The National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University (SHU) held the 2015 Ethel LeFrak Holocaust education conference from Oct. 25-27. This year’s theme was “The Holocaust and Nostra Aetate: Toward a Greater Understanding.” Many speakers gave presentations, including Rev. Patrick Desbois’ “The Holocaust by Bullets” keynote speech, and the Nostra Aetate award presentation to Mary C. Boys.
Desbois, who recently appeared on “60 Minutes,” is a Catholic priest who has researched the Holocaust and attempted to improve relations between Catholics and Jews. He is the founder and president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization that identifies and commemorates mass execution sites from World War II.
In his speech, Desbois discussed mass executions during the Holocaust, adding that many grave sites were never documented. He also made parallels to genocides in today’s world.
“What I thought was really important was his argument that we have to be very conscious when we are in positions of ‘well, it’s not me,’” said Jennifer Jones, assistant professor of communication at SHU. “He said it’s a disease that we can all fall into, and no one should think they are above that happening to them. I think his words really caused an interruption of the way people think.”
Desbois’ work is also shown in an exhibit in the Harlan Gallery at the Seton Hill Arts Center. Along with “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Syzk,” Desbois’ “Holocaust by Bullets: Yahad-In Unum, 10 Years of Investigation” is featured.
His exhibit shows the fieldwork that he did with his organization to collect evidence of Nazi shootings of Jews. Both exhibits are available to the public until Nov. 12.
“I think he is very passionate about his work, and that made the speech so much better,” said freshman Megan Snyder. “I thought his speech was very in depth about what happened, and although it was a terrible event, it interested me when he talked about what he discovered.”
The Nostra Aetate award was given to Mary C. Boys, who is the dean of academic affairs along with the skinner and McAlpin professor of practical theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Nostra Aetate is a 1965 statement from the Catholic church regarding its relationship with other religions, including Judaism. The award acknowledges a person’s scholarly work regarding Catholic-Jewish relations, along with a result of interfaith understanding and promotion of awareness of religious values in society.
“This is an honor for me personally, but more importantly, these kinds of events are excuses for people to gather about a really important issue,” Boys said. “Nostra Aetate started something very important. A lot of work has been done since then, and we still have a lot of work to do.”
In Boys’ speech, “Dare We Hope,” she discussed the messages sent in Nostra Aetate and offered her own rewrite of the fourth section of the document. She also allowed audience members to ask questions or comment to continue the conversation.
“If you want to be an educated person in the world today, you better know something about religion, because when it’s misused, it can be a horrible source of justification for violence,” Boys said. “Maybe you don’t feel religious spiritually, but you shouldn’t be ignorant about religion. People who are ignorant about religion can then be led to some very ignorant things.”
Desbois and Boys were only two of the many speakers who discussed Catholic-Jewish relations in regards to the Holocaust, Nostra Aetate or a combination of the two.
“I felt like a common theme throughout all of the presentations was to respond to suffering and injustice, and that it needs to be done now,” Jones said. “We have the luxury of thinking ‘what am I doing now,’ and we should move out of that luxury to engage in real action.”
Snyder said although she only attended Desbois’ presentation, she wishes she could have attended more events because she considered it very educational.
Jones said she is proud to be at SHU because of the work that everyone in the Holocaust center does, and she considered the conference a great experience.
“What I took away from this is action really matters,” Jones said. “I think the lesson for all of us is that everything we do, even if we think it doesn’t matter or even if it’s something small, it does matter.”