With guidance and support from Jewish community leaders and local elected officials, Kingsborough Community College is proceeding with plans to open a Holocaust resource center this fall.
The center expects to generate interaction between students at the Manhattan Beach campus and members of one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world.
Although the scale and scope of the center is still in development, and a fund-raising goal — much less an actual budget — have yet to be finalized, the college administration already has designated at least 2,500 square feet on the eighth floor of its library for the project.
“We are committed to moving forward under any circumstances,” said Kingsborough president Byron McClenney, after two recent meetings with an advisory committee composed of faculty, rabbis, Holocaust activists and the local representatives on the City Council and state Assembly.
The committee hopes the center will collect artifacts, provide multimedia research materials, hold regular lectures and conferences on and off campus, and utilize students to record testimonies from some of the thousands of survivors in southern Brooklyn. A formal announcement of the center is planned for the annual Sheepshead Bay Holocaust memorial event in June.
The Kingsborough center, to be located a short distance from the Holocaust memorial at the foot of Sheepshead Bay on Emmons Avenue, would work closely with the committee that constructed the memorial — founded by Ira and Pauline Bilus of Manhattan Beach — and other organizations and local schools.
It would be the second Holocaust resource center on a City University of New York campus. Queensborough Community College in Bayside opened one in 1983. But Professor William Schulman, who founded that center, said another would not be superfluous.
“There should be one in every borough, if we could afford it,” said Shulman, a former history instructor and now professor emeritus at the college. “The only Holocaust resource center in the city right now, where you can come and borrow a book, is at Queensborough. There is certainly a need for one in Brooklyn, with its large population that doesn’t go into Queens.”
The Queensborough center has operated on a budget of about $150,000 in public and private funds for materials and salaries in recent years, but has received about half that sum this year due to city and state budget cuts and the slumping economy. The public funds come from discretionary money from the City Council and state Assembly, and the private funds from foundations and individuals. The college provides only space and utilities.
McClenney said a committee meeting this week would finalize the fund-raising goals.
“We are going to let that evolve,” he said. “We are looking at a mix of money raised from outside and money from our operating budget to get it off the ground, but there are so many unknowns, particularly with the city budget.”
Professor Bernard Klein, chairman of the history department and the likely chairman of the resource center, anticipates at least $200,000 in startup costs and an annual budget of about $100,000 to cover research equipment and materials and at least one salaried employee.
Klein, a survivor of Auschwitz and Mauthausen, has envisioned the center since he arrived at the campus in 1965. Five years later he began teaching “The Nazi Holocaust,” a course he said is attended primarily by non-Jews.
The center became more important, Klein said, when an archive maintained by author and historian Yaffa Eliach, associated with the Yeshivah of Flatbush, left Brooklyn to become part of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial to the Holocaust when it opened in September 1997.
McClenney’s predecessor, Leon Goldstein, was a proponent of the center and began the groundwork, but the project stalled when Goldstein became ill and died in 1999. A college faculty council approved the idea in May 2000.
McClenney, former president of Denver Community College, is “very interested in connecting to the community” via the Holocaust center, and the pace toward opening the center has increased under his administration, said Klein. “We’ve met with members of the community and finally decided to do it,” he said.
At an advisory committee meeting last month, Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz and Councilman Michael Nelson, who represent Manhattan Beach, pledged their support.
“I firmly believe that all of the elected officials in this area, knowing that they represent one of the largest segments of the survivor population, will do whatever they can to make this a success,” said Michael Geller, a Democratic district leader in Sheepshead Bay who runs a substance abuse treatment program at Kingsborough.
Geller, who serves on the advisory committee, said he envisioned the center not only as a place of instruction about the history of Nazi persecution and contemporary anti-Semitism, but also of study about the sociological lessons of the Holocaust.
”As an intellectual and educational arena, the college should be involved in finding out the root causes of a national psychology that turned an entire nation to hatred, and [how to] make sure those seeds are never sewn again,” said Geller.
Rather than wait until fall, Klein hopes to make the center an immediate reality by hosting conferences and symposia during this academic year. He is planning one on the effects of the Holocaust on Jews in the Soviet Union — a subject of key interest to the thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants in the surrounding neighborhoods of Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach.
Dr. Oleg Gutnick, a member of the advisory committee and an immigrant from Belarus, said the center could distinguish itself from other institutions by shedding more light on the Soviet experience. “The story of the Russian Holocaust has never really been told,” he said.
A key project of the center will be videotaping testimonies of survivors.
“We can’t duplicate what Spielberg has done,” said Klein, referring to Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. “We don’t have the money. But a lot of people have been asking to record their testimony. Students have to be trained to do that. It could cost as much as $500 per interview.”
McClenney views the fledgling center not only as a service by the college to the general community, but also as an educational opportunity for students.
“This is a very dramatic way to say to a segment of the population that probably hasn’t gotten the attention it merits that ‘This is your community college,’ ” he said. “But more than that, student engagement in that type of work, in oral history collecting, is a wonderful learning experience.”