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The Cohen Center Turns 25
With its unflinching study of the Holocaust and other genocides, the Cohen Center embraces the mission of tikkun olam, "repairing the world."

Dr. Henry Knight photo by Mark Corliss.
Dr. Henry Knight, new director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies.
"An academic community is fundamentally a conversation," says Hank Knight, director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies, to a crowd of about 200 who have gathered in the Mabel Brown Room for a teach-in on a chilly December night.

He explains the rules: There are eight seats at the table, two of which are reserved specifically for students. Anyone can come to the table to say his or her piece, and once a participant has had a chance to speak, someone else can tap him or her out and take a place at the table. Dialogue needs to stay civil and respectful.

When the first six participants have spoken, eight more replace them, immediately, and are replaced in turn as they speak. There are more students than staff and faculty members, more staff and faculty than outside community members, but a significant representation of all three groups. The conversation goes on for hours and finally has to be wrapped up, because the people there could apparently talk about this all night.

It's important to raise generations that think about the nature of responsibility, that ask whether they are uncomfortable enough, that are inclined to interrupt any form of disregarding the Other.

The teach-in is a response to an upcoming event on campus. A local religious group led by a Holocaust denier has rented space on campus for a benefit concert. The group espouses views that most of those in the room find distasteful if not repugnant. The teach-in's topic: "Welcoming the Other: The Difficult Work of Hospitality."

Welcome, indeed. Dr. Henry (Hank) Knight got to campus in July 2007 as the third director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies, just beginning its twenty-fifth year. If the passionate response to the benefit concert, or the passionate response to the Cohen Center's response, fazes him in his first semester here from the University of Tulsa, it doesn't show.

Photo by Chris Justice.
Students studying the Holocaust make an annual trek to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in the company of Cohen Center staff. Former director Paul Vincent (front row, far right) led the group in 2007.

Jan Cohen, who was on the search committee that hired Knight, was impressed by the caliber of people who responded to the search, but says Knight stood out early on for his heart and intellect, as well as his connections within the field. Dr. Paul Vincent, she says, who was the Center's last director, had taken the Center to the point of having a national reputation.

Knight, she says, is now poised to take the Center's work to the international community. And when Vincent returns this year from a five-month residency at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to coordinate Keene State's academic program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the Center will have a dynamic trio of educators in Knight, Vincent, and educational outreach coordinator Tom White.

'Arbeit Macht Frei' photo by Mark Corliss.
"Arbeit Macht Frei," by sculptor Roland Brassard '98, won the 1998 Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award, and has become a strong symbol at the Cohen Center. Photographed by Mark Corliss.

When asked how he chose Holocaust Studies as a field, Knight says, "It chose me." There is a pattern to the way he answers questions like that, in fact. Maybe it's a theologian's habit of looking at other sides of questions, of trying different approaches to answers. He describes himself, and many scholars of his generation, as "accidental" Holocaust scholars who, without formal Holocaust Studies programs to introduce them to the field, stumbled into it anyway. He talks about the "call of the double negative – I can't not do this." The Center got its start in 1980, when Dr. Charles Hildebrandt, a sociology professor at Keene State, gave a lecture entitled "The Holocaust and Us" to about 50 people.

He'd been to a conference and heard an address by Dr. Franklin Littell, one of the preeminent Holocaust scholars in the world. The next year, Hildebrandt applied for a sabbatical to research Holocaust resource centers around the country, with the goal of starting one at Keene State; it would be unique in New Hampshire, at least, and perhaps in northern New England. In 1982, he took the fall semester to travel around the United States and Canada.

In January 1983, Hildebrandt founded what was then the Holocaust Resource Center in the Campus Ministry office with 1,100 books, plus articles, films, tapes, slides, posters, religious program materials, and curricula he'd gathered. In 1985, a new course, Sociology of the Holocaust, was added to the curriculum. In 1998, when Hildebrandt was ready to retire, Paul Vincent, a history professor, took on the directorship of the Center. The establishment of a Holocaust Studies minor was approved in 2001. Also that year, Tom White, then a teacher at Keene High School, took a leave of absence to join the staff of the Center as its educational outreach coordinator; he extended his leave of absence for another year before joining the staff permanently in 2003. And in 2003, students in the Holocaust Studies program established a Holocaust Studies Club on campus.

