Thirty-six years after Harriet Sepinwall joined the faculty at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station, the Catholic school’s professor of Holocaust studies and cofounder and director of its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education has retired.
She is being succeeded by Amy Weiss, a New Providence native, who holds a PhD in Jewish studies from New York University. A reception will be held in Sepinwall’s honor at CSE on Tuesday, Sept. 27.
Despite her retirement, Sepinwall said her abiding interest in the Shoa, which began when she was a five-year-old girl in East Harlem, will continue.
“It started when my mother received a phone call that a nephew in Czycew, Poland, Seymour Moncarz, had been located by an American soldier after World War II,” Sepinwall told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 8 interview in a campus conference room.
Moncarz was young Harriet Lipman’s first contact with the Holocaust. “He was the nicest, most generous person you could imagine, but he never spoke about his experiences at all. My mother told him, ‘Seymour, the war is over. You are starting a whole new life. Forget about it.’ There was no opening for him to share his feelings.”
Years later, one of Moncarz children persuaded their father to tell his story for the first time to a video camera. He spoke on tape of his arrest by the Nazis and how because of his skills as a carpenter, he was assigned to a work camp, not a death camp.
“Seymour was the only surviving member of my mother’s family,” said Sepinwall. “He weighed about 65 pounds after surviving slave labor camps. He lived with us in East Harlem before moving out and getting a job as a carpenter. He married a fellow survivor and fathered four children.”
Growing up as the only Jewish child at PS 80, she had firsthand exposure to anti-Semitism. “When I was in sixth grade, one of my ‘friends’ said to me, ‘You’re not so bad for someone who is Jewish.’ I was also beaten up by other girls,” she said.
In spite of such adversities Sepinwall clung to her Jewish identity. In East Harlem her family attended a small Orthodox synagogue whose name she no longer remembers.
But after she graduated from junior high school there her family moved to the Bronx, where she attended William Howard Taft High School and joined a Conservative congregation called Adath Israel. She now belongs to Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.
“I always wanted to be a teacher. Since I was five-and-a-half, I played school and I loved being the teacher,” she said. At City College of New York she majored in history and social studies. She received her doctorate in history from Rutgers University.
After stints as an instructor at Montclair High School, William Paterson College, Montclair State University, County College of Morris, and Kean University, in 1980 Sepinwall began teaching world culture studies and American culture studies at CSE. Part of her world cultures course included a unit on the Holocaust. “It was my way of teaching the influence of history in showing how people get along — or don’t,” she said.
That year she received a fellowship from Ramapo College to travel to Poland and Israel to study the Holocaust and Jewish resistance during World War II. “It was a life-changing experience,” she said.
Gradually, the administration began increasing Sepinwall’s involvement in Holocaust studies. She was assigned to organize a Week of Holocaust Remembrance at CSE; beginning in 1990 and held around the date of Kristallnacht in November, the week’s programming offers a roster of talks, films, discussions, testimonies, and classes.
At one point Sepinwall combined her class on world history with a theology class to discuss the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.
In 1998 she taught her first course dedicated completely to the Holocaust.
Since then, Saint Elizabeth’s has become one of the state’s institutions for training teachers of Holocaust studies. Despite Pope Pius XII’s controversial relations with the Hitler regime before and during World War II, Sepinwall said, her Catholic institution was fully supportive of her educational efforts.
“From the minute I arrived, I was encouraged to do my thing,” she said. “The Sisters of Charity, the order of Catholic nuns that operates Saint Elizabeth’s, has been extremely supportive in ways I cannot begin to describe.”
Despite retirement, Sepinwall said, she is “still available to the college” and plans to return for the Week of Remembrance this November.
Beyond that, she intends to stay at home in Pine Brook “to have some time to think and just be. I love jazz and the theater and reading, and I’m going to get up in the morning, go for a walk, and go to the library,” she said.
She also plans to spend more time with her husband, Jeffrey Rosenberg, and their two daughters, one son, and five grandchildren.
During her years of scholarship, Sepinwall has received numerous honors, including the Saint Elizabeth’s Caritas Award, the Sister Rose Thering Award presented by the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, and the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Community Service Award.
“She will always be a valued member of the CSE community,” wrote college president Helen Streubert in an e-mail to NJJN. “Her devotion to study and sharing knowledge of the Holocaust and genocides has led to increased awareness among our students, faculty, and the community.”
As she reflected on her career, Sepinwall told NJJN, “In all of my years working and teaching about the Holocaust, this work has strengthened me and made me more optimistic and positive. I think about the Holocaust all the time and how I can best convey the meaning of the Holocaust to honor those people who perished and those who survived but suffered so greatly and teach this to my students and teachers.
“It became all-consuming for me and my life. I was very fortunate.”