SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 17, 2013

Heard Around Town: It wasn’t just a title

BY ALAN BURKE
STAFF WRITER

---- — PEABODY — The city’s remarkable Sonia Weitz, rescued from Mauthausen concentration camp as a teenager, wrote her memoir “I Promised I Would Tell” to honor a pledge she’d made to those who did not survive — including most of her family.

With help from journalist Harriet Wacks she established the Holocaust Center Boston North, which has worked to educate people of the horrors born of hate, using books, videos, personal testaments and more. Their concerns extended beyond the persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany — and included similar madness before and after, in places like Turkish Armenia, Cambodia and Rwanda.

With Sonia’s passing in 2010 came fears that the message might be forgotten with the loss of one of its most eloquent messengers. Instead, Salem State University stepped forward to establish the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. What’s more, the job of transferring materials from Peabody to Salem State is getting assistance from Peabody resident, intern, student and history major Michelle Barrasso.

“I do a lot of different things,” she says. That includes cataloging some 2,500 items and photographing numerous artifacts. Barrasso is also preparing an exhibit at Salem State which will revolve around a suitcase believed to have belonged to a Holocaust victim and a German military uniform of the period.

Barrasso explains the juxtaposition: “Without victims you do not have perpetrators. The two are inextricably bound.”

Of course all this history came long before Barrasso was born. In a sense, she is a beneficiary of the work of people like Weitz and Wacks. “Sonia’s book is extremely powerful,” she says. And as she studies the past, she says, “I’m always moved by what I learn.” For a young woman who grew up here on the North Shore — in a very different world — it was a revelation to discover people’s capacity for inhumanity towards others.

Mayor holds court

Yes, it’s been a fabulous fall for sports fans including heart-stopping comebacks from both the Red Sox and Patriots. But it’s likely to be a cold, cold winter for basketball fans, warns Mayor Ted Bettencourt. A man who knows a thing or two about hoops — he went from Peabody High star to shooting guard and team captain at Holy Cross — Bettencourt is bracing for a rebuilding year for the Boston Celtics. (Not to be confused with the Brooklyn Celtics, er, Nets, a team featuring the familiar Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in very unfamiliar uniforms.)

“I don’t have high expectations,” Bettencourt says, adding that he looks forward to more losses than wins. “But I do love the new hire (as new coach) Brad Stevens (from Butler University.) We have talented young players who are going to need some seasoning.”

More losses than wins? But, your honor, that’s what they were saying about the Red Sox last spring.

Top workers at City Hall

They have to be top workers because they’re fixing the roof. And assistant city clerk and volunteer Irene Zielski (yes, she works for the city for free) pronounces herself in awe of their dexterity and skill. “They climb around like monkeys. And they can really operate that bucket.” It’s scary and interesting to watch as they maneuver the giant arm high above the city. It also brought back memories.

Zielski remembered her 1946 graduation ceremony at the City Hall auditorium. “It was raining buckets. And the roof was leaking. And in the balcony chunks of plaster were falling on people.” The auditorium had been neglected in the midst of a dreadful depression, followed by a terrible war. Next it was shuttered and remained off limits for years. “The pigeons were in there.”

In the 1980s, Zielski noted, City Hall underwent a complete renovation. This latest effort, according to Bill Power of the Historical Society, is aimed at repairing the roof and bringing back the original look of the building. The metal barrier put up top just yesterday, says another assistant clerk Colleen Kolodziej, “makes it look the 1880s.”