As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Glen Head resident Andrea Bolender, 58, said that one of the most important functions of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, in Glen Cove, is to preserve the memory of the horrors suffered by people like her father. That, she said, will be one of her most important missions as the center’s new chair.
Bolender, who was installed on Sept. 1, succeeds Steven Markowitz, who led the HMTC for eight years. Markowitz said it is important for the center to have a change in leadership to foster new ideas and fresh approaches to Holocaust education. He added that Bolender’s life in the Holocaust survivor culture and her years of involvement in Holocaust-related activities, as well as her kind and caring nature, make her the perfect choice to manage the center.
“I don’t know anybody who’s got a bigger heart than Andrea in terms of reaching out to people,” Markowitz said, “and I think she’ll do just fine.”
Born in Brooklyn, the third of Benek and Ruth Bolender’s four children, Andrea said she had always known her father was a Holocaust survivor because of the “86786” tattooed on his forearm. But she did not understand the gravity of what he had gone through, she recalled, until she began receiving Holocaust-related education at Brooklyn’s South Shore High School, and he was invited to speak to her class.
Her father’s protectiveness and dedication to his family made sense, Bolender said. He was the only member of his family to survive the Auschwitz concentration camp, and he didn’t want to burden his new family with the knowledge of his loss. His ability to recover from his trauma and achieve the American Dream was one of the many reasons why she admired him, she said.
“He really is my hero to this day,” Bolender said, “because when people talk about resilience, even during Covid, I hear my father saying in the background, ‘It could be worse.’”
“Many survivors didn’t know how to love,” she later added. “Maybe some of them had lost children during the war and they shut down, but my father was the opposite.”
After she moved to Glen Head as an adult to raise her three children with her significant other, Howard Levitt, her parents moved in with her. Bolender, an accountant, said she got involved with the HMTC after her father died in 1999. She saw an advertisement for the center in a local newspaper, and after joining its leaders at a meeting, she began leading fundraisers. She signed on to the center’s board of directors in 2005, and held various positions until she became chair.
One of her proudest accomplishments was organizing a program in 2014 called March of the Living, which takes people from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the Holocaust. Programs like this, Bolender said, are vital because soon there will no longer be any living Holocaust survivors, so it is up to educators like her to keep their memory alive for future generations.
“[March of the Living] is a very powerful story, and I think we relate through the power of those lessons that we can survive,” she said. “Not only can we survive, but we can thrive, and we can reinvent ourselves.”
Rob Fishman, a co-vice chair of the center, has worked with Bolender for several years, and said her experience and her dedication to the facility will make her an excellent leader moving forward. “I’m hoping that she continues to help the center build itself in name and in recognition of being a resource for education,” Fishman said, “and for her to continue with the mission, which is what we work so hard to fulfill. I completely support her.”
The HMTC hosts thousands of students of all ages in its various programs every year, and Bolender said that one of the lessons she tries to instill in all of them is the importance of being an “upstander” — someone who speaks out against injustice. The Holocaust did not start with violence, she said; it started with hateful rhetoric, which turned into genocide, due in part to bystanders not speaking out.
“We want a generation of people who will stand up,” Bolender said. “Maybe not physically, because it’s dangerous, but they will not be a bystander. They will be the person who stands up and says, ‘No, this is not OK.’”
During the coronavirus pandemic, the center has given virtual tours on its website that are based on students’ ages, giving them the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust at an age-appropriate level. It also hosts a Curator’s Corner segment, which focuses on artifacts donated by Long Island Holocaust survivors. It was important to continue these lessons during the pandemic, Bolender said, because they are important, no matter the circumstances.