The accidental discovery of an old family photograph is what propelled Jud Newborn into the world of Holocaust scholarship, and later piqued an interest in one of the few ennobling moments of that grim chapter in history.
Newborn, who grew up in Plainview and still resides there, was about 5 or 6 at the time. He was visiting his grandmother in Brighton Beach, then a mostly Jewish enclave of Brooklyn. Rummaging around her closet, he found a sepia image of what appeared to be a large family. Intrigued, he took the photo and showed it to his grandmother, who had grown up in the Ukraine, and was, as he recalls, a jovial soul.
But when he showed her the photograph and asked about the people in it, the smiles disappeared.
"Her face turned bright red," Newborn recalled. "Tears welled in her eyes. And she said in her Yiddish accent, 'Dunt ask me. Hitler burnt dem all.' I was beyond stunned. I had never heard of someone burning people, much less people dear to my grandmother. But now I had a big mystery to solve."
Newborn, now 60, tells the story with great drama and flourish. In addition to being a scholar, he's a bit of a showman: He writes country songs, enjoys comedy and, as special-events curator at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre, often moderates panels with visiting filmmakers and actors.
Still, Newborn, a cultural anthropologist who earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago, has spent most of his career trying to solve his childhood mystery and what he calls "the big question" that vexes all those who study the Holocaust: "Why did it happen? Why the industrial massacre of Jews in ways that were systematic and rational, not insane?"
Awakening a society
While Newborn's findings in answering that question still await publication, his three decades of research have helped uncover a more obscure -- at least to American audiences -- chapter in World War II history: the stirring but tragic story of the White Rose movement, which he will highlight next month as part of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is April 7 this year. White Rose was the name of a group of students who stymied the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's secret police, and infuriated the fuhrer himself, Adolf Hitler, through one of the few effective protest movements against Nazi Germany, by Germans.
Sophie Scholl and her older brother Hans were former members of the Hitler Youth. But by 1942, they had undergone a radical change of heart. Using leaflets and mass mailings printed and distributed anonymously, the siblings, who were in their 20s, demanded that their fellow Germans face the truth about what their regime was doing to Jews throughout Europe.
"They risked everything to awaken a society that was complicit, self-centered and apathetic to the evils that were happening under their nose," Newborn said.
The efficiency of the small network of students was impressive. So many leaflets and mailings were distributed, it appeared as if the opposition was the work of a broader movement. The message, too, as articulated in one of their mailings, was no doubt unnerving to the average German:
"We will not be silent.
"We are your bad conscience.
"The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"
Heroes to a nation
The movement climaxed in a piece of legendary political theater: In early 1943, the Scholls dropped thousands of leaflets from a high gallery in the vast atrium of the University of Munich's main building. The leaflets fluttered down amid hundreds of students who had filled the halls between classes. A school janitor spotted the Scholls as they tried to flee, and they were subsequently arrested and interrogated. On Feb. 19, four days after their arrest, Sophie, Hans and their White Rose colleague, Christoph Probst, were sent to the guillotine and killed. Eleven other White Rose members were later arrested and executed.
Now, 70 years later, the Scholls, especially Sophie, are heroes to a German public that has long since confronted its Nazi past. But in the United States, the White Rose movement still remains as obscure as the origins of the resistance movement's name, which have never fully been determined.
Newborn, with the characteristic energy that drives him in all his pursuits, seeks in his presentations to make their story fresh today.
"The example they set of courage in the face of authoritarian repression is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago," said Newborn, who co-authored the 2006 book "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose."
Those who know Newborn and have seen his presentation -- combining images, music and dramatic readings -- are impressed by both the story and its telling.
"His lectures are never dry and [strictly] factual," said Cinema Arts Centre founder Charlotte Sky, who has worked with Newborn for years. "He makes the White Rose story really come to life for people."
Indeed, Newborn sees the kind of spirit and bravery displayed by Sophie Scholl in Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot last fall by the Taliban for her advocacy of girls' rights to education.
" 'Would I have the courage to do that?' " Newborn said. "That's the question I often get asked."
Learn about the White Rose
In April, Jud Newborn will be doing two 70th anniversary presentations on the White Rose movement, as well as a separate presentation on Jewish anti-Nazi resistance at Suffolk County Community College. Admission is free to all three events:
April 7, 7 p.m., East Northport Jewish Center enjc.org/component/rseventspro/event/39-yom-hashoah-multimedia-lecture
April 14, 7 p.m., Temple Israel Riverhead templeisraelriverhead.org/r%20holocaust.htm