Whoever saves one life saves a whole world; whoever destroys one life destroys a whole world.
That’s Jewish wisdom from the Talmud, so widely quoted as to sound clichéd — but so widely quoted only because it is so deeply true.
That’s one of the many reasons why it’s so hard to talk about the Holocaust. Our minds simply cannot grasp the numbers that describe it. Six million Jews killed (more or less six million, of course, but what’s a few thousand among so many? A few thousand is a few thousand destroyed worlds). And seven million or so non-Jews too, among them gays and Gypsies and disabled people and Poles and Serbs and Soviets. And don’t forget the Freemasons.
We cannot make any sense of those numbers. It is not humanly possible.
But every single one of those murdered Holocaust victims had a story, and a background, and a robbed future.
And a face.
The Nazis worked hard to dehumanize their victims, tattooing numbers on their arms, lining them up to shoot them or to select to keep them alive until they could provide no more work. They kept lists, detailed accounts, because they so thoroughly dehumanized their victims in their own minds that they saw them not as people, but as subhuman. They saw them merely as entries in a ledger. Items to be enumerated. Not people who breathed.
But every single one of those victims had parents, and a history, and a birthplace.
And a face.
It’s harder to dismiss people as somehow less than human when you can look at their faces.
That’s what the new exhibit at the soon-to-be-renovated Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education at Rockland Community College shows. The exhibit called “Faces of RCC” will open on March 28 and stay up through May 3; the new museum will open toward the end of the year. The exhibit will be put up in the meeting room and breezeway of the building where it will be built, and that now houses its artifacts.
Those artifacts include some large leather suitcases. They’re old, battered, and so clearly heavy that it’s hard to imagine picking them up, much less toting the few salvaged remains of a destroyed life, but those suitcases are the ones into which Holocaust survivors stuffed all they could gather of their lives as they left Europe’s DP camps for their new lives.
But “Faces” isn’t about the Holocaust.
It is instead photographs of students at Rockland Community College, taken by four students at Rockland Country Day School, a secular private school in Congers.
The photographs are astounding. They’re close-ups, exhibited at full size; they’re so intimate that it feels almost rude to look at them, because it seems like you’re staring at someone who isn’t free to look away. They’re beautiful; they show people as they are willing to be seen. It’s clear that every face comes with a body and a story and a future.
Each photograph is accompanied by a story; the range and depth of these stories is astonishing.
So what does this exhibit have to do with Jews? Why is it at a Holocaust museum?
Carol King is on the board of the museum; she’s also a social worker, the Jewish family life educator at Rockland Jewish Family Service, the daughter of a mother who survived Auschwitz, the mother of a daughter who’s a student at Rockland Country Day and one of the four student photographers who took the pictures in the exhibit (and of three other children as well), and the wife of a Rockland County rabbi (that’s David Berkman of the New City Jewish Center). So it’s not surprising that she is involved in the exhibit.
“Every individual has inherent dignity,” Ms. King said. “The Nazis tried to take that away, along with all individuality and humanity.”
You can’t look closely at people’s faces, either in person or as translated through art, without seeing them as people, Ms. King said. She talked about Aaron Kalman, the Latvian-born artist who died just about exactly a year ago. He survived the camps — eventually he was liberated from Theresienstadt — by bartering sketches of his captors for food. She told a perhaps apocryphal but powerful story about a woman who traded a crust of bread with an artist in return for a drawing of herself. She hadn’t seen herself for so long, she told the artist, that she no longer knew what she looked like, and if she could see herself, no matter how unrecognizable terror and torture and deprivation had make her look, she could reclaim some of the humanity that had been stripped from her.
Both Rockland Country Day and Rockland Community College are multicultural institutions; both revel in the way that people representing different groups come together not only to learn from each other but also to become friends with each other.
Rockland Country Day is “a very diverse school,” Ms. King said. “Usually its students are there because they just don’t fit the usual high school paradigm. They’re artsy or musical or they have other gifts or needs that other high schools can’t meet.
“The students there can’t go to a one-size-fits-all school. They are such a diverse community, too; even though they’re small, they are students from Burundi, from China, from Vietnam — and also from Rockland, from Westchester, from New Jersey.”
All the four photographers are students at Rockland Country Day, and they’re all in an art photography class.
Chana Berkman, an RCDS junior and Ms. King’s daughter, is among them. She started being serious about photography this year, she said, and plans to continue taking pictures.
She understands the importance of people’s faces much as her mother does, as a way to show individuality. Her being Jewish makes her understand that with great intensity, she said; her mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors; her grandfather, Barry King, from Romania, died before she was born, but her grandmother, Rita King, from Poland, lives in Queens, and Chana sees her often. “We all have stories,” she said. “It is especially important for Jews that our stories be told.”
The students in the photographs are older than the photographers; they’re college students, some conventional college-student age, some who have waited longer for a college degree.
Rockland Community College, like Rockland Country Day, is a multicultural institution; students there come from all over, and the school values diversity and inclusion, offering a range of courses and a degree in multicultural studies.
Ms. King taught a course in multicultural studies, and she and the students each discussed their backgrounds and told their stories. She talked in great detail about hers; about being Jewish, about being the daughter of a survivor, about what her mother had survived. Her students listened with great concentration, and they asked for more detail, both about her life and history and also about her heritage. “It was the first time they had felt comfortable asking someone who is Jewish about being Jewish,” she said. “It was a big opening.”
The museum has been around since 1979, its educational director, Abigail Miller, said; in 1981, then called the Holocaust Museum and Study Center, it moved to Spring Valley. In 2015, it moved back to RCC, where it had first begun.
