Holocaust scholar coming to Pittsburgh to share research on Latin America, Jewish refugees and little-known acts of heroism
EducationLearning lessons of the Holocaust

Holocaust scholar coming to Pittsburgh to share research on Latin America, Jewish refugees and little-known acts of heroism

Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez to speak with area students and at Chatham University

Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez. (Photo courtesy of Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh)
Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez. (Photo courtesy of Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh)

The first time Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez met Holocaust survivor Betty Grebenschikoff, Moreno-Rodriguez was in seventh grade.

“I had really no background in the Holocaust. I remember I was listening to Betty’s story, and she kept using this word, ‘Holocaust,’ Moreno-Rodriguez told the Chronicle.

Moreno-Rodriguez, who isn’t Jewish, grew up in New Jersey’s Atlantic City area.
Before hearing Grebenschikoff’s testimony, he never met a Holocaust survivor.

Something about her story resonated, he said: “It stuck with me.”

As the years passed, Moreno-Rodriguez’s interest in the Shoah grew. During high school, he noticed the Holocaust was minimally mentioned in history courses. Later, after enrolling at Stockton University in Galloway Township, New Jersey, he pursued classes related to the Shoah and volunteered at the university’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. After receiving an undergraduate degree, Moreno-Rodriguez returned to Stockton to complete a master’s in Holocaust and genocide studies, and took a job at the university’s Holocaust Resource Center. He now serves as its interim director.

Moreno-Rodriguez told the Chronicle he remembered the impact Grebenschikoff’s tale had on him as a seventh grader, how she gave him a copy of her book and how her story affected his life.

That’s why he’s especially proud, he said, to call her a good friend.

After enrolling at Stockton, “I ran into Betty here in the center,” he continued. “I was able to meet with her again and we became quite close.”

Next week, Moreno-Rodriguez is visiting Pittsburgh to speak with area students and partner with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh on a March 12 presentation at Chatham University’s Welker Room. Beginning at 6 p.m., Moreno-Rodriguez will discuss, “Passages to Safety: Untold Stories of Jewish Refugees in Latin America.”

The topic, he told the Chronicle, has personal meaning.

“My parents are both Mexican,” he said.

When Moreno-Rodriguez began researching Latin America and the Holocaust, he kept encountering the story of the Dominican Republic and its willingness to save Jews.

Between 1938 and 1945, the Dominican Republic, led by dictator General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, admitted 645 Jews and issued approximately 5,000 visas to Jews, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum.

The story of Latin America and the Holocaust is larger, however, and history should pay greater attention to the role of Mexican diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldivar, Moreno-Rodriguez said.

Bust of Gilberto Bosques Saldivar. (Photo by Eduardo Ruiz Mondragón, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

“You had this Mexican consul who risked his life, the life of his wife, his children, his staff members in Europe, by issuing these visas to escape to Mexico and other parts of the world,” Moreno-Rodriguez said. “He took this initiative along with his staff to rescue tens of thousands of people by issuing visas to Jews and Spaniards — [people] that wanted to flee the aftereffects of the civil war in Spain and Jews who were trying to escape Nazi- occupied Europe.”

According to USHMM, apart from saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews and refugees fleeing Spain, Bosques Saldivar also “rented a castle and a summer holiday camp near Marseille to house refugees, claiming that, under international law, the property constituted Mexican territory.”

Bosques Saldivar’s actions were significant, Moreno-Rodriguez said.

“For me personally, as a Mexican-American, I have the honor of celebrating two types of histories: the U.S. history and Mexican history,” he continued. “I’m very proud of knowing Gilberto Bosques’ story and how he rescued Jews during World War II. And I’ve sort of made it my mission to not only tell his story, but the story of how Latin America, in general, became this haven for many Jews during World War II.”

Emily Loeb, Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s director of programs and education, told the Chronicle she is excited for Pittsburghers to hear more about Moreno-Rodriguez’s work: “His research invites deeper engagement between Pittsburgh’s Jewish and Latinx communities by shedding light on our intertwined histories. His research also connects to our own local community, as we have a survivor who found refuge in Bolivia before settling in Pittsburgh.”

Within the seismic story of the Shoah, it’s vital for people to know that “Latin America was an important destination for Holocaust survivors. It was an important refuge,” Moreno-Rodriguez said.

The upcoming visit to Pittsburgh is a chance to shed light not only on that aspect of the Holocaust, but also on Bosques Saldivar’s contributions.

“One person can make a difference,” Moreno-Rodriguez said: “I give tours of our Holocaust Resource Center. I go out to school districts. We have more and more students who are from Spanish- speaking countries, who are in English as a second language courses. And this is just another avenue that we can explore as educators where we can tell students, ‘Look, you’re from Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Bolivia — let me tell you their role during the Holocaust.’”

When students can create personal connections to history that “changes someone, and it makes them so proud of where they came from,” Moreno-Rodriguez said. “And in a time when we’re trying to figure out who’s our neighbor, we are all neighbors, and we can all help each other out.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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