GREENSBURG — “What is the role of good people in difficult times?”
The words are collaged and encrypted and printed outright across eight antique typewriters on display at the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education (NCCHE). The typewriters are the Shoa-inspired sculpture project of art students.
But the question itself remains at the core of NCCHE, located — of all places — at Seton Hill University, Greensburg.
The NCCHE is tucked away in a modest two-room suite in the administration building of the university, a small, Catholic, liberal arts school with a student body numbering about 2,000. The unassuming quarters of NCCHE, however, belie its loftier purpose: to counter anti-Semitism and to foster Jewish-Catholic relations.
“It’s important for everybody to study the Holocaust,” said NCCHE’s founder, Sister Gemma Del Duca, speaking from her home in Jerusalem, where she has lived since 1975. “But in a special way, for Catholics it is important, because we have a long history with the Jewish people, much of which is a dark history.”
After the Catholic renewal prompted by Vatican II under the direction of Pope John XXIII, leaders of the Church encouraged Catholics to study both the Holocaust, and the role of the Church during that time, said Del Duca.
“After Vatican II, we knew we had to face this history, and to study this history together and separately, so a kind of reconciliation and dialogue can take place,” she said. “Without Catholics studying the Holocaust, it is hard to have an authentic conversation with the Jewish people.”
Del Duca, who travels back and forth between Israel and the United States to promote Holocaust education, founded the Center in 1987, after having lived in Israel for more than 10 years, working with Father Isaac Jacob, founder and director of Tel Gamaliel, a small center for Jewish-Catholic relations.
“In the summer of 1987 I was back at Seton Hill for the summer assembly of the Sisters of Charity,” recalled Del Duca. “Shortly before I arrived, Dr. JoAnne Boyle had been inaugurated as the new president. And in a meeting with her I discussed the possibility of a program for educators, and especially faculty and staff from Catholic colleges and universities, who would come to Israel for Holocaust study, research, experience.”
The NCCHE opened Nov. 10, 1987 — the anniversary of Kristallnact. Since then, the center’s annual Kristallnact commemoration has drawn hundreds of people to the tiny Westmoreland County campus, said Wilda Kaylor, its associate director.
Area survivors attend Kristallnacht at Seton Hill, and share their stories with the community. It has become a very popular event on campus.
“The chapel is filled. And with students,” said Rabbi Sara Rae Perman of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, and vice chair of the National Advisory Board of NCCHE. “It’s just amazing.”
Perman finds it particularly amazing that the NCCHE is located at Seton Hill.
“The first time I came up here — for Kristallnacht — I said, ‘Why are they doing this? Why is this happening here?’ This was 25 years ago. Why are they doing this on a Catholic campus?” Perman said. “I think this is one of the hidden secrets of our community.”
Other educational opportunities provided by NCCHE include an online program in genocide and Holocaust studies, and speakers and films on campus.
Perhaps most importantly, NCCHE strives to be a national resource for the Catholic Church.
“Our primary focus is to educate Catholic educators about the Holocaust so they can teach students to promote Jewish-Christian relations,” Kaylor said. “As a Catholic center, we are dealing with some of the issues of the Church during the Holocaust, and some of the controversy — like, did the pope (Pius XII) do enough to help? Did the people of Poland do enough?”
Every three years, NCCHE hosts a national conference, and each summer sponsors a 20-day educational residency at Yad Vashem for educators.
“We continue to recruit participants for the summer seminar program at Yad Vashem, and we try to pass on to educators, and they in turn to their students — a new generation — important lessons for bettering our world in a dynamic, tangible way,” Del Duca said.
The center does that, she added, “by dialoguing with history, with documents, but above all with people, Holocaust survivors, Catholic and Jewish leaders, scholars, professors, teachers and with each other.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)