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A SLIGHT FIGURE dressed for the blustery March afternoon outside, Eugene Abramowicz nonetheless holds center stage in the Nolan Room at the Gingrich Library.
Bearded, with curly gray locks protruding from beneath his fisherman hat, Abramowicz speaks in a voice as soft as the muffler wrapped about his neck and tucked neatly into his jacket. The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, sitting along the wall in the room that houses the Holocaust Library and Resource Center, is about to record his testimony for the benefit of the future.
But then his eyes twinkle.
"Do you have any coffee?" he asks Jennifer Goss, coordinator of the Holocaust Center, who is setting up the video camera.
"You told me you didn't want any," she protests, smiling, obviously used to being teased by Abramowicz. She offers to get some, but he declines. Instead, he offers everybody kosher chocolates he brought.
Then the camera is switched on, and he starts to answer Goss's questions about his life: his youth, his parents, his family, the neighborhood around their bungalow on the outskirts of Berlin, the factories where he and his mother were forced to work by the Nazis, his work for the U.S. Army after World War II, how he learned years later that his immediate family had survived.
Occasionally, he digresses to make his point, as when he talks about how his parents considered themselves Germans first, Jews second. But as the pressure increased on the Jewish community, "It came to the point that they forced us to be Jews," he says.
His eyes light on Lacey Lott, a 19-year-old Penn State Berks sophomore sitting at a nearby table, listening raptly.
"You're an American," he says. "You go to church every day?" She shakes her head. His eyes twinkle again. "SO WE HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON," he says with a shrug.
In one sense, it's an extraordinary day at the Holocaust Center when a survivor's testimony is recorded. The three dozen taped testimonies of survivors and liberators in the archives were gathered over more than a decade.
In another sense, it's ordinary: Bringing together generations so that the story of the Holocaust remains vivid is at the heart of what the center does.
The idea of this unique collaboration between the Jewish Federation of Reading and Albright College started with Daniel Tannenbaum, who was executive director of the Jewish Federation of Reading in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alma Lakin '51, president of the Federation at that time, explained that they had been seeking a repository for Holocaust materials to serve as a resource for education.
"We went to various colleges," said Lakin. "We chose Albright because they were willing to find us room, and there were books already, although not a great many."
David G. Ruffer was president of Albright in 1989, and he quickly embraced the idea, but financial obstacles had to be overcome before the center was dedicated on April 19, 1993— 28th of Nisan, 5753, on the Hebrew Calendar—under Albright President Ellen Hurwitz.
Thanks to the efforts of many, and most notably the philanthropy and support of Alma and her husband Edwin Lakin, the center has grown to comprise an impressive collection in the Gingrich Library: 2,600 volumes, most of them in the main stacks, and more than 300 video, sound and computer titles dealing with all aspects of the rise of Nazi Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust, including the three dozen taped interviews, which are kept in the Nolan Room.
But it's the resource part of its mission that brings people and history together. Goss took the helm at the center in January after Tannenbaum, who served as the center's coordinator for 15 years, passed away in December. She is uniquely qualified for the part-time position: A social studies teacher at Fleetwood High School, she also holds a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies from West Chester University, and she is vice president of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council.
Albright students drop in throughout the year—the college has a Holocaust Studies Program—for help finding research materials, Goss said. Lott, who is from nearby Leesport, Pa., is one of a half-dozen Penn State Berks students doing syntheses of the testimonies of Holocaust survivors for inclusion in a publication about local Jewish life.
She also worked on the testimonies of Chaim and Esther Kuperstock, both of whom passed away in the early 1990s.
"That was tough, emotionally draining," she said. "Their testimony is so graphic."
A day earlier, ninth-grade social studies teacher Daniel Gassert dropped by. He had worked with Tannenbaum and he wanted to become acquainted with Goss. He also wanted to start the paperwork for a trunk of materials that schools can use to teach about the Holocaust.
The center is an important resource for teachers in the area, Goss said, providing everything from a full curriculum on the Holocaust to short instructional units.
It also arranges speakers, primarily for the schools, but also for community groups and panels.
"Dan set me up with Kim Yashek to talk to my kids," Gassert said. "She went into details about her dad's story."
