Thirty-six years ago, Keene State College made a commitment to the memory, and lessons, of the Holocaust. The effort was driven by sociology Prof. Charles Hildebrandt, who took a sabbatical to build a modest collection of Holocaust-related materials and develop a course on the sociology of that horrific event.
Hildebrandt’s work became first the Holocaust Resource Center, then in 2000, the Center for Holocaust Studies. A year later, it grew exponentially though a generous gift from Rick and Jan Cohen and was redubbed the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies.
For the past dozen years, the center has been led by Prof. Hank Knight, a teacher of religious studies. During that time, it has continued to expand in a variety of ways, and is now among the signature elements of the college.
Knight pushed to add events, such as the annual Holocaust Memorial Lecture at the start of the school year. He organized trips to explore the ghettos, concentration camps and cemeteries in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic — where the effects of the Holocaust remain visceral.
Needless to say, the center’s collection has continued to grow. Knight oversaw the expansion of the center’s space in the college’s Mason Library, which now also houses the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Department. Notably, when he arrived, Holocaust studies was a minor offered at Keene State. Under Knight, a full major was developed, then an entire department.
The center has also grown in more than the amount of space it takes up. In 2009, it became the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, recognizing similar events have occurred outside of World War II Europe, and with similar lessons. It’s an expansion Knight says he’s particularly pleased with. “I’m proud that … we’ve been able to maintain the integrity of the ‘and’ in that dimension,” he told The Sentinel last month.
Knight’s involvement hasn’t just been with the Cohen Center. He’s been active with the city’s Martin Luther King Jr./Jonathan Daniels Committee, a co-founder and co-chairman of the Stephen S. Weinstein Holocaust Symposium and serves on a committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Most importantly, perhaps, Knight has not simply been an administrator at Keene State. He was named Keene State’s 2018 Distinguished Teacher of the Year. And that may be an indication of his core value to the institution.
Knight, who has a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate of ministry from Emory University in Atlanta, has long taught genocide studies courses, and helped guide that department’s growth and curriculum.
In 2008, he co-taught Rethinking the Holocaust — a new upper-level course, with Paul Vincent, his predecessor as head of the Cohen Center. Vincent, now professor emeritus in Holocaust studies and history, noted the importance of what Knight’s perspective brought to the table in an area previously staffed by teachers of history, film studies, literature, philosophy, sociology and women’s studies:
“It is not too much to suggest that Hank entered the classroom energized by a need to unwrap a spiritual dimension underlying the experience of the Holocaust — not religious per se, but a quality that tapped into something beyond historical accuracy. … Because Hank recognizes that there is a dimension to the study of the Holocaust that cannot be answered by addressing questions of how, when, where, who, or even why, his departure will leave a gap difficult to fill because he approached this dimension with elegance and expertise.”
Knight, 70, is stepping down as the center’s director this month, as the school year comes to a close. Already, the college is looking for his successor.
We can only hope that person will be as successful in guiding and growing the enterprise as Knight has been.