Holocaust remembrance goes virtual
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Holocaust remembrance goes virtual

Holocaust Center programming moves online during COVID-19 outbreak

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh has built its reputation on intelligent and provocative programs attended by multitudes of people, often confined to the tight space of 826 Hazelwood Avenue. As the spread of the coronavirus threatens all of us, our work is more important than ever.

Alarmingly, it is in times like these that the global network of racist hate groups dig in, growing the seeds of hate and gaining strength. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, people in self-quarantine are more likely to be exposed to violent white nationalist movements online. Already we see an increased threat to Asian Americans who have been scapegoated for the spread of the virus, and recently the FBI has warned of rhetoric blaming Jews and the LGBTQ population for the coronavirus.

For nearly a year, the Holocaust Center had planned to convene the community during the month of April — Genocide Awareness Month — to build solidarity to counter racism, mass atrocities and identity-based violence. Weeks before we were all sent home to work remotely, the Holocaust Center planned to move April programs to an online platform. I have had moments of despair considering the fact that white supremacists are so advanced in the use of social networks to build structures of hate. the Holocaust Center confronted a choice: stop in our tracks in our educational efforts or reach even larger audiences by learning a new skill set. Our early acceptance of the new reality gave us a head start to figure out the technology, to acquire tools that would allow us to build community from the required social distance.

Faced with the indiscriminate enemy of COVID-19, we pivoted to build connections to an even larger audience through several strategic national partnerships. We have joined the national nonprofit Together We Remember in its mission to turn memory into action; together, we convened a coalition of Holocaust museums across the country, including major museums in Dallas, Los Angeles, Skokie (Chicago) and Terre Haute, Indiana, to coordinate April programs. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh took the lead in mastering Zoom technology to offer professionally produced online events with protections in place to avoid malicious users and the widely reported threat of Zoom bombing.

On April 5 we hosted “Together We Remember: What Does Never Again Mean You?” The National Vigil began with a video from former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who shared her experience as a girl in Pittsburgh and continued to encourage action in the face of injustice. Students from across the country read names of victims of genocide; a panel of experts in atrocity prevention discussed the meaning of “never again” and at the end of the program participants pledged to remember. More than 150 people took part in the virtual program, and the video of the event on Facebook and YouTube has reached nearly 3,600 viewers. (Videos from all April programs are available via the Holocaust Center’s Facebook page.)

In mid-March I invited the 300-plus members of the Association of Holocaust Organizations to support each other through the most difficult question each of our organizations faces — how would we commemorate Yom HaShoah when we cannot gather together with Holocaust survivors and their families?

In 2020 we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi camps all over Europe. Over the past few years we have connected with liberators and their children. This year’s Yom HaShoah at Soldiers and Sailors would have been inclusive of all Pittsburghers at a level that we had not yet accomplished. Were we brave enough to attempt to create a similar experience online?

I am grateful to our advisory board, Yom HaShoah subcommittee, and generations group, for their members’ willingness to support moving this program to an online platform. Our virtual program Yom HaShoah: 75 Years Since Liberation, will take place on Tuesday, April 21, at noon. By holding the program mid-day, we are able to invite teachers and students, our main stakeholders, to participate as part of the school day. The day will include stories of liberation, candle lightings for the approximately six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and for Liberators, Veterans, and Righteous Among the Nations. By offering the program online, we are also able to offer the experience to small communities that lack the resources to move their own Yom HaShoah commemorations online.

This commemoration will also offer a chance to remember and honor the Holocaust Center’s first director, Dr. Isaiah Kuperstein, who passed away of COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh will be celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year, a milestone that would not have been possible without Dr. Kuperstein’s vision and energy.

Indeed, none of this would have been possible without past and present support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the dedication of the members of the Holocaust Center staff. This last month has demonstrated the strength of our small but mighty team, making an indelible mark on this month of genocide awareness and Holocaust remembrance. Our work is even more important in the face of the pandemic and the antisemitism that plagues have bred throughout history.
While we must stay apart physically, let us be united together in remembrance for Yom HaShoah 2020.

Join us on Tuesday, April 21, online, from 12:00 to 1:00, or contact the Holocaust Center at 412-939-7289 to learn how to participate by using a toll-free number to dial in to the program. The link to register for the program is https://hcofpgh.org/yom-hashoah-2020. PJC

Dr. Lauren Bairnsfather is director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

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