Anti-Jewish crimes bring calls for more Holocaust awareness at Penn State

For Tobias Brinkmann, a native of Germany and Penn State professor of Jewish studies and history, the spray-painting of anti-Semitic messages around a predominantly Jewish fraternity in November was shocking.

“Obviously, we are horrified by this,” Brinkmann said. “That’s for sure.”

Now, in light of the vandalism, different campus organizations are working to promote awareness of the Holocaust and provide educational programs for students who may want to learn more.

Two Penn State students and former Interfraternity Council members, Eric Hyland, 19, of Export, and Hayden Grom, 19, of New Fairfield, Conn., have been charged with ethnic intimidation after they admitted to vandalizing property near Beta Sigma Beta, State College police said.

Hyland and Grom waived their rights to a preliminary hearing and face possible trial. Grom’s State College attorney, Matt McClenahan, said his client’s actions were born out of ignorance and stupidity, not anti-Semitism.

“I’m pretty shocked that they don’t know, or claim not to know, anything about the Holocaust or World War II,” Brinkmann said.

He said that at Penn State classes about the Holocaust are “very well-enrolled,” following a nationwide trend. The Jewish studies program and the history department are seeking a new professor tasked with teaching Holocaust classes, he said, so that by fall 2014 even more classes will be offered.

The program also works to provide awareness in other ways, he said. A survivor of the Holocaust, Inge Auerbacher, will speak at Penn State on April 2, and on April 3, a New York University professor will speak about Jewish and Ukrainian relations before the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, at the Jewish campus organization Hillel, Executive Director Aaron Kaufman said his organization has worked with Penn State in past years to organize educational events about the Holocaust and will continue to do so.

Following the vandalism, Kaufman said there could be possible outreach or educational programs but that details are still being ironed out.

At the time of the vandalism, Kaufman said, Hillel was focused on communicating with members of Beta Sigma Beta and responding to the incident rather than planning ahead.

“The fact that this kind of defense can exist, I think, shows the need for education and awareness-building, and reinforces our efforts to provide that to the Penn State community,” he said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said there are no specific new initiatives being implemented at this time, but there is discussion.

Hillel, the Student Affairs Office and the Office of Educational Equity are exploring possible programming, she said. “More can always be done,” she added.

The Interfraternity Council will also be working on awareness about the Holocaust and the National Socialist party.

IFC President Dan Combs said the organization plans to bring in a speaker on white supremacy and Nazism for programming on “a topic that requires more attention.”

The group requires educational programs in four areas — diversity, sexual assault, alcohol and anti-hazing, he said, and 80 percent of each chapter must attend such programs. But Combs said not every chapter is required to attend that specific program.

“The Holocaust was an unimaginably tragic genocide in history,” Combs said. “And while it is hard to believe, there are people who have little or no education on the topic.”

Although Brinkmann said he supported the initiatives by the different groups, he added that what’s more important than learning about white supremacy and neo-Nazi organizations is learning about what happened and who the Jewish people are.

“For students, all you have to do is take classes,” he said. “Ignorance is the greatest problem, and education is how you fight ignorance.”