KEENE — When Keene State College professor Charles Hildebrandt started a resource center for the study of the Holocaust, it was a few hundred books in some spare rooms in some basement offices.
Last week the school unveiled the new 7,200 square-foot, two-story Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
College President Melinda Treadwell said the center cost around than $5.6 million in total.
The center, built onto the college’s Mason Library, houses an extensive collection of original materials and literature about the Holocaust numbering into the thousands. Treadwell said the center will allow for visiting scholars and others to study from, and do research with, the materials.
The center is also home to the Holocaust and Genocide Studies major classes. Hank Knight, the director for the major, said the 60 students in the growing major are learning not just about atrocities, but about the human connections we all share, and how to head off violence before it starts.
“It’s what connects us,” he said. “Our work is about making clear what binds us together, and part of that is being able to articulate when and where those ties break, and how to repair that.”
Kathleen Dougherty, 24, a 2017 graduate, said she wanted to come back to the school on Saturday for the unveiling. She remembers spending hours in the back of the library, where the Cohen Center was then located, in order to do her work. She was thrilled to see the new space.
Dougherty chose Keene State because of the Cohen Center, and the hope she sees it offering through its teachings.
“It means being able to understand how people disconnect from each other and how to combat that,” she said.
The new space for the center was built thanks in large part due to the financial support from Keene residents Rick and Janet Cohen. Rick Cohen is the billionaire owner of C&S Wholesale Grocers.
Janet Cohen declined to say how much the family contributed to the total project, but said that her family’s contributions went up after President Donald Trump put into place tariffs on steel imports, sending up the cost of the construction. The Cohens are long-time supporters of the center that now bears their family name.
Janet Cohen said the center and its mission is vital.
“Our students are being asked to connect the dots between the study of the Holocaust, which is historical, and what’s happening now around the world, which is genocide and mass atrocity,” Janet Cohen said.
Some Cohen Center students go on to graduate school, while others get into the field working for human rights organizations to recognize and stop the type of division that can lead to violence, she said.
“Our students, they will be the ones to solve it,” she said.
Janet Cohen said the students from the Keene State College Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies are able to go out into the world and work toward peace.