Sometimes great achievements stem from “spur of the moment” decisions, according to Dr. Joseph J. Preil. It was one such moment, he said, that led to the establishment of the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University, now in its 31st year and one of the leading institutions of its kind in the country.
At a gala retirement luncheon at the Kean campus in Union on March 18, Preil — educator, author, and the center’s founding director — described what happened.
One night, when the late Ari Halpern, a survivor concerned about the growing tide of Holocaust deniers, approached him with the suggestion that a fund be established to buy every available book on the Shoa and store them at the YM-YWHA in Elizabeth. Preil welcomed the idea, but without a moment’s hesitation suggested a venue he felt would draw a far broader readership — what was then Kean College in neighboring Union. “We’ll teach teachers,” he said he told Halpern.
The work of the center and the Holocaust Resource Foundation that supports it was outlined at the luncheon by current acting director Stacy Schiller and by past director Gerry Melnick. He described Preil as teaching “with a passion from the heart, not just the subject of the Holocaust but how to teach about the Holocaust to an eclectic group of teachers.”
In addition to its library of 5,000 books, the center has gathered 260 oral histories, 300 films, and a wealth of associated material. The courses it sponsors have equipped more than 2,400 educators to foster greater understanding of the Holocaust and the dangers of prejudice and intolerance. Tens of thousands of people — from students to teachers and community members — have attended its talks.
As an outgrowth of its work, the Kean University Diversity Council was established, reaching more than 65 public school districts. The center also collaborates closely with the university’s Human Rights Institute, its Holocaust and Genocide Studies program, and its theater and other departments. Its work has helped give rise to the anti-bullying programs now drawing increasing support across the region.
The center’s work has one goal, said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Dist. 21) at the event: to use education to replace the hatred that comes from ignorance. “An enemy is someone who doesn’t know you,” he said. He and many of the other speakers paid tribute to Kean president Dr. Dawood Farahi for his commitment to that cause and his support for Holocaust education and the broader cause of human rights.
Farahi, in his turn, described the survivor community of Elizabeth and Hillside as “the most hardworking, the most humble, and the most generous people you will ever meet.”
They came together to establish the HRC thanks to Preil’s persuasive efforts, Farahi said. He drew laughter and nods of agreement when he described the guest of honor as someone with “a way of getting people to agree with him,” and the ability to find a solution to any problem. The Holocaust Resource Center, Farahi said, has helped keep alive the lessons of the Shoa through its commitment to the idea that “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.”
‘Tell the story’
Giving his summary of the center’s history, Preil said it took decades for Americans to know how to talk to survivors about their experiences, and for survivors to learn how to talk about them.
It wasn’t until 1978, when the four-part television series Holocaust caught the attention of the public, that he realized “something was happening,” he said. Around that time, he suggested teaching a Holocaust course at Kean, but had no idea how to bring in students. His first class drew five, plus his wife. “Frankly, I didn’t know how to teach the class,” he said. “I worked it out week by week.” But when he found seminar students standing around talking in the parking lot continuing their discussion, he knew the subject was having a profound impact.
The event was cochaired by Murray Halpern, Shelley Paradis, and Fran Schwartz, all children of survivors who played a major role in establishing the center. The lunch drew about 150 people, including many of the luminaries of the Central community. Center cofounder Clara Kramer was there, along with Sam and Gladys Halpern, Joe and Susie Wilf, Erwin Fisch and his family, and Rabbi Elazar Teitz and his wife, Elisheva.
Fisch and Kramer unveiled a plaque featuring the founders’ names that will be installed at the center’s entrance. Kramer said that seeing the younger generation step up to continue their work “makes it all worth living for.”
Schwartz said, “We, as the second generation, must now pick up the responsibility and tell the story because we know that the first-hand accounts of the survivors will no longer be available.” It will not be just their challenge, she added, but that of the “third and fourth and 20th generation.
The last word came from a member of the “third generation,” Julie Kopel, the oldest granddaughter of Murray and Lucy Pantirer. She said, “Our grandparents created something extraordinary here. As members of the third generation, our message to the Holocaust survivors is this — that we will proudly preserve your memory and carry on with your work.”