Out of the darkness: New coalition aims to promote love and tolerance through Holocaust education

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Lindsay Steele
Wrigley Mancha and Charles Thomas Budan, actors in a local Holocaust play; Holocaust rescuer Jeno Berta, Sr.; and Putnam Museum curator Christina Kastell participate in a barbed wire ribbon cutting at the Davenport museum Sept. 1. The event was part of an ecumenical community initiative, “Out of Darkness: Holocaust Messages for Today.”

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Jeno Berta, Sr., a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, vividly remembers the day Nazi forces led a group of local Jews through his hometown in Hungary. Though the group of adults and children were headed for near-certain death, “they were singing,” Berta recalled, voice shaking. Later, his family, at great risk, sheltered a Jewish family. “My father said, ‘We can’t save ’em all, but we’re going to save these four.’”

Eighty years later, the righteous anger Berta feels toward the injustice of the Holocaust remains. Jews, people of color, persons with disabilities, Roma and others were persecuted for things they had no control over, said Berta, now a U.S. citizen. “To hate and discriminate… is wrong! It was wrong in 1944, is wrong in 2022 and will be wrong tomorrow!”

Berta was among several speakers at the opening of the Anne Frank: A History for Today exhibit at Putnam Museum and Science Center in Davenport. He also participated in a barbed wire ribbon cutting.

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The exhibit is part of a new, ecumenical community initiative, “Out of Darkness: Holocaust Messages for Today.” The coalition includes more than 20 cultural organizations, educators, libraries and sponsors across the region “who will provide compelling programming that serves to counter divisiveness, racial tensions and intolerance in our community,” said Kerry Smith, a Putnam trustee. Quad-Citians will learn from the past through music, art, lectures, films, dance and exhibits at a variety of locations.

St. Ambrose University in Davenport is participating in the coalition as a program presenter. The university plans to offer lectures, galleries and events in the coming months, including an interfaith prayer service. “There is great interest and enthusiasm on campus about promoting Holocaust remembrance,” Nicky Gant, the university’s service and justice coordinator, told The Catholic Messenger. Details about events will be released soon, she said.

“It is very important to learn the history of the Holocaust, from how it began to the final solution,” said Alan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities and the son of a Holocaust survivor. Most important are the “many lessons learned that are needed in today’s world.” He hopes that the many programs being offered in this project will “provide the knowledge and educational tools needed for us to … be able to push back effectively against those who wish to cancel, to censor, to bully and to hate. For if we don’t, how can we prevent future holocausts and genocides from happening?”

He said the best educators of the Holocaust, and the lessons learned from it, are “Holocaust survivors, righteous gentiles and rescuers speaking in person, face-to-face.” However, these men and women are now in their 80s and 90s, and some are ill or unable to travel, he said. “So it’s up to you, it’s up to me, it’s up to us and the following generations to ensure that Holocaust education is taught properly and effectively.”

The Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities spearheaded the coalition and has been instrumental in securing funding to support exhibits, live performances and additional programming suited for students and adults, he said.

Two presenters at the Putnam exhibit opening offered their messages remotely through video. Harold Kasimow of Grinnell recalled living in a pit under the stable of a Christian family for 19 months in what is now Lithuania. “We lived in constant fear” of being found by Nazi forces, said Kasimow, a Jew. His family immigrated to the United States shortly after the war ended and he devoted his life to promoting interfaith dialogue as a professor and an author. He believes indifference, silence and inaction lead to genocide. “Humans are faced with two choices: dialogue or death, love or perish,” he said.

Ralph Troll, a survivor from Germany, had a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. During a video recording, he recalled being denied admission to a gifted school because of his mother’s heritage. “Anti­semi­tism was rewarded; compassion was denoun­ced and punished” by the Nazi regime, he said. In 1945, the Gestapo “stormed” into their house and took his mother, “no hugs, kisses or goodbyes.” She survived, but many of his friends and extended family members did not. Later, his family immigrated to the United States and he became a professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He believes freedom of speech, religion and thought are basic human rights and that it is important to help those lacking these freedoms to escape from tyranny. “We must oppose bigotry and prejudice. It is our duty to keep our country free by recognizing it and having the courage to speak out. Being indifferent is not an option.”

Dave Herrell, president and CEO of Visit Quad Cities, is part of the new initiative. “We need to improve as individuals, as families, as a community and as communities,” he said at the opening. “I think that is the undercurrent of this initiative. … (These) community partners have coalesced around something that I think we should never forget. It was a very dark time in human history, and we need to do whatever we can, in our power, to make sure it never happens again.”

Ross said he is “truly grateful for the outpouring of support for this important project.”

Get involved

Out of Darkness: Holocaust Messages for Today is a collaborative effort of cultural organizations, educators, libraries and sponsors working together to achieve four common goals:

• Provide a forum for collaboration within the community and region using Holocaust history to prompt dialogue on relevant issues.

• Educate the next generation of community leaders on the lessons of history and how those apply today.

• Build a more vibrant, inclusive and tolerant community by giving context to the patterns of history around racism, exclusion and authoritarianism.

• Create social capital by bonding, bridging and linking partners to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts for greater community impact.

Participate by attending programming that inspires, informs and provides tangible actions to ensure history never repeats itself. View a list of upcoming “Out of the Darkness” programs at

https://www.outofdarknessqc.com/programs.html

Contact Allan Ross at aross@jfqc.org​ or (309) 793-1300 for more information.


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