Teaching Knowledge and Understanding to All
Passion & Purpose
Maine Women Magazine tells stories about women motivated by big ideas. Undeterred by obstacles, these women forge ahead. This is what Holocaust and Human Rights Center (HHRC) has done, too. From its determined founder, Gerda Haas, to the impressive people who have carried its purpose forward, the HHRC thrives because of this spirit of unstoppable passion and purpose, thankfully. Because the next generation, who shape the future of our country and world, needs to be challenged, encouraged, and educated. Simply put, an equitable and sustainable world depends on today’s students gaining knowledge of the past and learning skills to improve what they have inherited. And they are eager to do just that. People feel the urgent need to protect the environment, create greater equality for all citizens, and build compassionate communities. The HHRC is proud to be involved in that work.
There are twelve fully developed educational programs offered to schools across the state and free of charge. All of them can be customized to age group, subject and grade level, even reconfigured to align with a particular unit or project. Middle and high schools in Maine have participated in the HHRC programming, some for one session, others for more extensive learning. Adult programs are offered to community groups, senior colleges, universities, and informal gatherings at the Center. In addition, Education Coordinator Erica Nadelhaft is working at a policy level, collaborating with the Maine Department of Education to create online modules on the Holocaust and other genocides. The stunning Michael Klahr Center, home to the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, displays exhibits and hosts events, celebrations, and commemorations. Poised to be a respected voice for tolerance and equality, the staff is often asked to speak about incidents of bigotry or violence.
This year saw the continuation of the Vision 2020 project to commission original art pieces for the Michael Klahr Center highlighting the contributions of Maine’s Black and Brown heroes. 2022 will see a Distinguished Lecture Series featuring three prominent scholars who will explore aspects of Jewish history and the Holocaust: Silvia Foti, Anne Knowles, and James Richter. HHRC will benefit from the Violins of Hope visit to Maine next October with an exhibit at the Center and a closing reception featuring a presentation by the project’s overseer and a concert by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
Holocaust and Human Rights Center’s Founding
How did it all begin? With a visionary founder and Holocaust survivor named Gerda Haas. Born in Ansbach, Germany in 1922, Gerda Haas witnessed the brutal murder of her mother and sisters at a Nazi concentration camp in Riga, Latvia, before arriving at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic in 1943. After the end of World War II and liberation, she was reunited with her father, who had survived and was then living in New York. Once in the United States, Gerda met and married Dr. Rudolph Haas and later moved to Maine, where they had four children. She graduated from Bates College in 1971 and worked as a librarian there for many years. It was during a summer seminar held on the Bates campus in 1984 that Gerda and others established a task force that would engender the founding of the HHRC. As the leader of the group, Gerda had started to organize other survivors and allies to speak out and realized, to her horror, that many Maine schools were not even teaching about the Holocaust. So, on a day in April 1985, after attending a tea hosted by Governor Brennan at the Blaine House to commemorate Yom HaShoah, Gerda and her colleagues walked down the hallway to the Secretary of State’s office and filed papers to officially launch the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. Thirty-six years later, Gerda’s dream of peace through knowledge and remembrance is stronger than ever.
In October 2005, the HHRC broke ground on its permanent home, the Michael Klahr Center, a Maine architectural highlight designed by Harold Hon and Son Wooten and situated on the UMA campus in Augusta. Naming donor, Phyllis Jalbert, another powerful woman connected to the HHRC, spoke at the public opening about her late husband Michael Klahr and his lasting legacy. The doors opened to the public in May 2008, into a soaring entrance and interactive mixed-media installation called Michael’s Story, greeting the visitor with vivid murals, archival photographs, an original film, and numerous artifacts. The immersive experience brings to life the story of a hidden child of the Holocaust whose legacy continues in the splendid Center that bears his name.
The woman who orchestrates all of this is Executive Director Tam Thanh Huynh, the first BIPOC leader of the organization, former participant in HHRC’s educational programming through the Diversity of Leadership Institute, and the youngest board member in organization’s history. Tam’s equanimity, patience, and devotion to the cause is evident in all she says and does. She is quick to compliment, give credit to others, and often pauses during meetings to smile at the ideas pouring out. This is an executive director who delegates freely and with confidence, offers guidance when asked, sprinkles gratitude liberally, and has that rare ability to focus on future ambitions while remaining completely engaged in the day-to-day work. Her long days may include meeting with board members to map out a five-year strategic plan, reaching out to thank some donors (who often respond by thanking her back), checking in with partners or affiliated organizations, answering staff questions, and heading up to the Center in Augusta to be in the epicenter of it all. She is deliberate in her choice of words: favorite phrases include “I’d like to be very thoughtful about this” or “What do you think about that?”
Tam grew up in Winthrop, a small community in central Maine where her family of Polish and Vietnamese descent had deep roots in the community. When her parents enrolled Tam in a school in South China, Maine, a teacher recognized her curiosity and intellect, introduced new approaches to learning to her, and gave her the time and encouragement that nurtured her confidence and growth. Within two months, Tam accelerated ahead a full grade and was entered into the gifted and talented program. Her aptitude with languages and obvious intelligence earned her a place in the Diversity of Leadership Institute, a program that brought together high school student leaders of diverse perspectives, thought, and ethnic and racial backgrounds statewide to combat biases and address prejudicial attitudes in high schools. Tam was the first person in her family to attend college, earning a B.A. in international affairs from the University of Maine and an M.S. in management and organizational development from the SIT Institute, a school she chose deliberately instead of a more conventional business school. From there Tam launched her career, focusing on bringing people together, including work as a consultant, creator of humanitarian programs, mediator to bring groups together, and college administrator working with international and students of color at Colby College. In 2017, twenty years after her introduction to HHRC, she returned to the board for a second time and then accepted the invitation to become the next Executive Director. Her institutional history and both professional and personal experiences make her uniquely qualified.
