Traveler, Triathlete and Advocate Hopes to Extend Definition of Genocide

One hundred and eighty feet above her, a glowing beam of sunlight poured through a tiny window in the dome-shaped ceiling of the Hagia Sophia. The rays illuminated the details of the former Greek Orthodox basilica that is now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Lillian Hussong’s memory of the 1,400-year-old landmark is as clear as yesterday.

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“It’s as if sound had escaped. It was just me and the building, and I was left to my thoughts,” said Hussong, a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (MAHG) program who earned an undergraduate History degree from Stockton in 2012.

The Absecon resident visited the Hagia Sophia in 2010 after presenting her research on English travel writers’ observations of interreligious dialogue in small towns at a symposium in Istanbul, which spans two continents and is Turkey’s largest city.

She remembered the striking features of the “architectural marvel” from her AP Art History class in high school, but standing inside and observing the breathtaking beauty in person was emotional, she said.

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Light pours through the windows of the Hagia Sophia.

Two years later and just three days after earning her undergraduate History degree, she traveled abroad again for a very different, but very profound experience. She toured concentration camps and sites of memory in Germany and Poland with two Holocaust survivors during a study tour organized by The Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück and Majdanek were places she visited to witness the remnants of the places where more than 6 million people were murdered.

Without hesitation, she said, “Ravensbrück was the most haunting,” and admitted having trouble sleeping for months after seeing what she calls “a sea of black.”

At the concentration camp site, there was no grass and no dirt—just a field of what looked like volcanic rock and coal. “It chilled me right to the core,” she said.

The group drove to the site on a cobblestone road, later learning that the stones were laid by slave labor at the female camp. “Prisoners died making the road we drove on,” she said.

Beyond the “depression in the ground,” which served as the prisoners’ barracks, was a lush German landscape. “The Nazis often put camps in beautiful places [creating] a juxtaposition of evil space and beauty.”

Every Ravensbrück prisoner passed this lake before entering the camp.

She explained her observations of the concentration camp horrors as visiting a memorial of a different kind. “It was a life changing trip and an excellent way to begin my master’s,” she said.

In one of her early graduate classes, Hussong, who was this year’s Marsha Raticoff Grossman graduate fellow, posed what seemed to be a straightforward question to Dr. Carol Rittner, Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies. “Where is there a [complete] list of genocides?” she asked.

Turns out, her question was much more complicated than she had imagined. No such exhaustive list exists because government representatives don’t always acknowledge an atrocity as genocide, she explained.

The Genocide Convention defines the term genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Hussong has made it her mission to argue that the definition should be expanded. “My quest in the MAHG program was to explore the genocides or genocidal-like conflicts that [scholars] don’t necessarily cover as in-depth. And I realized that the UN Genocide Convention’s definition was really inadequate because so many groups have been targeted and need coverage,” she said. For her thesis, she will focus on just one group, the LGBT community, an un-researched topic. “I’m exploring a dimension of people who are ignored,” she said.

To ensure that “never again” becomes a reality, Hussong says we must not ignore genocide.

After responding to a call for papers, Hussong was selected to present her research on the ethics of Armenian genocide denial in academia at the 44th Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches in Los Angeles, California, March 8-11 of this year. “Holocaust denial is dismissed, but it’s not the same for the Armenian genocide,” Hussong said. “It’s illegal to denigrate Turkishness, so it’s kind of like a loophole where Armenian genocide awareness advocates [may] get thrown in jail,” she explained.

As the daughter of Dr. Marion Hussong, professor of Literature and Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton, Lillian has grown up with Holocaust Studies. “From a young age, it’s always been a part of my life,” she said.

This April, the Hussong family brought Manfred Bockelmann, Lillian’s grand-uncle, to Stockton College. Bockelmann, an Austria-based artist, uses his artistic talent to bring the children of the Holocaust back into our world permanently in the form of larger-than-life-sized portraits. Bockelmann drew a portrait of Dr. Murray Kohn’s sister, Ida Rebecca, and presented it to him as a gift during an intimate presentation at The Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. Kohn is a Holocaust survivor who lost his sister, mother and other family members in the Holocaust and a professor of Holocaust Studies at Stockton.

Hussong attended her grand-uncle’s art exhibition, Drawing Against Oblivion, at the Leopold Museum in Vienna last year.  The children’s faces, drawn with charcoal on burlap canvases, looked out at the crowd. The images were so realistic that one could “look into their eyes and think about what had happened,” said Hussong.

“It was amazing to see the looks on [the guests’] faces—some were numb, some were crying,” she said of the overwhelming experience.

A handful of MAHG students were present to see Ida Rebecca’s portrait and to listen to Dr. Kohn speak about his experiences.

For five years, Hussong has been involved with the Stockton Neighborhood Watch (SNW), a crime prevention student organization, as vice president, president and most recently as public relations director. She joined when the student organization had eight members and no official constitution. Today, SNW is 139 members strong and has performed 4,343 hours of community service since fall 2011.

The group contacted the Brigantine Police Department after Superstorm Sandy to help restore the north side of the island. Together the volunteers shoveled 2,000 pounds of sand to help restore a bulkhead, collected debris, cleaned seaweed off houses, and helped homeowners empty flooded garages.

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Stockton Neighborhood Watch Vice President Christine Fruehwirth, adviser Sergeant Tracy Stuart and Lillian Hussong, who served as Public Relations director this year.

“We are the eyes and the ears for the police,” said Hussong, and charity service is at the forefront of their mission.

“Lillian is a role model for our Stockton community. She is engaged in doing good deeds for others while being dedicated to her graduate studies,” said Gail Rosenthal, supervisor of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.

Outside of her busy academic schedule, Hussong trains hard as a triathlete, a challenge she gave herself “to prove to my former self that asthma doesn’t have to defeat you.”

“There’s something about Stockton that is unique. It really changed my life, giving me a sense of purpose and direction,” said Hussong.

“I want to pay that back” by becoming a professor and teaching at Stockton College. In the meantime, she wants to pursue a Ph.D. and continue researching.

“Lillian is a terrific student – curious, creative, critical, and self-motivated – just the kind of student I love having in our MA program in Holocaust & Genocide Studies. She has lots of potential, and with or without a doctorate, she will make a positive contribution to humankind,” said Dr. Carol Rittner.