Over the years, its mission has changed; its administrators actively want to teach both history and tolerance, because without tolerance, and without knowing history, another holocaust is far more likely.
The museum is perfect for the campus, the museum’s director, Andrea Winokur, said. The school has provided a safe haven and then a launching pad for many immigrants and first-generation Americans. It has done the same thing for some members of the local chasidic community who tentatively have tried to learn more about the outside world, some on their way out of their birth communities, others as they find ways to fit themselves inside it.
No matter how far afield from the Holocaust the discussion can get, the experience of the Shoah remains at the heart of the museum.
“We always talk about the six million,” Ms. WInokur said. “We talk about the magnitude of the civilization that was lost.”
“We bring the story of the Holocaust and its relevance down to the personal level,” Ms. Miller added. “One of the most important parts of our mission is to provide the understanding and the context in which the Holocaust happened, so we can feel and recognize and protect and defend everyone’s rights.”
Anti-Semitism in particular and hate crimes in general are on the rise now, both in the United States and around the world, Ms. Winokur and Ms. Miller said. It would be foolish to ignore that truth; what we must remember is that we can fight those evils through understanding, civility, and open, honest, respectful conversation.
We can fight those evils by looking at each other’s faces, and recognizing the humanity in each other.
Rosaly J. Denis
I was born and raised by two Haitian immigrants.
I am an LPN studying at Rockland Community College for my Associates in Nursing.
I am a nurse, mother, wife, daughter, and sister.
My plan is to get my doctorate and run clinical trials. My dream is to return to Haiti to open clinics. Healthcare is so scarce there.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Cynthia F. Chaves
I am twenty years old. I come from a family that is half Ecuadorian and half Portuguese. I was always taught to lead with kindness, even when others may not reciprocate because I am lucky to come home to a family that loves and cares.
It always smells good in our kitchen.
We preach acceptance and faith. Our family members are also our friends and they can also find a home within ours.
We are encouraged to be different and go after what we want. If things go wrong, we always have each other to ensure we are never alone.
I hope to graduate college with a BSN so I can help better the lives of others while doing my dream job.
I am the daughter of a Peruvian mother and a Cuban father. I grew up in a Spanish speaking household; loud laughter, great food, and lots of love. My parents taught me the meaning of hard work and perseverance. The sacrifices they made and the obstacles they overcame just so that we could have a better life, have made me who I am today. I am a United States Army veteran a mother of three beautiful children, and a future nurse. No matter where this life takes me, I will always remember where I came from.
Alyson B. Perry
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see the face of women who came before me and laid the foundation for where I am today. These women faced hardships, limited opportunities and resources and yet, somehow remained strong and passed values down through their families. My eyes are like my paternal grandmother Dora, who raised fourteen children to be whoever they saw fit to be. She was ahead of her time, nonjudgmental. My skin tone is like my maternal grandmother, Rosena, who overcame obstacles to become financially literate and independent for her children’s futures.
Recently I took a DNA test. Along with the known Bajan, (Barbados) history, more than fifty percent of my DNA can be traced to Africa, specifically the country of Cameroon. I did not know much about Cameroon so I viewed pictures of the lovely place I came from. I saw beautiful beaches and bustling cityscapes. I noticed in the faces of the people, features that I have seen in myself and the strong women I love so much.
When I walk through the halls of Rockland Community College and see the different people who make up our diverse campus, I know that my story is not unique but similar to many people of different backgrounds. I know when I am finished with my program here, the diversity and love felt will make me an outstanding nurse.
Zachary A. Schulweis
I am attending Rockland Community College to pursue my degree in cybersecurity. I hope to work for a large company in the future.
I am Jewish and my family has been in the United States for three generations. My great great grandparents came to the United States by boat. They initially settled in Florida but then moved north to New York which why I am here.
I started college at University at Albany but decided that Rockland Community College was a better fit.
I have loved computers since I was a small child and now I am aiming for a degree in technology.
If you see me around, say Hi.
Marie J. Valmeus
We encounter many challenges; family, finances, religion, education, and school. We all need to find a way to make life better. As a nurse and a mother, I would like to be able to dedicate myself to overcome some of those challenges. I make an effort to serve my patients with compassion, treating them with respect and dignity.
In this world so many people are suffering but being able to help gives me a sense of purpose. I am a day nurse for a seventeen-year-old. He uses poetry to cope with his disabilities. I always take the time to read his work, encouraging him to continue using his words to share his story. The city I was born in is known as “The city of poets,” and I appreciate the meaning of poetry. Though my practice does not require me to read literature, I understand how it can help the health of the patient.
Doing the simplest tasks for my patients improves their lives.
I grew up in the city in the south of Haiti, in a country where the skies were always clear and the people content and friendly. I always loved adventure and exploring but it was the small and simple moments that gave me the most happiness.
Moving to this country and building a new life was an idea far from my mind. I am able to provide a life for my family that was once impossible.
Even at my age I can return to school and advance my career to help those around me and to better myself.
Though this country is different from my home, I still want to retain those same ideas from my youth; to appreciate the simple things, no matter what path I take. It has formed me into the person I am today. It helps me appreciate all I have now and how far I have come in life.
Caroline G. Peeples
My family hails from China, Libya, Palestine, and South Carolina. My mother’s family fled China around the time of the Great Leap Forward. My father, on the other hand, was born before Brown vs Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools.
I am proud of the work my ancestors did to ensure their children could live free of hatred and oppression.
I stand in solidarity with every multiracial person, regardless of heritage. White supremacy has tried to eliminate us. There was, for example, the “One-Drop Rule” and “Loving vs Virginia.” We are still here, carving out spaces for ourselves and becoming harder to overlook.
I hope to create a world in which our children can live free of racism.