During those years, the Center moved from Campus Ministry to the Fiske Annex, the Elliot Center, in and out of Mason Library in different spots, and eventually into its current space on the first floor of the library.

Paul Vincent photo by Peter Finger.
Dr. Paul Vincent will return from sabbatical to coordinate the Center's academic program.

To some degree, the fortunes of the Cohen Center have risen and fallen with its funding. Hildebrandt's original sabbatical was funded by a grant. Another gift in the late '80s enabled the Center to hire an assistant; five years later, a lack of funds threatened to cut that position. In 1998, another gift endowed the Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award. In 2000, a gift endowed the Center's Memorial Lecture Series.

Then in 2001, Jan and Rick Cohen gave what was at that point the largest nonbequest gift in the College's history to endow the full-time coordinator for educational outreach. This also gave the College an opportunity to rename the Center in honor of Rick Cohen's parents; the Cohens' gift is the Norma and Lester Cohen Holocaust Studies Endowment, and the Center was renamed the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies.

Another gift from the Cohens, in 2007, gave the College its first endowed chair, in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, enabling the Center to broaden its course offerings to include genocide. This, Jan Cohen says, will require new kinds of expertise, underscoring the need to understand other cultures, others' right to exist.

What's special about the Cohen Center, Knight says, and about his position in particular, is that he has colleagues. He is not "stealing time" to do this important work, as he has had to do in the past and as many people in his field still have to do. It is no longer something he does in early mornings and late evenings, when his "real" work of teaching or chaplaincy is done.

Early newspaper stories about the Holocaust Resource Center, as it was then called, are full of "why Keene?" – why house a center like this in an area with such a small Jewish population? Hildebrandt's standard answer was to remind the asker that the Holocaust was not merely a Jewish event: we all need to learn from this chapter of human history. Knight, a Methodist minister who approaches Holocaust studies as a theologian, says that answer, specifically, drew him to Keene. He cites the annual Kristallnacht commemoration, a community and interfaith event. It creates a recognition, he says, that the Holocaust is not only a Jewish issue.

Educational coordinator Tom White carries the work of the Center to a wide audience.

The Kristallnacht remembrance is a joint effort on the part of the Center, the Keene community, and local religious organizations to remember the "Night of Broken Glass," November 9, 1938, when hundreds of Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed by the Nazis and 91 Jews were killed. Soon thereafter, tens of thousands of Jews were taken to concentration camps. In Keene, the annual remembrance has offered opportunities for education on contemporary issues of injustice and genocide, as well.

Jan Cohen first heard of the Center through a Kristallnacht event at her synagogue, in fact. She'd majored in modern European history in college and had studied in Austria, but, as a Jew, couldn't quite bring herself to go to Germany at that time. When she first became aware of the Center, about 10 years ago, she made a contribution and started receiving newsletters. As she continued to contribute, Vincent and Hildebrandt encouraged her to get more involved with the Center, and she joined the Kristallnacht planning committee. She chaired the committee for four years. Cohen took classes at the College, too: Literature of the Holocaust, Women and the Holocaust.

For Cohen, the opportunity to work with the Kaddish Project is part of tikkun olam – the Hebrew phrase for "repairing the world."

When composer Lawrence Siegel approached Cohen with the idea of a musical depiction of the Holocaust, she brought the idea to Vincent. They all agreed it would be a good fit for the commemoration of the Center's 25th anniversary. (Read more on the Kaddish project. )

For Cohen, the opportunity to work with the Kaddish Project is part of tikkun olam – the Hebrew phrase for "repairing the world." The project will have its premiere this spring at Keene State. Cohen is clear that part of the value of the work of the Center is an awareness that we are all capable of being victims or perpetrators – or bystanders. The Kaddish Project particularly, she says, is a chance to teach people to stand up for what's right.

Asked what difference Holocaust studies makes, whether studying the past will prevent genocides of the future, Knight again looks at another facet of the question. "I would claim it makes all the difference in the world," he says, but that doesn't mean it's preventing genocide. It's important to raise generations that think about the nature of responsibility, that ask whether they are uncomfortable enough, that are inclined to interrupt any form of disregarding the other. It's easy to let the status quo roll along, but it is important to raise people who think and resist – and who know what's at stake if they don't.

"To Remember…and to Teach"