In 2009, the center published an expanded version of Richard J. Yashek: The Story of My Life, a memoir by Kim Yashek's father, who was a Holocaust survivor, and also one of the center's speakers. The updated edition includes documents and photographs that Kim Yashek donated to the center after her father died in 2005, along with his reflections and experiences after returning to Germany for visits to his hometown of Luebeck and to Bad Schwartau, the last town the family lived in before being interned.
Kim, who lives in Vail, Colo., but has spoken locally and elsewhere about his story and how it affected her, said that, "After he passed away I had a strong sense that I needed to carry on his legacy."
Jeff Gernsheimer was also inspired to help spread the message. His mother, Hildegard Gernsheimer, lost both parents and her two younger siblings in the Holocaust. She and her older sister were sent to England via the Kindertransport in 1938-1939.
Hilde's testimony is among others at Albright, and she began addressing groups a number of years ago at events coordinated by the center. Her story was a revelation to the people of Bernville, where she has lived for 60 years, but who knew nothing of her history, she said.
"But I'm going to be 85. I'm not as strong as I used to be," she said.
Recently, when they addressed students at Conrad Weiser High School, Jeff said, "I did the presentation and my mother answered questions afterward." Goss noted that she is working on involving more children and grandchildren of survivors, to re-interview some survivors and to record for posterity the testimonies of the half-dozen others in the area who have been reluctant to tell their story.
With the help of Albright student workers, she is also digitizing materials so that they can be made available online or transmitted electronically.
The center is involved in other activities as well, such as the Holocaust-related Richard J. Yashek Memorial Lecture, held every spring.
HOLOCAUST STUDIES PROGRAM- Thanks to the vision of Daniel Tannenbaum, Albright's Holocaust Studies Program, a cluster of five courses from history, literature, film, religion, and political science, also developed out of the center.
Religious Studies Professor Jennifer Koosed, Ph.D., who teaches "Religious Responses to the Holocaust" observed that it is the mundane details of genocide, not its grisly aspects, that touch students most deeply.
"Early on, I describe the process of creating some of the death camps, the crematoria especially, as an engineering problem," she said.
Significantly, students realize that it is not just about one man, but about a society, she said.
Jacob Goldberg '11 from Haddonfield, N.J., took Spanish Professor John Incledon's course, "Holocaust in World Literature and Film," and found himself overwhelmed at times while viewing the documentaries. Goldberg said it affected him deeply because he is Jewish, but he emphasized that the course of studies is not just about Judaism or Nazi Germany."
People don't realize that genocide is happening in different places around the world at this time," said Goldberg, a psychology major.
As Abramowicz put it, in a serious tone, "They say you're supposed to learn from the past."
But as Goldberg cautioned, "You can say it's never going to happen again, but people always forget. They need to be constantly reminded."
For that there is the Holocaust Center.
IN MEMORIAM: DAN TANNENBAUM - Praise for Dan Tannenbaum is always accompanied by a smile and a twinkle in the eye when people recall the man who was the first coordinator of the Holocaust Resource Center and Library, and over the course of 15 years made it a dynamic resource.
Jennifer Goss, the newly appointed coordinator of the center, remembers when she first met Tannenbaum six years ago: He was sitting in his office, listening to a recording of Benny Goodman and typing an e-mail — not what she expected from a man almost 80 years old.
She recalled that, "His style was always to listen more than to talk. He asked me about what I was doing and sent me home with an armful of resources that night."
"He had the nicest way of suggesting things to do, and getting them done," said John Incledon, Ph.D., a professor of Spanish who, at Tannenbaum's urging now teaches courses on the Holocaust in literature and film, part of Albright's Holocaust Studies Program, and directs the program.
"In a way it's changed my life. Here I am, approaching the end of my teaching career, and I'm as excited as I ever was about teaching."
Rosemary Deegan, director of the Gingrich Library, underscored Tannenbaum's contribution: "He was the one who kept the whole thing alive."
Dan lost his wife, Shoshana, March 3, 2010, and he was planning to retire from the position when he passed away December 16, 2010, at the age of 85. He and Shoshana are survived by a son, Marc H., Charlotte, North Carolina, and a daughter, Miriam B. Castrege, Aldan, Pennsylvania.
Regardless of what he was involved in, "it was never about Dan," Alma Lakin '51 said. "It was about the community. We are very grateful to have had him. We love him."
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