Brookdale center’s interactive exhibit focuses on Shoah, Rwandan and Armenian genocides

Brookdale center’s interactive exhibit focuses on Shoah, Rwandan and Armenian genocides

Genocide — the ultimate expression of inhumanity — will be going under the microscope at a new permanent exhibit being mounted by Brookdale Community College’s Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (Chhange). Slated for an official opening on Sunday, April 8, the exhibit on the Lincroft campus will offer a graphic and interactive approach to events whose enormity, organizers insist, must never be forgotten or, of course, repeated. 

Told from the viewpoint of survivors, “Journeys Beyond Genocide: The Human Experience” focuses on three historic cataclysms: the Holocaust (1933-1945), the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (1994), and the Armenian genocide (1915-1917). 

The display is “unequaled in the state of New Jersey,” according Chhange executive director Dale Daniels, who said she believes it to be “the only exhibit that explores the universal themes of these three genocides in one public setting.”

Because Chhange’s mission emphasizes not just the horrors of the mass killings, but steps toward recovery, she added, “We must not allow violence to erase the victims of genocide, their culture, or their communities. The resilience of survivors empowers us to face injustice today and help prevent genocide from reoccurring.” The exhibit “demonstrates that people really can make a positive impact in the face of hate and bias.” 

The artwork, artifacts, and stories of some 30 survivors — all residents of central New Jersey — are featured in the 2,000-square-foot exhibit, along with materials and data collected from other sources. The goal of these contributions, according to the organizers, is to provide apersonal, human bridge to greater understanding. 

The exhibit is divided into four sections, one for each genocide and another called “Stand Up for Human Rights,” which enables visitors to confront and respond to humanitarian crises facing the world today by inviting them to use touch-screen technology to delve into the diverse experiences of people who have survived the pain of human trafficking, cyber bullying, and gun violence. 

“This part of the exhibit is a call to action, as it inspires and empowers visitors to recognize that one person can make a difference when he or she chooses to stand up against hatred and discrimination,” said Nicole Rizzuto, Chhange’s program manager. Other contemporary issues will be tackled at a later date, said Rizzuto. “We are attempting to challenge people to fight for human rights today and help others who are in crisis.” 

A major factor in the choice of the Holocaust and the Rwandan and Armenian genocides was the presence of survivors or their descendants living in the local area, said Rizzuto. The exhibit zeroes in on some 20 survivors of the Shoah, five Tutsi from Rwanda, and five individuals whose forebears were Armenian survivors. All of them “proved invaluable as resources in making the exhibit as relevant as possible to the communities we serve,” Rizzuto said. 

The stories of the genocides are told in a series of panels, each displaying a question and possible answers to that question. The first panel in each section shows what life was like before the killings began. Subsequent panels deal with the sowing of hatred, distrust, and dehumanization; the atrocities perpetrated upon the victims; stories of escape and rescue; and how survivors managed to rebuild their lives. 

Among the remarkable items on display is a photo of survivor Eva Wiener of Neptune being held in her father’s arms as a baby on the deck of the S.S. St. Louis. She was the youngest child aboard the ill-fated ship, which, in 1939, unsuccessfully attempted to relocate 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe to countries in the Western Hemisphere. 

Another, an expressionistic three-dimensional painting by survivor Claire Boren of Rumson, conveys the sense of terror and gloom she endured while living in a hole beneath the pigsty of a non-Jewish farmer who temporarily harbored her and her mother for months during World War II. 

Rizzuto, who has a master’s degree in history and is a doctoral candidate at Drew University in Madison, noted that a unique aspect of the Rwandan tragedy was that it was followed by a United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, which convicted 61 perpetrators. In a much wider application of grassroots “Gacaca” justice, local judges in approximately 12,000 community courts presided over more than 1.2 million cases. 

Because it took place more than 100 years ago, the Armenian genocide may have less immediacy than the other two. But, Rizzuto said, the families of survivors continue to be denied a sense of closure, since — unlike postwar Germany — Turkey has never apologized, nor even acknowledged, the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians.

The exhibit was planned, designed, and constructed under the guidance of Daniels, working with Susan Yellin, project codirector, and Karen Finkelstein, manager of technology. Rizzuto and administrative assistant Ally Evans are also regular exhibit docents, and volunteers can serve as docents after completing a training course consisting of 14 weekly three-hour sessions.

Rizzuto said they are recommending that visitors spend 90 minutes at the exhibit “to thoroughly absorb each section. For school visits, she said they plan to split the students into three sub-groups, one for each genocide section, before coming together for the final section.

Like the Chhange organization itself, the new exhibit is funded privately. The Kolber Family Foundation, headquartered in the Locust section of Middletown Township, initially provided a $50,000 challenge match grant for the exhibit and later raised the amount to $75,000. 

Established in 1979, Chhange facilitates up to 100 programs a year for more than 25,000 students, educators, and community members. Daniels said, “The audience for these activities includes people from various ethnic, racial, and socio-economic groups, in New Jersey and beyond. Our mission is to educate about the Holocaust, human rights, and genocide, promote the elimination of all forms of prejudice, and develop creative programs regarding these crucial human issues.”

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