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Exhibit explores pitfalls of intolerance

(above) Susan Trelease talks about the life the H chster family before the Nazis began their persecutions of millions including Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, people of African descent and Gypsies. Reminder Publications photo by Natasha Clark
By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

WILBRAHAM Eighth graders from Wilbraham Middle School time traveled to 1938 when millions of Jews were hunted, dehumanized and slaughtered.

The Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center in Springfield provides a genuine experience that words on a page just can't translate. That is why the center's Executive Director, Rabbi Robert Sternberg, prefers that it is introduced to students alongside what they are learning in the classroom.

The center was not designed to simply take a glimpse into the past. Its core mission is to look forward to the future and keep such atrocities from being repeated. Hatikvah means hope and its Holocaust exhibit gives people "A Reason to Remember."

On May 28, students visited the center and left with the message that one voice can make a difference.

The exhibit, "A Reason to Remember," is designed to give a comprehensive look at the effects of the Holocaust. To accomplish that, the story of five families (the H chsters, the Nathans, the Bergensteins, the Roths and the Sterns) from the village of Roth are told in eight phases: Life Before the Nazi Regime, The Rise of Racism, The Loss of Human Rights, The Machinery of Destruction, Attempts to Flee, The Fate of Roth, The "Final Solution" and Why Remember the Holocaust? The exhibit also includes authentic artifacts, photographs and quotes from some of the survivors.

After being split into groups of two, the Hurricanes and the Blizzards, one group went directly to the exhibit and the other to a video/discussion session with Sternberg. The Hurricanes were first up in the exhibit hall and after an introduction by tour facilitator Susan Trelease, students were then assigned a family.

With the help of a worksheet, students were able to digest the hefty information through questions that triggered empathy and promoted thought. Each phase through the family's journey had its own set of questions such as "If you had the opportunity to meet any member of the family you followed today, what would you ask them?"

These particular students had been studying "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" and were familiar with some of the happenings of the Holocaust.

"Often when people go into museums, if they don't have structure they tend to get lost. This happens frequently in larger museums. The average amount of time that a person will spend is 20 or 25 minutes. What can they get out of a visit and what substantive information can they take away? The structure helps provide that," Sternberg said. "I always meet with teachers before they get there. Certain tours are structured around what they are learning. The tour usually comes at the end of the study. Our exhibit is designed in a way that is personal and we're about individual stories."

Trelease also spoke about individuality during the tour. "Think about the choices you make in your life," Trelease reminded the students.

She returned from visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in March. "It was a moving experience and it also tells you that you can never allow anything like this to happen again," she shared. "I didn't know whether I wanted to go there was that feeling of 'how could people have done that?' It connects you. You look at things and realize you can say something."

She said it is important for youngsters to realize that they can bring about change. One of the worst things about the Holocaust, she said, is that "nobody did anything."

"Really, truly, in your own worlds, you can do something," Trelease said.

At the conclusion of the exhibit, the Hurricanes and Blizzards swapped rooms. Inside the room lined with chairs, Sternberg said the goal of the museum about things that happened over 60 years ago is not just to teach about the past, it's to teach about the present and the future.

"If there's anything I hope you take away, it is you, yourself, can make a difference," Sternberg said, right before he put on a video featuring people who chose to help Jews no matter the consequences.

Of the many that appeared on the screen, a blonde woman with matured features seemed to stand out. The screen flashed old black and white photographs of her in younger days a fair brunette with thin lips and kind eyes. Though it had been many years since she helped hide a father, his two sons and his week-old baby from the Gestapo, her voice was tinged with emotion as if it were yesterday.

She hid the family in her house in the country outside of Amsterdam during the Holocaust, she recalled. One day a Dutch police officer and four members of the Gestapo showed up to the house unannounced. She hid the family in a secret spot in her living room and allowed the Gestapo and officer to search the premises. When they found nothing, they left. About a half hour later, the baby began to cry and so she finally told the family to come out. The Dutch officer returned abruptly and caught her with the Jewish family. Left with no other option, she shot him with a revolver, and with the help of a friend who owned a funeral home, buried him along with a person being laid to rest that week.

Sternberg and other colleagues have been working on providing this elaborate information in a more conducive manner. They have been working with the Department of Education (DOE) to put packages together for teachers.

"This is a project that goes back almost two years ago. We began working with the DOE, because in the social studies and language arts curriculum the Holocaust is covered. What is missing is some easy to access user-friendly tools for teachers to help them fill those framework requirements," Sternberg said.

Two of the units are currently being field tested and the group hopes to have the other two completed this summer.

"It's not only empathy with the victims," Sternberg added. "It's also about] what happened, the way in which it happened and what can we do in the world to prevent things like this from happening. Examining racism and prejudice and the factors that marginalize [people] and how we can avoid it."

Making a Difference