What 8th Grade Students Can Learn at the Holocaust Museum

hmsmOn a recent Friday morning I had the extraordinary good luck to accompany a group of  Middle School 8th graders to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center off Golf Road and Edens Highway in northern Skokie. It is a fairly unobtrusive building and if you do not know it is there, it would be easy to drive right by. But, don’t…it is an amazing experience that everyone, no matter your race, creed, religion, or country of origin, should have.

When the students arrived, they trooped off the buses and we entered the building and met our docent, Sandy. She gave us our instructions and said that we were going to have a very busy day. I should point out that Sandy was not a young person, more my age than the students, but she seemed to have an amazing rapport with students in our group. And, the students obviously felt that she had great respect for their intellect, because they did not seem afraid to raise their hands or call out an answer if they thought they knew the information being sought.

It was at this point in our tour that she asked probably the most important questions of the day. “What is a bystander?” She elicited this answer: Someone who stands by but does not do anything to help or change a situation. “Then she asked, “What is an upstander?” The answer she got was: Someone who sees something going on that they do not think is right and tries to change the situation, sometimes at great peril to them.

As she guided us through the exhibits, she pointed out not only the obvious, but also the intangibles that made the children think and relate so that they could come up with answers. At one point, as we stood in front of a group of photographs, she asked what they noticed about them that made them unusual. After a short silence, a few hands went up…
”There are no people…the pictures look empty…there is a picture with only one person….”
“What do you think these pictures might mean?”
“All the people have been taken away…!”
“What about the picture with the one person? Is he coming toward us or running away?”
“Maybe he is looking for his family…He wants to save them and can’t find them….”
The more they looked, the more they saw and the more they had to say about the pictures. One does not usually expect 13 and 14 year olds to have such insightful ideas. I looked at their teacher at the back of the group and she was smiling…proud of them!

At another stop, we stood in relatively small, round room. There were names written on the walls starting about seven feet above the floor and going all the way to the top…seeming to fade out as they rose. The students looked, turning their eyes slowly so that they could see all the names…
“What do you notice about these names?”
“…They are only first names…”
“…Why do you think they did that?…”
And so the conversation went. Later, when I discussed the trip with my Granddaughter, a student in the class and the reason I agreed to attend the field trip, her comment was: “That was a really ‘cool’ room! I like way she explained about the names fading as they went toward the top of the room.”
If you are interested in knowing why the names fade as they rise toward the ceiling, take the time to go and do the tour. And, take your children and family. They should know too.

Our next stop on the tour was an actual boxcar that was used by the Nazis to transport people to internment/concentration camps. The students were told that they did not have to go inside unless they wanted to, that it was all right to skip this experience. None of them did. As I stood and watched the children walk in as far as they were able, I listened to their comments. Their voices were hushed and not too much was said. No one stayed long. At the end, the homeroom teacher and I walked inside the car. I have done this before in Washington D.C., and it gives one a very eerie feeling standing there. The teacher’s comment was, “I can hear their voices and feel them. How could people be so cruel?”

The day went on. We learned that if you were 13 or less or 40 or more, if you were ill or had some sort of physical impairment, that you had little chance of surviving the concentration camps. We learned that the person who created this horror of the 20th century, was dually elected by the people of Germany. He was charismatic and persuasive, but it became obvious, that people did not really take the time to find out who he was or what he really stood for in their lives.

Our last stop before lunch was the auditorium where we had the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor speak about his experiences during the war. His name is George Mueller, though it was George Levy when the Nazis came into power. At the time the war began, he was 10 and his sister was five. As the war progressed, he became the sole “protector” for his sister. He took the task very seriously, and with the help of a Dutch family and a convent full of nuns, they were able to survive the war, the only members of their immediate family to do so. At the end of his talk, one of the students went up to him and told him that she has been reading a book about survivors’ experiences during the war, and she had read his story. I watched them chat for a few moments as we were filing out of the auditorium, and all the children were calling thanks to him as we left. Their faces reflected what they had heard and seen that day. It was an experience I do not think they will soon forget.

As we gathered one last time as a group with our docent, she looked at the children and said this to them, “Remember, in a few years, you will be old enough to vote and elect the people that run our villages, towns, cities and country…know whom and what you are voting for. Be informed, because the future rests in your hands and everyone should learn from the past so something like we saw today does not ever happen again. !”

I’d like to finish my little story by saying this, the group of 8th graders that I spent my day with were wonderful. Their teachers and principal can be very proud of them for being marvelous representatives of Grayslake Middle School and School District 46 in Lake County. I feel that I am very lucky to have spent the day with them at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. My experience was made a great deal more meaningful by their presence.

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
9603 Woods Drive
Skokie, IL 60077
847.967.4800
http://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/

Submitted by Renee Miller
Retired District 69 Teacher

This story was so well recieved that the Docent of the tour sent Renee a thank you that we are able to share here.

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