The McKeesport native, who has a background in Holocaust studies as well as nonprofit work, was looking for an opportunity to move back to Pittsburgh from Austin, where she was working at the University of Texas in the College of Liberal Arts dean’s office. When she heard that Pittsburgh’s Holocaust Center was seeking a new director, she was confident she was the right person for the job and that the job was the right fit for her.
The board of the Center agreed.
“It’s awesome to be home,” said Bairnsfather, who took the helm of the Holocaust Center, an affiliate organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, in July.
Bairnsfather has joined a staff of six to oversee transformation of the 33-year-old Center into a regional destination for education and research. The Center will be relocating to a new facility at 826-832 Hazelwood Ave. at the end of the summer, marking the first time in the institution’s history that it has its own dedicated space, independent of another institution.
Since 2011, the Center has been housed in office space provided by the Federation on McKee Place in Oakland. Prior to that, the Center was located within the Jewish Community Center offices in Squirrel Hill.
Bairnsfather has had a longstanding interest in Holocaust education. After becoming acquainted with two Sephardic Holocaust survivors while working on her undergraduate thesis, she was inspired to take a job at the photo archives office at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, Bairnsfather researched historic photos and interviewed Holocaust survivors around the United States. She later studied Holocaust and Memory for her master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.
Building relationships with survivors and their families, and finding ways of honoring them, are chief among Bairnsfather’s priorities in her new position.
“I will be focused on respecting and honoring the memories of all the Jews who are left and recording the memories of those who have survived,” she said.
She sees Pittsburgh’s Holocaust Center as a crucial resource for public schools in Western Pennsylvania, particularly in light of Act 70, signed into law last year by Gov. Tom Corbett. The 2014 law encourages schools to teach students about the Holocaust, genocide and human-rights violations.
Bairnsfather will be working to create innovative Holocaust studies curricula that will “deliver the message to schools and students in new ways,” she said, citing as an example the comic book “Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust,” which honors Holocaust survivors, resistance fighters and liberators.
“Act 70 puts the Holocaust Center in a very interesting and important position,” Bairnsfather said. “We plan to work with area teachers not only in Western Pennsylvania, but also West Virginia, Erie and York.”
Bairnsfather’s background in history (she earned a doctorate in the subject at the University of Texas in Austin), Holocaust studies and organizational development make her a good fit for the Holocaust Center, said Lori Guttman, co-chair of the Center’s advisory board.
“Lauren has the leadership skills for moving us into the future,” said Guttman. “We have an aggressive development plan moving forward for the Center, and I think she’s very capable of getting that off the ground.”
Bairnsfather’s development work includes two years running the Spertus Museum in Chicago and work with the Morton H. Meyerson Family Foundation in Dallas. While residing in Austin, she was a top fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in Central Texas and advocated for people with disabilities.
“I think Lauren brings an energy and enthusiasm that we all feel as we approach the opening of the Center’s new facility,” said Barbara Shapira, co-chair of the Center’s advisory board. “We all feel very hopeful, because of her background, that she will be able to lead us in the new and exciting direction in which we are headed.”
The new Center facility will host exhibits and lectures and will house resources available to the public.
Its first exhibit will open on Oct. 18 and will feature original photographs of survivors.
“The photos show a range of expressions,” Bairnsfather said. “A lot of them are fun, and warm and even show them laughing. We are opening with this exhibit to make a point about strength and survival and resistance.”
Bairnsfather said she will personally reach out and get to know each of the approximately 55 remaining survivors who reside in the Pittsburgh area.
“I want to know the survivors we still have in the area,” she said, “and I want them to know we value them.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.