JRC remembers Holocaust victims with ceremonies

Thousands of names echoed over Baxter lawn last Tuesday as students gathered on Chapin steps in honor of Yom HaShoah, the national Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yom HaShoah events, sponsored primarily by the Jewish Religious Center (JRC) and the Bronfman Advisory Committee (BAC), included the reading of victims’ names on Chapin steps from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as a student-led memorial service. While the JRC traditionally has a Yom HaShoah service, this was only the second year that students publicly read the names of Holocaust victims in what JRC student coordinator Tracy Menschel ’04 called “a project of raising awareness and remembrance.”

The Queer Student Union (QSU) and Stephen Collingsworth, assistant director of the Multi-Cultural Center (MCC) and coordinator of Queer Issues, also contributed, largely in honor of gays who suffered in concentration camps. In fact, it was Collingsworth who first suggested last year that students make a public ceremony out of the reading of victims’ names. This practice, observed at a few other colleges and universities, was tradition at Ohio State University, where Collingsworth studied as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Organizers modified the ceremony to fit the Williams campus, reading for seven, rather than twenty-four hours, and substituting a list of victims from the JRC library for Ohio State’s more comprehensive list.

Members of the JRC described the name-reading ceremony as a practical way to make a broader range of the campus aware of the events of Yom HaShoah. “Before, people simply met on the steps of Chapin and walked over to the JRC as the bells tolled,” Anjuli Lebowitz ’03, former student director of the JRC said. She described reading names as a way to “remember more actively” and to reach out to the rest of the College’s students.

Rabbi Sigma Coran, associate chaplain of the College, also described this year’s memorial service as an improvement over last year in terms of student attendance, which was perhaps a result of the weather. “Last year when we read the names, it was a rainy day, so many people were unaware that it even happened,” she said. “With nice weather, I think most people on campus heard at least a few names last Tuesday. At least one person I talked to [who works in Baxter] said it was very moving to hear the names all day.”

Coran also described Chapin as an appropriate venue to reach the widest possible cross-section of the student body. “We picked Chapin Steps because it is very public and the place where the College community was most likely to hear the names and be present as witnesses,” she said. “I know that I was caught off guard myself, even though I was reading because so many of the names sound like people I know. At one point, I heard a student reading my son’s name. That was very sobering.”

Other volunteers, of which there were about 20, with two or three working per hour, described the process as similarly powerful. “It was striking for me to see whole columns of the same last name,” said Sarah Steege ’06. “There were so many names and families, not all necessarily related.”

At 4 p.m., when volunteers concluded the ceremony on Chapin steps, the JRC hosted a memorial service led by Israel Mirsky ’03. The service, which featured English testimonies on life and death in the concentration camps and Hebrew prayers, also included the lighting of six yartzheit candles, each representing one million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Students seemed generally pleased with the day’s outcome, but a few were disappointed because of the events’ lack of publicity. “Attendance was poor, partly I think due to insufficient advertising of the event… I did not know about the service (though I did of the day) until I was actually at the JRC,” said Mirsky, who was quick to add that “those were [at the service], however, very much wanted to be.”

Davida Kutscher ’03, former student director of the JRC, noticed a similar problem at Chapin, mentioning that the student body might have assumed the ceremony was “a protest or something.”

“Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as though most people take the time to stop and read the signs and find out what’s happening,” she said.

The JRC organizes commemorative events each Yom HaShoah, and plans to continue with the service and the name-reading ceremony next year. This year’s events also included a movie, sponsored by the BAC, which brings Jewish cultural and intellectual events to Williams.

The JRC has also sponsered parents’ weekend brunches with speakers. Last year, Deborah Rothschild, Curator of Exhibitions at the Williams College Museum of Art, spoke about staging the Prelude to a Nightmare exhibit; the year before, a Holocaust survivor, who was related to a Williams student, spoke about her experience in the Holocaust.

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