The United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea/Ethiopia, Rwanda and Cuba were countries represented when 20 students traveled with The J to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, May 1.
For the past 20 years, The J has sent high schoolers to the Holocaust Museum to help them understand and connect with the lessons of the Holocaust. This year was unlike any other year before.
“This year, we brought some students from the Newcomer’s Academy, meaning we are among the first people to help students from many different faiths and countries have an understanding of what the Holocaust is and how it impacted the Jewish community,” St. Francis of Assisi Science, Religion and Peace Education Teacher Fred Whitaker, said.
“I convinced my parents, I said ‘please, please let me go! It might help us in history!’” Iroquois High School student and Pakistan native Mehwish Fnu said.
But apart from the excitement of getting to see a city outside of Louisville, Fnu, a Muslim, said the similarities between the Holocaust and the land she once called home are uncanny.
“Innocent people are dying every day in the wars in Syria and Jordan. People can’t even go to school. And ISIS, it’s like a dictatorship, you know. Like Hitler,” Fnu said.
They’re all different people with different color skin, different types of clothing, different religions. But they all have one thing in common with the victims of the Holocaust: they’re all human.
Whitaker has traveled to the Holocaust museum over 25 times and he’s been The J’s tour guide at the museum for more years than he can count. Most importantly, Whitaker said, he gets to help the students understand that while the events that defined the Holocaust may have ended in 1945, stereotyping did not.
“There are a lot of politics involved in understanding people’s places in the world. Before you can understand people’s places in the world, you must first get to know the people,” Whitaker said. “I love that I get to help the kids see that.”
The J selected 20 high school students to take the journey to the Holocaust museum. To be selected, each student had to submit an essay about why it would be important to visit the museum. The trip is funded by the Ida and Bernard Behr Fund, which is one of The J’s Second Century Funds. For nearly 20 years the fund has made it possible to send over 400 students to the museum. That’s over 400 students who have gotten to see a slice of history and connect it to the narrative of their lives.
Claus Behr said his grandparents died in concentration camps and he wanted to help create a fund that would honor their legacy and allow the youth to see it with their own eyes.
“We hope that by allowing these kids to see what the Holocaust was with their own eyes, that it will leave an impression on them. An impression they can bring back to tell their families and friends, and to one day, tell their own children,” Behr said. “Because of this, that fund will always be there.”
“You can’t put bookends on the Holocaust. Understanding it is a way to comprehend the modern history of the Jewish people,” Whitaker said.
Perhaps it’s the similarities to some of the students’ native countries that made the 2016 trip so different than years past. But for each student, the trip seemed to connect the dots, to intertwine lines and connect them with each other and to all humanity.