Uta Poiger grew up in 1970s Germany, a time in which the history of the Holocaust was glossed over in the country’s classrooms.
“The persecution of Jews was not a major topic of my trip to a concentration camp,” the Northeastern professor and chair of the history department told students, faculty and staff who filled the Raytheon Amphitheater on Tuesday morning for the Holocaust Awareness Breakfast. “I knew that Black Americans had to fight for the right to sit in the front of the bus before I understood the notion of what it meant to be a Jew.”
The breakfast — which was sponsored by the Humanities Center in Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities — kicked off the university’s annual Holocaust Awareness Week. The two-day series of programs and events aim to celebrate the memory of Holocaust victims and serve as a reminder of contemporary acts of genocide.
President Joseph E. Aoun addressed the community on Tuesday morning. Northeastern, he said, is in a “unique position as an educational institution to take the lead in disseminating” the truth about the Holocaust.
“We have to remember and never forget,” he added. “It’s an everyday mission.”
Aoun also praised the leadership of Lori Lefkovitz, the Morton B. Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies, who he credited with invigorating Jewish life and learning on Northeastern’s campus.
Poiger, who has lived in the United States for 25 years, noted Germany’s changing attitude toward the Holocaust, but acknowledged that “nothing will ever make things right.”
“Things changed with the passing of time and the end of the Cold War,” she explained. “By the 1990s, the old and new capital of Berlin was full of memorials and references to the Holocaust.”
The breakfast also featured a presentation by Emili Kaufman, a senior communications major with a dual minor in history and Jewish Studies.
Last year, Kaufman received the Gideon Klein Award to study the artwork of German surrealist painter Felix Nussbaum, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944. On Tuesday morning, Kaufman presented her findings.
Nussbaum’s apocalyptic painting of skeletons beating drums and tooting horns, she found, “represents the end of the world and his own impending death before being deported to Auschwitz. It magnifies the feeling of being the living dead.”
Kaufman, who was introduced as a “brave, adventurous and wonderful person,” completed the project in honor of her father, a Jewish professor of illustration who passed away in 2010. “This project gave me a way of discovering what it means to be Jewish,” she said.
Kaufman’s award, which included a $5,000 prize, honors the memory of Gideon Klein, a brilliant pianist and composer who was imprisoned in concentration campus until his death in 1945. Northeastern distinguished professor of chemistry Bill Giessen, who grew up in Nazi Germany and passed away in 2010, established the award in 1997 in memory of his mother, Gustel Cormann Giessen.