Powerful stories, music at Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration

The university community came together Thursday morning for the annual Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration, which featured powerful stories and moving musical performances.

In his keynote address, Phil Brown, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences, explored the cultural, political, and literary world of the Catskills during the Holocaust and in the years after. The Jewish resort and year-round community in southeastern New York’s Catskill Mountains was a vibrant center of American Jewish culture.

Brown noted the parallels between the Jews’ return to Israel and their move to the Catskills, where Jewish immigrants began arriving in the 1890s. “The Jews in the Catskills created their own sort of promised land, a place of safety,” said Brown, who has written five short stories on the Catskills.

Brown said that when masses of immigrants came between the 1890s and the 1920s and when the Holocaust survivors came in the 1940s, they built in America the largest Jerusalem outside of Israel, a “mini Jerusalem” in the Catskills.

“The Catskills would be a place where the Nazis could not threaten Jews again,” Brown said. “No wonder there were Zionist training camps to prepare people for making Aliyah to Israel. The safety of the Catskills helped to shape the safety of a post-Holocaust state of Israel.”

Brown recalled how as a boy and into adulthood, he viewed the Catskills as “an endless and timeless place,” and watching it disappear propelled him to be its chronicler. Brown is the founder and president of the Catskills Institute, an organization that works to record and remember the history of the Catskills through various events, supporting scholarly research, and the collection of materials for the world’s largest archive of Catskills items.

The annual Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration is part of the university’s Holocaust Awareness Week, which publicly remembers the Holocaust every year not only as a historical fact but also as a memorial to its victims. The week’s programming bears witness to the Holocaust’s events and explores a range of issues that have arisen in the years since and their continuing impact today. Thursday’s event was held in the Raytheon Amphitheater.

Prior to his talk, Brown performed a musical piece with Elijah Botkin, S/AMD’15, the 2014-15 Gideon Klein Scholar. Botkin is a double major in mathematics and music, and his musical talents include singing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston and serving as president and bass section leader of the NU Choral Society.

Northeastern senior Elijah Botkin, the 2014-15 Gideon Klein Scholar, speaks during the Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Northeastern senior Elijah Botkin, the 2014-15 Gideon Klein Scholar, speaks during the Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

For his Gideon Klein Award research project, Botkin set to music a translation of a poem—“The Closed Town”—written by a child at Terezin, a concentration camp where more than 140,000 people were held during World War II before being transported by train to Auschwitz and other death camps.

The musical piece features chorus, string quartet, and chimes, and took Botkin six months to write. He sang that piece on Thursday, and he will conduct it at the NU Choral Society’s spring concert on April 18.

“Writing an original score of this length with this many parts was a new and extraordinary learning experience,” said Botkin, who thanked Northeastern music professor Joshua Jacobson for his mentorship.

Each year, the Gideon Klein Award supports a student exploring the work of a Jewish artist or musician persecuted by the Nazis. Scholars are asked to create an original work, prepare a performance, or do research. The award, which includes a $5,000 prize, honors the memory of Gideon Klein, a brilliant pianist and composer who was imprisoned in concentration camps 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.

Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies Lori Lefkovitz, who directs the Humanities Center and the Jewish Studies program, said Botkin is an “exemplary student” whose work honors the memory of Klein, an inspiration to young composers during his imprisonment in Terezin.

Holocaust Awareness Week is presented by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Northeastern Humanities Center with the Holocaust Awareness Committee. This year, Holocaust Awareness Week was moved to January to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz where the Nazis killed more than 1 million people, most of them Jews.

In his welcome remarks, President Joseph E. Aoun said anti-Semitism or any form of hatred or discrimination due to race, religion, or ethnicity is unacceptable. Holocaust Awareness Week, he said, provides an opportunity to have meaningful discussions around these issues. He stressed the importance of fostering a safe environment where productive dialogues can take place all year around and where intolerance of any kind is unacceptable.

“Let’s continue to work together and be a model for society,” he said. “This is an opportunity to send a message throughout the year, not only on campus but throughout the nation and the world.”