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At Chapman U., a Holocaust Library Keeps Memory Alive

The Center for Holocaust Studies is a library-within-a-library, as well as a museum, at Chapman U.

Orange, Calif. — Marilyn J. Harran is the first to say that a mid-sized Orange County university affiliated with the Disciples of Christ is an unlikely home for a Holocaust library, just as a religious-studies professor whose field is the 16th century and who isn’t Jewish is an unlikely Holocaust-library director. But that makes the library and museum that Ms. Harran has created on the fourth floor of the Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries building all the more striking, and gives the programs she has championed that much the more impact.

Ms. Harran (left) came to Chapman in 1985 with no thought of establishing a Holocaust-studies program. But as she began teaching about the murder of millions of Jews and others, her interest grew—along with Chapman’s programs and its web of connections with Holocaust survivors and their descendants. In 2000 donors endowed a chair in Holocaust studies, held by Ms. Harran, as well as a Center for Holocaust Education. A few years later a new library building offered the possibility of a small, handsome museum, a comfortable reading room, and archival space for donated materials, including the papers of  several holocaust survivors.

Even if you can’t spend hours among the library’s archives, the artifacts displayed in the small, stark gallery through which you enter make a lasting impression. The gallery’s five display cases are arranged chronologically, with the first offering pre-war recollections and the last celebrating survivors’ liberation from the camps. In between are cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, a child’s shoe from the death camp at Majdenak, and tablets containing the poison that fed the gas chambers.

Inside the library are more artifacts—a prayer shawl that was the only thing Leopold Szneer, who later became a cantor, had to remember his father by; paintings by survivors of the internment camps; a Dutch first edition of The Diary of Anne Frank. “Everything here is about life and what we do with it,” Ms. Harran says. “Every object has a story and the story is alive.” In the hall outside are portraits of many of the story-tellers, who are members of the Los Angeles-based 1939 Club, named for the year Nazi forces invaded Poland. Chapman students, working in teams of two, have interviewed many of them for the library’s archive.

If she’s not teaching, the indefatigable Ms. Harran is likely greet you and talk—with considerable enthusiasm—about the center’s other programs. Tucked in among the lectures, remembrances, and presentations is an art and writing contest that is particularly dear to her heart. Every year it brings hundreds of school students into contact with the recollections of Holocaust survivors, and each participating school gets five seats at an awards banquet at which the students can meet and talk with the survivors themselves. This year’s ceremony will be March 4.

Ms. Harran is also sure to introduce you to Chapman students working on one or another of the center’s projects—students likely recruited from her classes. “My courses are difficult,” she says. “I give out one A to 30 students. But to the credit of Chapman students, they come—because they know they are going to meet fascinating people.”

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