Abraham Peck’s parents were married in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland and were separated six months later-his father to a work camp and his mother to Auschwitz. After the fall of Nazi Germany, Peck’s mother searched for her husband and found him. Alive.
Soon after, Peck was born in a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany in 1946, in the same town that Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. In 1949 the young family came to America.
Dr. Abraham Peck is now an adjunct professor of history. He is developing a Center for Post-Holocaust Jewish and Christian Studies. The Center will examine the historical relationship between Christianity and Judaism, advocating a scholarly inquiry in light of the Holocaust. Interfaith dialogue will serve as a model for the interaction of diverse faith communities. Programming, fundraising and planning are being developed by members of the clergy, academia, and the broader community.
The Center ultimately will have its own physical space, Peck said. It currently functions out of offices in the History Department in Gorham.
“Dialogue starts with the idea of one person talking to another, to look at themselves and understand where they come from,” said Peck.
“I am impressed with what Abraham has done and where he has come from,” said Lenny Shedledtsky, professor of communication. “I am very grateful that he’s doing this kind of work to educate us, to remind us.”
The Center will provide undergraduate courses at USM using the fields of history, literature, sociology, philosophy, and religion and hopes to develop programs and curricula for middle and high school students. The Center is also trying to establish a self-designed major in religion. Peck is currently developing the Judaic Collection at the University to further enhance resources on Portland and Maine Jewish history.
Growing up was difficult for Peck. He became the focus of his parents’ loss and was a living representation of all the family members who had died during the war. Most people during this time could not bring themselves to discuss the Holocaust and what horrors had taken place. Peck’s father spoke candidly and relentlessly about his experiences. Peck couldn’t explain to his friends why he didn’t have grandparents, or cousins, or aunts and uncles. He had only his mother and father.
“I couldn’t explain to my friends why my father would tell these horrific stories of murder and starvation. All we wanted to do was be children and play,” said Peck.
Funding for the Center will come primarily through private grants and religious communities. It will be a self-supporting, nonprofit academic experience. Peck strongly believes in the separation between church and state. He said the Center will not advocate any kind of religious position within the University and hopes to be in full operation next year.
The term Holocaust came into use during the 1960s. The name gave survivors something to refer to. Peck said he knew, through the teachings of the prophets, that the world needed and needs to be repaired. He began his search to try and understand, personally, some sense of who he was based on what had happened to his family. He went to Germany, the land soaked with Jewish blood, and felt the burden that the country carries.
Peck said he realized that both the Jews and the Germans had inherited the legacy. He believes that both sides must arrive at a sense of civility and respect to examine what makes us close and what separates us.
Some students support Peck’s ideas.
Martha Huestis, a nontraditional student, paraphrases theologian Hans Kung’s idea that there cannot be peace in the world until we have peace among religions.
“The center could be a real draw for Jewish faculty and students who are considering enrolling at USM,” said Julie Goell, another nontraditional student. “We are such a homogeneous school, predominately Christian and white with somewhat limited backgrounds in terms of travel and the greater world. This would be a wonderful opportunity to expose us to diverse cultures and ways of thinking.”
Rabbi Carolyn Braun, from Temple Beth El, applauds USM for participating and is truly excited about the prospects of the Center, and of Peck as director.
“This concerns not only the Jewish community but the betterment of humanity,” she said. “This is about diversity and understanding. It has something to do with everyone.”
“With an increase of interest around spirituality in general and Jewish life in particular, there is a need for a greater awareness,” said Andrea Thompson McCall, assistant to the vice president for Interfaith Programs and Services. “People are searching for a connection, and seeking answers. This institution would be enriched and Abraham Peck is a wonderful addition to this community.”
Contributing Writer Stephanie Rothe can be contacted at: [email protected]