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Compelling exhibit brings Holocaust home for students

Bridges Auditorium is known for    its architectural beauty, particularly for its ceiling depicting the heavens.

By contrast, the Pomona College theater recently played host to a traveling exhibit called “The Courage to Remember,” which offered a glimpse into the hell that was the Nazi Holocaust.

On Monday and Tuesday, some 500 El Roble eighth graders took a field trip to see the exhibit, which was created by the Museum of Tolerance in 1988. Set up in Bridges’ lobby, the display consisted of 40 panels featuring 200 photographs and text divided into four themes: Nazi Germany, 1933-1938; Moving Toward the “Final Solution,” 1939-1941; Annihilation in Nazi-occupied Europe, 1941-1945 and Liberation: Building New Lives.

The trip was spearheaded by El Roble English teacher Heather Lyn, who accidentally learned about the exhibit while looking into Nutcracker tickets for her 6-year-old daughter. She realized the exhibit would be the perfect venue to provide historical background as her students prepare to read The Diary of Anne Frank.

“They’ve not yet hit World War II in their history curriculum yet, so it’s up to the English teachers to frontload them before reading the play,” Ms. Lyn said.

In these days of tight funding, it’s a rare occasion when El Roble students take a field trip. The Bridges expedition was possible because the exhibit was free and local and because the district recently freed up a bit of transportation money, according to Ms. Lyn.

El Roble English teacher Linda Atherton noted that “The Courage to Remember”  doesn’t sugar-coat history. It highlights how anti-Semitism in Germany gradually worsened until countless Jews were exterminated; how the world community, including the United States, failed to intervene; and how the horrors of the Holocaust spread across Europe.

“This is a very serious topic,” Ms. Atherton said. “You live in the United States long enough and you think this doesn’t happen. It’s very eye-opening and disturbing.”

The students encountered photographs of people stripped naked and prepared for execution in the Soviet Union, a description by a death camp administrator of how he gassed Jews with crystallized prussic acid and art created by concentration camp inmates depicting their horrific experiences. One photograph showed a 40-year-old man upon his release from a camp who could easily have passed for 75.

“I heard about it before—I know this happened—but I wasn’t very informed on all the details,” eighth grader Tristan LaFon said. “There was a lot of death. It was very emotional for people going through this.”

“It’s kind of sad that it actually happened,” eighth grader Kevin Rosales added.

During their visits, delegations of up to 100 students crowded around the large vinyl panels, taking notes. They would later use the information they gleaned to write essays on topics like concentration camps and Kristallnacht, a two-night wave of anti-Jewish violence that swept Germany as well as Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

“It’s mind-boggling that it was this bad, that so many people passed,” eighth grader Angelina Kocharyan said of the devastation. “It’s upsetting that nobody tried to stop it.”

On Tuesday, a number of community members also traveled to Pomona College, seizing  the chance to view the exhibit before its Wednesday closing. These included Joan Gerard, an Upland resident who attends Temple Beth Israel in Pomona. Ms. Gerard has made a point of visiting a number of such displays, from the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

“It’s good that the community as a whole can have access to this information, which is very important that we not forget,” Ms. Gerard said.

On Monday morning, a number of Ms. Lyn’s students had an unforgettable encounter as they got off their bus and headed for the exhibit. A woman who was leaving in tears told the group that she had lost her entire family in the Holocaust in Poland. 

“The kids were in shock. Their jaws dropped and they were a little weepy. And the girls went to hug her,” Ms. Lyn said.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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