JoAnne Boyle was taken by surprise when, on her first day as president of Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, Pa., Sister of Charity Gemma Del Duca proposed that the school start a center to study the Holocaust from a Catholic perspective.
“I said, ‘Why should we do this?’ and she thought for a moment and said, ‘Because it’s the right thing to do,’” Boyle told Our Sunday Visitor. “You could hardly argue with that.”
On Nov. 10, 1987, the 49th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” of anti-Jewish violence throughout the German Reich — Boyle announced the official opening of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education (NCCHE).
Two years later, Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author and concentration-camp survivor, came to Seton Hill for a conference and praised the center and its goals.
“He said that the subject we were dealing with was a subject that would disturb good Christians,” Boyle said. “And where better to disturb good Christians than at a Catholic college?”
The center was founded in response to Second Vatican Council documents that concerned the primacy of human dignity and religious liberty, and that encouraged relations with the Jews.
It was also a response to Pope John Paul II’s 1987 letter urging Catholics to “promote the necessary historical and religious studies on [the Holocaust] which concerns the whole of humanity today.”
Of the at least 11 million people killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, 6 million were Jews, the biggest target of unprecedented genocide.
“Historically speaking, we should be significantly disturbed when you go back to the roots of anti-Semitism and see how deep they are, how far they go, how troubling they are, and how they remain with us,” Boyle said.
The center’s mission is to promote education that counters anti-Semitism and enhances Catholic-Jewish relations.
Educating the educators
The signature program grew out of a partnership with Yad Vashem, a world center and museum for Holocaust studies in Jerusalem. Sister Gemma, whose work took her to Israel in 1975, was instrumental in a collaboration with Yad Vashem, which expanded its International School for Holocaust Studies to include a program specifically for Catholic educators.
Each year, Boyle sends out letters to Catholic institutions inviting faculty to the intense educational opportunity. Typically, six people attend the summer program in Israel, which over the years has included 16 Seton Hill faculty.
“We hope that when they return that they do something about Holocaust education in their own colleges and universities,” said Sister of Charity Lois Sculco, NCCHE administrator and vice president for mission and student life at Seton Hill. “We want them to go back and teach, with that background of our Catholic identity.”
The center also has an on-line course available worldwide for a 15-credit certificate in genocide studies.
“We are uniquely a center that studies the Holocaust from the perspective of the Catholic experience, which includes Catholic teaching, Catholic positions and Catholic roles during the time, before and after,” Boyle said. However, the center’s programs, conferences and resources attract Jews, other Christians and public school teachers.
For future generations
NCCHE’s mission is becoming even more important now, Boyle said, because, “the last generation of our Holocaust survivors are leaving us. Who will now speak for them? Over the years, many wonderful people have brought the Holocaust to life for our students, but they have been dying, so we have been making plans for replacing those voices with other ways of carrying their messages.”
The new generations, she said, will be able to speak through the leadership of the scholars and “mature educators” who are working to create an understanding of how the Holocaust happened, and “to make sure that what happened never happens again.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.