A rusty spoon, a briefcase, a photograph, a shoe, a trunk. These old items, displayed high above the Attallah Piazza, on the top floor of Leatherby Libraries, are treasures of one of Orange County’s most hidden gems—the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education.
“Each item tells someone’s story and has a place in history,” said Natalie Figueroa, a junior English literature major and staff member of the Rodgers Center.
As one of the leading sources for Holocaust education in Orange County, the Rodgers center has accepted countless heirlooms from families that wish to share their World War II horror stories.
One student deeply impacted by that education in the 1990s was Jessica Mylymuk. As a Chapman sophomore, Mylymuk enrolled in a class called “Germany and the Holocaust.” On her first day, she saw on the syllabus that Irene Opdyke, a heroine of the Holocaust that Mylymuk met as a child, would be a guest speaker. That’s when she was hooked, But she was also greatly impressed with her instructor, Marilyn Harran.
Soon after Harran created the Rodgers Center, and Mylymuk became her first staff member.
“In the beginning, it was hard to know if anyone was interested, even though we were. But now, mostly due to Dr. Harran’s passion, Holocaust education has been fostered in the students, in the faculty, and in the community,” said Mylymuk.
In fact Harran is widely known as the mother of Holocaust education for all of Southern California. There’s one irony:
Harran isn’t even Jewish.
But Harran’s passion was history. Her involvement with Holocaust education began with a popular freshman seminar lecture topic she taught in the ‘90s. But her students wanted more. So Harran gave them more.
“What I like about Chapman is that if you have an idea, and if you can get others to agree that it’s a good idea, you can get some momentum and make some exciting things happen,” said Harran.
And that’s exactly what she did.
She created the first course in 1995—HIST 307: “Germany and the Holocaust.” It began with a few dozen interested students, some books, and no funds. At the time, she couldn’t afford a charter bus for a trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Now, the center is home to the Sala and Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library, the annual Evening of Holocaust Remembrance, Kristallnacht, and the Schwartz Holocaust Lecture Series. And that single class has expanded into the Holocaust history minor.
Early on, Harran established a relationship with The 1939 Society, a community of Holocaust survivors that partners with colleges throughout California to share their experiences. Many members of the society have come to speak at Harran’s annual lecture series.
The society also sponsors the Holocaust Art & Writing Contest, which is hosted by Chapman University each year. The contest receives art, poetry, and prose submission from students all over the world who are inspired by stories of the Holocaust. This spring will bring the 18th contest, which continues to grow each year.
After learning about the Holocaust in their classes, some students have even initiated connections with well-known survivors outside of the 1939 Society on their own.
Cristina McKeever, a senior dance performance major, took her first course on the Holocaust as a freshman. During that course, McKeever watched the film “Numbered” for extra credit. She was enthralled by the film, and found herself jotting down notes about each survivor’s story.
She kept her freshman-year notebook, and came back to it as a junior in 2015. McKeever remembered how the film impacted her, and with the help of Harran and the permission of the filmmaker, Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, she choreographed a dance to tell the survivors’ stories. It drew a standing ovation.
“Learning about the Holocaust through the lens of my craft was incredibly moving. I was able to translate the testimony of survivors from the documentary and those that I met and connected with into movement and choreography,” said McKeever. “ This was a very special opportunity to further develop my perception of how dance can serve as a medium for historical and social awareness.”
Figueroa was also inspired to further her understanding of the Holocaust. After taking Harran’s course on the Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Figueroa decided to take on the Holocaust history minor.
But that wasn’t enough.
Figueroa is now in the process of designing a Holocaust history major for herself, which will include courses on religious studies, political science, peace studies, and integrated educational studies. She thanks Harran and her team for helping her through the process.
“I never expected the department to be so involved. I know that’s what Chapman is known for, but I never truly felt it until I started this minor. When I showed interest in creating a Holocaust major, the team was there to support and encourage me,” said Figueroa.
Wiesel, the subject of Figueroa’s class, was Harran’s favorite guest that she brought to Chapman, and someone she considered a friend. Although he passed away in July, at age 87, Wiesel’s impact on the university is not forgotten.
Wiesel first came to Chapman University for the dedication of the Sala and Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library in 2005. He returned in 2010 for the Rodgers Center’s tenth anniversary, and then again in 2011 to spend a week with the Chapman students. Wiesel returned annually until 2014, when he broke his arm just 36 hours before his flight to California. Throughout the time Wiesel spent at Chapman, he grew fond of the campus and its students. His favorite class to visit was French, since it was the language he learned as a college student in France. He enjoyed conversing with the students, practicing his second language. It was the simple interactions that he valued most.
“He loved students, and he loved questions. He always believed that we may be divided by our questions, but our answers draw us together,” said Harran. “He loved to define himself not as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, but as a teacher.”
Anyone who visits the Sala and Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library will see a smiling bust of Wiesel in the center of the room. They will also be greeted by the smiling photos of survivors in the hall.
“Whenever I come into the library, I look at the survivor portraits. I see a lot of friends, because they have become like my family,” said Ashley Bloomfield, Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education program assistant.
Bloomfield also began her time at Chapman University as a student. She recalls attending luncheons with the 1939 Society, and cherishes the time she spent with the survivors.
“Being able to sit down with a survivor defies understanding. It’s one of the most humbling and humanizing experiences I’ve had,” said Bloomfield. “To look at someone, and connect on that personal, emotional level, has been very transformative.”
One survivor, Jack Pariser of Laguna Beach, has especially impacted Bloomfield. Described as a jokester and a man full of energy, Pariser is pictured in the hallway with his arms outstretched in front of an expansive blue sky—the embodiment of pure joy.
Upon first glance, one may not know that Pariser spent two years of his childhood living in fear underground, hiding from the Nazis.
Now, Pariser spends his time speaking about his experience during the Holocaust, tutoring, and picking loquats from his tree at home to bring the Rodgers Center staff. Despite his dark childhood, Pariser loves life, and he shows it.
“People are capable of things that are absolutely inspiring. Sometimes we underestimate what we are capable of overcoming,” said Bloomfield. “But when we get through these things, it’s a testament to the human spirit.”
Mylymuk, who hopes to continue to spread awareness of the Rodger Center’s existence on campus, encourages new or unfamiliar students to visit the fourth floor of the library.
“They should know that this is a place for them to come and learn. It’s a warm, welcoming environment. It’s not all about the morbid aspects of the Holocaust,” said Mylymuk.
Although the Holocaust is one of the darkest periods in history, Harran and her team believes in the importance of the stories of the individuals who lived through it. Dozens of survivors and heroes have donated their personal artifacts to the center, such at Curt Lowen’s briefcase used to carry forged documents for the resistance.
These items act as tangible reminders of the tragedy and hope that co-existed in the time of the Holocaust. Harran plans to develop more interactive exhibits for these items, so students can better understand these stories.
“Chapman has always been committed to asking students to think about what they learn in terms of not only ideas, but actions. We do have to think about all the things going on in the world, and make up our minds about them,” said Harran. “Elie Wiesel always told the students, ‘You won’t solve all of the problems in the world, but choose one place where you can make a difference.’”