HMTC’s mission is to teach the history of the Holocaust and its lessons through education and community outreach
Tucked away behind a winding road that leads to the stately Pratt mansion, the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center (HMTC) of Nassau County is dedicated to imparting lessons about the impact of choices. As its name suggests, the center aims to teach the history of the Holocaust while also explaining tolerance, even down to the smallest of actions.
The HMTC is a repurposed Gold Coast mansion that sits on the 204-acre Welwyn Preserve, once owned by Harold and Harriet Pratt for use as a summer home. The estate was one of several in the area for the children of Charles Pratt, partner of Standard Oil Co. with J. D. Rockefeller and founder of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
With the matriarch of the household, Harriet Pratt, as a passionate horticulturist, the Welwyn estate’s most notable accomplishment became its gardens conceived by the Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park. Today, these beautiful gardens have been transformed by the HMTC into a children’s memorial garden to remember the innocent little ones who perished in the Holocaust.
Harold and Harriet Pratt owned the land and house until Harriet’s death in 1969, when she left it to Nassau County. It wasn’t until 23 years later, in 1992, that Holocaust survivor Boris Chartan converted the mansion into the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, a fitting transformation as the original proprietors of the museum were philanthropists who contributed greatly to the local community.
While Chartan wanted to inform the community about the Holocaust, he also sought to teach about the dangerous effects of hatred, racism, prejudice and bullying. The center works to meet both goals, emphasizing the impact of choices as visitors are taken through an exhibition of photos, videos, maps and information panels.
The exhibition begins with a wall presenting examples of other genocides, stressing HMTC’s theme that the Holocaust, or blind hatred and racism in general, was not a unique event in human history. Naturally, this is followed by a chronology of the Holocaust: how Hitler came to power, the increasingly worse treatment of the Jews, the concentration camps and liberation.
“Just because you didn’t pull the trigger, doesn’t mean you’re not guilty,” Director of Development Judy Vladimir says.
The Holocaust didn’t start with concentration camps and gas chambers. It began when bystanders watched as Hitler gained power and began taking rights away from Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and anyone else who didn’t fit perfectly into Hitler’s definition of the ideal Aryan race. The idea that civilians weren’t aware of what was happening is a common misconception, according to Vladimir. Hitler was very open about his motives and actions through propaganda with the hope of swaying the masses, and as the HMTC aims to express, the public was fully aware but chose to stand by. This message is prevalent throughout the exhibit, highlighting both sides of choice: the bystanders who blindly followed Hitler’s words and the “upstanders” who resisted in order to do what was right.
According to Vladimir, the excuse of those bystanders was “I had to,” while the reasoning for why some risked their lives to save others during the Holocaust was also “I had to.” A person always has a choice, the HMTC says, and those choices always have consequences.
Vladimir pointed to a photograph of a Nazi soldier aiming his gun at a man hugging his child in a field. “What do you think would have happened if this man chose not to shoot those people?” she asks me. Instinctively, I respond that he would have been killed for disobeying orders, but Vladimir shook her head; the soldier would most likely have been transferred to a different position.
The center also works to translate what could feel remote in today’s world to what relates to someone’s everyday life, Vladimir explains. For each tour taken through the exhibit, guides adapt the discussion to fit their audience.
While children may feel that the tragedies of the Holocaust and other genocides exist in distant countries and distant times, they can easily relate to bullying. On the other hand, when a group of nurses visit the HMTC, guides focus on the role of eugenics in the Holocaust.
“There’s a contemporary element to this; it’s not just history,” Chairman of the Board of Directors Steven Markowitz says.
This idea is best seen in the last room of the exhibit, where examples of genocides and hate crimes are displayed opposite examples of human rights activists, all from after the Holocaust.
Focusing in on Long Island, an image of a recent hate crime hangs on one wall, sharply contrasting the photograph of a group of Long Island teenagers who started the One Is Greater Than None campaign.
As visitors end their tour, the last words they are left to consider are printed in bold on a sign just before the exit: We recognize prejudice and hatred did not end in 1945.
Now that you know, which will you choose… To be a bystander or an upstander?
Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County is located at 100 Crescent Beach Road in Glen Cove. For more information, visit www.hmtcli.org or call 516-571-8040.