Central to the organization’s mission is education. At the helm is Education Coordinator Erica Nadelhaft, who has found her dream job at HHRC. “Every day I get to do the work that I feel so passionately about. I grew up in a tradition where one is obligated to try to make a piece of the world better. But obligated is the wrong word because this work is a privilege and a joy. It’s difficult, it’s emotionally and physically draining, and I often spend many more hours on it than I should. But this work is not a burden—it’s an extension of who I am. I think all of us who work at the HHRC feel the same way. We do this work because we can’t not do it.”
What exactly is this work? It’s teaching people of all ages how to live with a universal respect for human rights by helping them understand the consequences of prejudice and stereotyping. It’s helping communities become closer and more compassionate by inviting their members to explore biases, to think about the way words can divide and threaten—or heal and unite. One might imagine an expert in human being’s capacity for evil would be stymied by despair. But not Erica. This teacher is quick to smile and laugh, brimming with optimism, eager to discuss any and all subjects from a wellspring of confidence that to investigate and understand history offers the courage to make the present world a more just and peaceful place. As she says, “Education and using the lessons of the Holocaust and other events encourages individuals and communities to reflect and act upon their moral responsibilities to confront prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination.”
Erica credits her parents for igniting a passion for scholarship, adventure, and human rights. As a young child they visited Washington DC and San Francisco for peace marches, socialized with other academics, traveled in a camper van, even got to see concerts of the early folk singers and activists, including Pete Seeger in Friendship, Maine. Her family moved from New York City to Bangor when she was four years old for her father to teach history at UMaine Bangor and her mother at the community college and then run the honors program at the university. They returned often to Manhattan to see family, visit museums, soak up the people and culture of a big city. During summers, they lived in Cambridge, England, where she attended primary school and traveled across the United Kingdom, delighting in the ancient castles, churches, and museums. Scotland beckoned, so at age 13, her parents took a sabbatical and they settled in Edinburgh, where she attended and loved the local high school. On holidays they crisscrossed the United Kingdom because her family loved to travel.
By college, she had the interest and confidence to do it on her own. So, she returned to Edinburgh for her junior year and then backpacked through Europe on a Eurail pass, staying in youth hostels and soaking in the art, architecture, cultures, languages and people of each place. Settling in Israel, Erica lived on a Kibbutz for a year, studied Hebrew until she was fluent, and then earned M.A. Magna Cum Laude from the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was there in turbulent times: during the first Intifada, as terrorism was on the rise, and left just days before the first Iraq War began.
To say Erica is qualified for this work is an understatement. She reads four languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and German. She earned a B.A. Magna Cum Laude from Brandeis University; an M.A. Magna Cum Laude from the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and an A.B.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis. She studied Polish at the University of Warsaw, Yiddish at Oxford University, and history at the University of Edinburgh. Professionally, Erica has taught a breathtaking variety of courses in history, Hebrew, Judaism, Genocides, Antisemitism, World Civilizations, and the Middle East. No surprise she has received eleven fellowships and scholarships for further study.
Educator Piper Dumont exudes energy and joy. Her rapid-fire speech is punctuated with exclamations and questions, musings, and wide-eyed enthusiasm. She gesticulates a lot; every topic generates an outpouring of possibilities and plans. She describes her early years, “As a queer kid growing up in a rural community, my transformation came through education. Insightful and talented teachers expanded my sense of myself and the world. I became the first in my family to attend college, which further solidified my commitment to education’s vital role in promoting the dignity of all human beings and our collective responsibility to each other.” So, in 2019, when an Educator position opened, she applied and was hired. Since then, Piper has taught classes to students of all ages, facilitated projects and programs in schools to help students understand the damaging impact of prejudice and healing results of acceptance and encouragement.
Piper has worked in a wide array of communities and developed a multifaceted set of skills. She holds a core commitment to the vital role education plays in collectively examining the roots and consequences of prejudice and discrimination—as well as our enormous capacity for compassion and moral action. This has driven her academic pursuits—from her time as a student in the teacher certification program at College of the Atlantic focusing on human rights education to a Peace Education master’s program at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her doctoral work brought together Cultural Studies’ critical cultural analysis with the broader view of education at the heart of Family and Community Education. While teaching social studies and English at the Community School, Piper designed and taught U.S. history courses focusing on the immigrant experience, the history of groups excluded from civil rights protections, and teaching slavery only using the narratives from people who were formerly enslaved.
In addition to teaching and developing programs, Piper recently created an anti-bias toolkit that helps schools explore and address bias in their communities to create more welcoming, respectful, and safe places to learn and grow.
Mission & Vision
“The mission of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine is to promotes universal respect for
human rights through outreach and education. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other events, past and present, we encourage individuals and communities to reflect and act upon their moral responsibilities to confront prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.” The work to achieve this aspirational mission is broad reaching, varied and impressive. Fueled by the talents and passions of some powerful women, the HHRC is spreading knowledge, improving schools, creating community, celebrating survivors, and opening opportunities for people of all ages, races, religions, and backgrounds. Because when everyone is their truest selves, we all shine. Please get in touch – we would be delighted to offer one of our educational programs to you.
For more information please visit hhrcmaine.org
Sara Lennon is a communications professional. She has created successful strategies for schools, coalitions, campaigns, and non-profits for thirty years. Sara recently joined the Holocaust and Human Rights Center and is honored to be working with an impressive team to build compassionate communities and promote respect for human rights.