Tim Crain was raised in a large Irish Catholic family, attending parochial school and learning the rules and rituals of his Catholic faith.
But it was his first lesson on Nazi Germany's annihilation of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust that would determine the course of his life.
"It made no sense to me at all that this happened," said Mr. Crain, who became a scholar with a specialization in modern Jewish history, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy, history and political science from Marquette University, a master's in British and modern European history also from Marquette and a doctorate with specializations in modern Jewish, modern Europe and modern Middle East history from Arizona State University.
Now, Mr. Crain, 48, of Milwaukee is poised to be the new director of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University.
"As a non-Jew who is interested in Jewish history, the opportunity tied together two of my great obsessions: Jewish history and the Holocaust, and Jewish-Christian relations," said Mr. Crain, who will start his new job July 1. He said what sets the Seton Hill center apart from other centers dedicated to the Holocaust is its Catholic focus.
Mr. Crain will also be an assistant professor in Seton Hill's Genocide and Holocaust Studies Program.
He is becoming director at a time when the center's two founders and co-directors -- Sister Gemma Del Duca and Sister Mary Noel Kernan -- have reached emerita status. The sisters founded the center in 1987 under the direction of former President JoAnne Boyle, who died in November.
Seton Hill's interim president, Bibiana Boerio, and Rabbi Sara Perman, chairwoman of the center's advisory board steering committee, said they are excited about Mr. Crain's arrival.
"I believe he will be a true asset to the center, Seton Hill and our community at large," said Rabbi Perman, who serves Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.
Mr. Crain said his interest in the Holocaust was sparked by nuns at his Catholic grade school. They used it, he said, as "an extraordinary example of man's inhumanity to man."
But it was also fueled by stories told to him by his father, a World War II veteran, about the people liberated from concentration camps "and the terrible state they were in."
"Here I am 25 years later, and after all of my studies, it makes even less sense now that it happened. In a much larger framework, it shows the dangers of intolerance of any sorts," Mr. Crain said.
Mr. Crain is a visiting professor in the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches courses on the Holocaust, modern Jewish history and comparative history of religions, and he is an adjunct professor in the College of Professional Studies at Marquette.
In Milwaukee and in Madison, Mr. Crain helped to build relationships between the universities and the Jewish communities. He has served on the Holocaust Executive Board of Milwaukee since 2006; since 2000, he has worked with Jewish Wisconsin Educational Tours, leading trips to destinations of interest.
The NCCHE was founded at Seton Hill in 1987 in response to the urging of Pope John Paul II to recognize the significance of the Holocaust and to promote religious and historical studies about it.
The center maintains a cooperative program with Yad Vashem, the world center for documentation, research and education on the Holocaust in Jerusalem. The center's mission is to fight anti-Semitism and foster Catholic-Jewish relations.
Mr. Crain will spend his first several weeks at Yad Vashem with Sister Gemma. He will then return to campus, where he hopes to establish relationships with the local Jewish community and expand the national stature of the NCCHE.
"Seton Hill has done a tremendous job of gaining national recognition for the center. I'd like to build on that while working with the Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and throughout the United States," Mr. Crain said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.