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Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Educates, Empowers Individuals to Build a More Humane Society

OpticVoices: Roots, a photography exhibit by Emmai Alaquiva, at the Holocaust Center’s new space at Chatham University. Photo credit Melanie Wieland

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, one of the first such centers in the nation, opened in 1980. Its purpose, according to its mission statement, is to connect the horrors of the Holocaust and antisemitism with injustices of today. Through education, the Holocaust Center seeks to address these injustices and empower individuals to build a more civil and humane society.

Lauren Bairnsfather, Ph.D.

We spoke with its executive director, Lauren Bairnsfather, Ph.D., about the nonprofit’s programs, initiatives and educational resources, as well as its upcoming move from Greenfield to Chatham University.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the history of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh?

Lauren Bairnsfather (Bairnsfather): We were established in 1980, and it really started with Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors. It was an interesting moment in the country, when there was a rising public awareness of the Holocaust and hints of Holocaust denial, which led survivors to really want to tell their stories. We got our major boost as an organization when the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh backed the project.

NHM: Did many Holocaust survivors settle in Pittsburgh?

Bairnsfather: There were hundreds and hundreds of survivors in our region. About 15 years ago, the center had a list of 60 Holocaust survivors who would speak to schools. Now, we have fewer than five. The years of the pandemic have been very hard on our survivors’ population.

NHM: What role does the center play in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and in the community at large?

Bairnsfather: In the Jewish community, we’re very lucky; we have a couple generations of people very committed to our work, which is amazing. We also found our programs appealing to people in the Jewish community who were more culturally Jewish than observant, so we found we were drawing a lot of people who didn’t belong to a synagogue, for example, but wanted to have a connection to the Jewish community in some way. And then it is always our goal to partner with the other excellent organizations in Jewish Pittsburgh, not to compete but to elevate everyone when possible.

The center, from the beginning, has always been about education. A lot of our audience is non-Jewish because we play a major role in training and supporting teachers and through that, students. And beyond that, this is a cool thing about Pittsburgh, here nonprofits will work together, so that is another way that we’ve been able to be involved outside of the Jewish community—to partner with other nonprofits.

NHM: What types of educational resources do you provide?

Bairnsfather: We don’t have a mandate in Pennsylvania, but we do have a strong recommendation that teachers include the Holocaust and genocide and human rights in the curriculum. The challenge is that it is a hard subject to teach, and our role is important in instilling in teachers the confidence they need to teach difficult subjects.

It can be challenging to keep it relevant for students, to get them to connect with it in some way. At one time, we would have sent a survivor to a school to connect with them, but it’s harder now. We do have a really good Generation Speakers Bureau—children and grandchildren of survivors; that works, too. We didn’t want to lose that person-to-person connection; it is so powerful and strong. We find other ways to be sure the Holocaust becomes relevant to students. Students learn where they see injustice, they can act and make a difference.

NHM: And what is the LIGHT Education Initiative?

Bairnsfather: The LIGHT (Leadership through Innovation in Genocide and Holocaust Teaching) Education Initiative started at Shaler Area High School, and is now in Avonworth and Quaker Valley, along with 15 schools around the region and in five counties. It begins with classes about the Holocaust and becomes about so much more. Students have the opportunity to take what they’ve learned, and funnel it into causes that they care about. We would love for it to be in even more schools.

NHM: Tell me about the comic book series you’ve produced called CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust.

Bairnsfather: CHUTZ-POW! is an innovative approach to Holocaust education, designed specifically for middle-school readers. Marcel Walker, a local comics creator, is the lead artist and program coordinator. These are all true, six-page vignettes that give readers a chance to really dive into one experience of the Holocaust. For some readers, it piques their interest in knowing more. For teachers, it’s a resource that is instantly engaging.

It’s being used across the country; locally, I would say it is being used in at least 100 schools. We’ve continued to produce really high quality volumes, and now we want to put resources behind it to make sure we’re distributing it into as many schools as possible.

CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust display at Chatham University. Photo credit Melanie Wieland

NHM: I understand you are moving from the Greenfield location to the campus of Chatham University—can you tell me what prompted that move, and what will the new space look like?

Bairnsfather: What prompted the move was the developing relationship between the Holocaust Center and Chatham. There are a number of centers in the country based on college campuses. Our commitment to academic research is a great fit with Chatham. It’s a larger space than the front gallery in Greenfield. We have artifacts and art we didn’t show in Greenfield, such as images from the OpticVoices: Roots exhibit, which was artist Emma Alaquiva’s response to 10/27, so there is a lot going on in that space. I would say in the summer of 2022, we’ll be ready to welcome guests.

NHM: In addition to resources and exhibits, the Holocaust Center holds events. Can you talk about a few?

Bairnsfather: One event we’ve been known for every year is our Yom HaShoah commemoration, held on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The program was held live on Zoom on April 27, with students interviewing survivors and liberators as well as their children. The program always includes six candles for the six million (Jews who perished in the Holocaust) and recognizes rescuers, liberators, and Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust). The program is available to watch on the Holocaust Center’s YouTube Channel.

Last year for the first time we did a play with Prime Stage Theatre for Genocide Awareness month in April. This year’s play is the White Rose, about the student resistance movement in Munich during the Holocaust and will be available to stream from April 24-May 8.

Another in-person event in May is the film, By the Waters of Babylon, which was originally created as a virtual reality experience but now will be shown at the Carnegie Science Center planetarium on the dome. It will be running on May 18 and 31. It is a film with the Clarion Quartet, a quartet of musicians with the Pittsburgh Symphony that plays music banned by the Nazis. It’s incredibly beautiful music that could have been lost forever in the Holocaust.

The White Rose. Photo courtesy Prime Stage Theatre

NHM: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the work that you do?

Bairnsfather: I hope that people will get involved with us. Right now, it’s easy; it’s all online. The history we deal with is so bleak, but there are always spots of light. When we were open to the public, people were surprised about how hopeful our message is. We learned that from survivors.

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