teaching About the Nazi Holocaust in Maine Schools – came off swimmingly. It was there I met Linda Voss and a beautiful, enthusiastic young teacher named Ragnhild Baade. Both women went on to serve as President of the HHRC board.

Holocaust education in Maine was gathering grassroots momentum by the time Governor Brennan invited us to the Blaine House for Yom HaShoah festivities in 1985. It was a magical day, with survivors from every corner of the state, among them Rochelle and Jerry Slivka. Liberators like Keith Waning proudly wore their medals. And a man standing alone in the corner caught my eye. He was the son of a Jewish father and German mother, he explained, and he had been sent to Theresienstadt at the age of fourteen, late in the war. Theresienstadt! That’s where I was. We embraced and I never let go. His name was Manfred Kelman.

After the Yom HaShoah ceremonies, our workshop teachers gathered around with questions and concerns. It was becoming obvious that we needed some sort of support organization, a place where teachers could come for advice and resources. And right then and there, that very afternoon in the Maine State Library, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine was born. Everyone in the room became an instant board member, and we picked one of Luba’s drawings as our first logo. Gary Nichols pledged the full support of the State Library: meeting rooms, secretarial help, books, coffee and donuts – and later, the technical crew to film the stories of survivors.

We were all on cloud nine that afternoon and stayed there for a number of years. The excitement of creation, the camaraderie, the intoxication of our successes never left us – and we never let the fact that we didn’t have any money slow us down.

Eventually, of course, we did receive funding; the contributions and memberships started coming in, and with them came our first administrator, the incomparable Sharon Nichols. Sharon found Phyllis Jalbert, and Phyllis found a mission worthy of her late husband, Michael Klahr, a hidden child in France who lost his parents but survived the Holocaust.

We’ve come a long way. Today there is not a teacher or student in Maine who doesn’t know how close Hitler came to winning the war in Europe and exterminating all of us.

Hitler did not win. Hitler lost. My own daughters and granddaughters – and the sons and daughters of all survivors – are testimony. The Michael Klahr Center, a beautiful home for an idea born twenty-three years ago, is testimony.

The future is ours.
Gerda Haas

May 25, 2008 Wrestling with the Nazi Past

Addressing the public at the town-hall style opening of the Michael Klahr Center in Augusta, Dr. Wolfgang Vorwerk is former Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Boston.

Can we ever come to terms with our past? What do I tell my twenty-year-old son?

On my first visit to the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, I saw the faces. Faces of children in black and white photographs, all of them murdered by Germans, on German command, at German hands. Faces, eyes looking at nobody else but me, and still looking at me here in Augusta. The eyes of a child, perhaps ten years old, will be with me forever – asking why?

Nobody can modify the past or make the past undone. We must accept it for what it is: unprecedented, incomparable, and unparalleled. It will tarnish our history and that of mankind forever.

We Germans are all responsible, young and old, individually and collectively, for the consequences of the past, and we all feel shame. Shame hurts, no matter when born, no matter if young or old.

Have we Germans born in the post-Holocaust age become different, better, morally superior, more courageous than the generations of our forefathers? No. That would be arrogance. From our own history we know what man is capable of doing. We do not know if we would have stood on the side of the victims, on the side of the survivors, on the side of those who helped others to survive. There can be no answer because we cannot opt out of history. We have to accept it as it is.

The only thing we possess that our forefathers did not is the wisdom of the past. This we must use as our guide for shaping the present and creating a better future. This is why it is so important to share the wisdom of the past, to teach it in the schools, and to pass it on. This is why it is so important to have Centers like this Holocaust and Human Rights Center here in Augusta.