“So much better than I expected,” said sixth-grader Maria Navarrete.
For seventh-grader David Torres, it was “a powerful experience.”
Sarah Valentin, a seventh-grader, found the lessons offered “compelling.”
These were only some of the rave reviews from students at Washington Middle School in Harrison who toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21.
For the third time, Washington School was the recipient of the Rubell Scholarship grant that subsidizes the cost of a one-day sojourn to the museum. A delegation from the school last made the trip in 2012.
Principal Michael Landy credited teacher Mary Anne Dunphy with laying the groundwork for each of the visits. Dunphy did graduate work in Holocaust Studies at Seton Hall and Kean University.
Michael Rubell, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, has taken it upon himself to award grants to various schools in New Jersey through the Jewish Community Center MetroWest.
According to Dunphy, typically, “six to 10” schools get to send groups each year.
For Harrison’s most recent trip, “we took 42 students from sixth and seventh grade and five teachers, along with Rubell; Lawrence Glaser, executive director of the N.J. Commission on Holocaust Education; and two Holocaust survivors.
Some of the students’ older brothers and sisters had been to the museum previously, but to better prepare everyone going, teachers distributed literature sent by MetroWest to read and discuss.
Landy, who has been to the museum twice before as a teacher, said that a lot of care was placed in the building’s design.
“It’s four floors and when you enter, an elevator takes you to the fourth floor and it sort of corkscrews down and, as you walk through each floor, you’re going through a chronological journey of what it was like living through that period,’’ he explained.
The museum website notes that its “… collections contain more than 12,750 artifacts, 949 million pages of archival documents, 80,000 historical photographs … 1,000 hours of archival footage … and 9,000 oral [eyewitness] history testimonies.”
There is also an exhibition, “Daniel’s Story,” geared to elementary and middle school children, which relates what happened to Daniel, a fictional child whose life is a composite of true stories about children in the Holocaust.
Sixth-grader Nicholas Sanez “felt bad” for children like Daniel to have been “separated from their families. I couldn’t understand how children could be punished like that – it’s unacceptable.”
And seventh-grader Dakota Hatcher was similarly unnerved by “Daniel’s Story,” saying how sad she felt “that he was taken away from his family. He never saw his mom and dad again.”
Through its extensive collections, the museum informs visitors of the Nazi rise to power under Hitler, from 1933 to 1939, Aryan ideology, Kristallnacht, anti-Semitism, the ghettos, extermination of European Jewry and the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies.
“The kids were very touched by what they saw,” said Dunphy. “Some were even emotional.”
Seventh-grader Sarah Valentin said she was surprised to learn that during the Holocaust period, “so many stereotypes were based on body type, eye color, shape of the nose” to credit or discredit a particular ethnic group. “I couldn’t believe there was such a thing back then,” she added.
The pictures and videos drove home to her the point that innocent people “who did nothing” to deserve punishment “suffered horribly – it was so heartbreaking to know they died for no reason,” yet “Aryans were supposed to be the ‘superior’ race.”
Sixth-grader Amber Cortes was horrified to learn that the Nazi camp guards not only “shaved off the hair” of women prisoners but also used that hair to help “make mattresses – I felt bad that they’d do that to their own people.”
And the photos of camp inmates in their tattered uniforms made her feel “sad to see they would do that to another human.”
Several of the exhibits drew strong reactions from the students: one was a room whose dimensions Landy guesstimated as about 60 feet wide, 30 feet long and between three and four feet deep, which visitors crossed on a small bridge, was filled with “thousands” of shoes taken from camp inmates after they were gassed; another featured a replica of a railroad boxcar used by the Nazis to transport prisoners to the camps; a third showed the tiny, cramped bunks to which camp inmates were assigned.
Several students said they feared the Holocaust could be repeated – if society fails to recognize – or does nothing to suppress – advocates of intolerance for “others.”
Seventh-grader Vishal Vasan said: “It could happen – there’s lots of racism.” And that’s why, he added, it’s important to learn how it happened in Germany where “Hitler came out of prison to become Chancellor.” So, he said, “in the United States, we should know the background of a candidate before he comes to power.”
Seventh-grader David Torres said he’d read about the Holocaust but seeing and hearing about it “up-close” at the museum – like the room filled with anti-Semitic-themed cartoons – and videos of Jews in the camps – “they were just skeletons” and another showing “a crane picking up bodies” to be discarded into a pit to be burned, were “a powerful message.”
“Even now,” David said, “there are stereotypes going on about Muslims which can cause fear because you happen to be different from the majority. But stereotypes are just that and if we’d known that years ago, World War II wouldn’t have happened.”
No question, said sixth-grader Nicholas Sanez, “[a Holocaust] could happen again. There are many racists today and this [U.S. Presidential] election involved it, too. I’m scared if we don’t learn from the past.”
But sixth-grader Maria Navarrete derived some comfort from having lingered a while in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. “It was a big room with candles and we prayed with the two survivors who were with us,” she said.
And, Maria recalled, “we got bracelets to remind us of the children in the Holocaust.”
No doubt that will be a remembrance she’ll carry for a long time.