History of the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Rockland
The creation of the Rockland Center for Holocaust Studies in Spring Valley, New York, in 1979-80 presaged the establishment of such institutions by almost a score of years. The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., for example, was opened in 1993, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City in 1997.
It was inspired perhaps by the idea of Harry Reiss, a teacher and adjunct professor of history at Rockland Community College, in the 1970’s to develop a course on the Holocaust at the Rockland Community College (RCC) the first such course to be taught in the entire region, and then to develop some kind of more permanent vehicle for Holocaust commemoration and study in the County. He was joined by then Chairman of the County Legislature, Sam Colman, who proceeded to introduce a bill in 1979 that would establish a Rockland County Commission on the Holocaust modeled after the Holocaust Commission established in Washington D.C. by President Jimmy Carter.
The original Commission in 1979 consisted of Co- Chairpersons: Dr. Harold Siegelman and Georgine Hyde, and Executive Director, Harry Reiss. By 1980, the Commission had added charter members: Joseph Adler z”l, Lillian Adler, Warren Berbit, Hon. Sam Colman, Robert Finkelstein z”l, Kenneth Gribetz, Karl Hess, Georgine Hyde, Rubin Josephs, Anne Katz, Al Kirsch, Alan Koss, Ilse Loeb, Sam Simon, Sam Weinberger, Henry Zeisel. and was renamed by the Legislature as the Holocaust Council, charged to create a permanent body for commemoration and memorialization. The Council morphed in the Rockland Center for Holocaust Studies when it created its own museum and study space in the annex of the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley. Much later, in 2001, the name of the Center was changed to Holocaust Museum and Study Center. The Finkelstein Library was chosen from among several venues, includeRCC (which was not completely available at that time due to its own expansion plans) because of its accessibility as a public institution to students and adults of all faiths and beliefs.
After many years of private fundraising and rebuilding of the Library annex, the Rockland Center for Holocaust Studies opened its doors as a museum on May 15, 1988. In the first year of its existence in its new home, it was estimated that 10,000 people participated in some way in educational and commemoration activities at the Center.
From 1979 through the present time, the Rockland Center has served as the major Holocaust institution for commemoration, education, and leadership in the entire Hudson Valley region. For the first 18 years of the Center’s existence, its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day programs drew an audience of 700 to 800 people and became a major vehicle for Holocaust historians, survivors, and community spokespeople to commemorate the horrors of those tragic years. Annual Holocaust commemorations, in different formats, have continued to the present time to bring the message of remembrance to the entire community.
The course on the History of the Holocaust that Harry Reiss developed at Rockland Community College continued to be taught there by him until 2006. In addition, the curriculum he developed in conjunction with Dr. Sue Commanday at RCC continued to be utilized by school districts throughout the County. Also at the college, in addition to the annual County –wide Holocaust Memorial Program sponsored by the Holocaust Center, a special Yom HaShoah program was held every year. Educators Conferences, held in schools and colleges in the County, including Rockland Community College, provided teacher training and resource materials to educators in the Lower Hudson Region.
The foremost task of the Rockland Holocaust Center was to educate the new generations, Jewish and non-Jewish, about the disintegration of humanity and the destruction of liberty that led to the annihilation of two thirds of European Jewry—men, woman, and children, some six million people. Thousands of schoolchildren from Rockland County and beyond have visited the Center over the decades of its existence, listened to testimonies of survivors, and participated in classroom discussions about man’s inhumanity to man.
During this past year, a move of the Holocaust Museum to the campus of Rockland Community College from its present venue in the Finkelstein Library has brought the history of the Center/Museum almost full circle from its inception as a Holocaust course of study at RCC. The presence of the Holocaust Center/Museum on a college campus will make it readily available not only to ten thousand visitors a year but to thirty thousand It is hoped that with the continued help and encouragement of President Cliff Wood and the Board of RCC, and the move to an appropriate building on the campus, the Holocaust Museum will continue to teach the message of humanity and democracy to all, and to be a beacon of light to the entire Upper Hudson Valley Region and beyond.
Copyright ©2013 Marion Reiss