A 2001 class changed Sue DaBaco’s life – and set the stage for Alverno College’s yearly Holocaust Remembrance Service.

Today, DaBaco ’03, manager of Print Services at Alverno, devotes countless hours to organizing and promoting the annual Holocaust Remembrance Service. But in 2001, she was an undergrad with little understanding of the Holocaust.

She was intrigued, though, by signs around campus advertising a class called Places of the Holocaust. The class, led by Amy Shapiro, professor of Philosophy and Humanities and co-editor of Different Horrors, Same Hell: Gender and the Holocaust, included coursework at Alverno and 18 days of travel to Holocaust sites in Europe.

“I wanted to take the class, but thought there was no way I could afford it,” DaBaco said. “I kept seeing the signs and realized that I didn’t know anything about the world. At that point, I’d never been overseas. I’ve never been on a plane before. I had such a strong, intuitive feeling that I had to get on that trip. So I started selling off some of my personal belongings. “

DaBaco, a musician, sold some of her guitars, signed up for the class and traveled with Shapiro and fifteen others to Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Holocaust Survivor Aaron Elster speaks with people in the audience prior to his presentation at the Holocaust Remembrance Service.

“Talk about a watershed event,” DaBaco said. “When you’re finally in a place like Auschwitz or Treblinka, you become overwhelmed by whatever residual energy is there. You realize that it’s no longer just history that you’re reading and learning about.”

Shapiro warned her students, in advance, that the trip would change them. “The Holocaust changes our relationship to everything,” Shapiro said. “Those who take the study of it seriously, their lives are totally changed. The question is: What do they do with that change?”

DaBaco struggled with that question when she returned to Milwaukee. “I wondered, ‘How do I communicate this very powerful experience that really altered me? And the thought came to me: How about tapping into the Holocaust survivors that are still here? I love the slogan ‘Never again,’ but the reality is that genocide keeps occurring and re-emerges in new and different ways,” DaBaco said. “It’s hard to get your mind around it. When you’re talking about millions of people, it’s almost as if the mind can’t take it in. I wanted to take it out of the realm of numbers. I wanted people to be able to connect with a face and a story.”

DaBaco reached out to Shapiro, who had been studying the Holocaust ever since watching Holocaust, the movie, in 1978. (“It was the first time I gave myself permission to learn about the Holocaust, and it was like the floodgates opened,” Shapiro recalled.)

At the time, Shapiro was the director of the Holocaust Education and Resource Center at the Milwaukee Coalition for Jewish Learning. She helped connect DaBaco to local Holocaust survivors, and in 2002, Alverno College hosted its first-ever Holocaust Remembrance Service.

Just a handful of people attended that first event. But DaBaco and Shapiro felt so strongly about the event’s message and potential that they offered it again the following year – and every year since. Last year, over one thousand people attended Alverno College’s Holocaust Remembrance Service.

A full house filled Pitman Theatre for the 2013 Holocaust Remembrance Service, held at noon on Wednesday, April 10.

DaBaco and Shapiro plan to continue the Remembrance Service indefinitely. “This is not just about remembering an entire people who were systematically murdered,” DaBaco said. “For me, it also underscores aspects of what it means to be human. It’s a unique door into the questions of existence and what it means to survive, and I find myself asking why we continue to do such horrific things to each other.”