Hometown Hero: Volunteers keep history alive for students

Dozens of teens from Columbus High School listened in stunned silence as volunteer Beth Brown of the William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum explained the significance of the huge photo behind her of the entrance to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

The tracks, Brown said, represented a one-way train ride for some 1.1 million Jews murdered by Nazis at this one camp. People were killed by poison gas and their bodies cremated. There were many camps, and more than six million Jews died.

Brown, a former teacher at The Weber School who lost great-grandparents in the Holocaust, is one of many volunteer docents at the Breman, on Spring Street in Midtown. They escort students and adults through the galleries of large photos showing murderous actions of the Nazis.

One particularly ghastly image shows a German soldier with a rifle pointed at a running woman clutching a baby in her arms. Another shows women and children packed like cattle behind a wooden fence. Younger children are not shown some of the more graphic photos.

“It is a nice way for me to teach kids very important lessons of history,” Brown said later. “It is important for people to know about the Holocaust because you can see the depth to which humanity descends when hate becomes the norm.”

History teacher Ron DiQuattro, 34, leader of the group of 200 youths from Columbus High School, said he has been escorting students to the Breman for years.

“Any time you can make history come alive, it’s really important,” he said. “They get to hear survivors first hand.”

Jamie Wilson, also a teacher at Columbus, said “you go in there and walk away understanding things a lot more. You need to be able to see it, and your kids need to be able to see it. It was catastrophic.”

Liliane Kshensky Baxter, director of the Breman’s Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education, said up to 20,000 mostly fifth grade and middle school youngsters visit the museum annually.

Often, Holocaust survivors take part in the educational effort, speaking in an auditorium to students while others tour exhibits.

One recent day, survivors Eva Friedlander, 92, and Andre Kessler, 73, told students about their own nightmarish experiences.

Friedlander, a native of Hungary, told students of being forced to wear a yellow star to identify herself as being Jewish and watching in astonishment and fear as neighbors were taken away. Romanian native Andre Kessler, 73, said he “went into hiding for 18 months,” barely escaping the fate of others.

He volunteers to keep the Holocaust from being downplayed or forgotten and said “it’s very important to do this [because] our survivors are getting older. We’re losing them. I owe it to my family, aunts, uncles. Most of my relatives lived in Hungary, and within a 10-month period they were sent to Auschwitz. It’s very emotional.”

Baxter said the program at the Breman isn’t meant to “horrify” but to “make students aware of what happened, understand it in a deep way, and apply it to their lives.”

Students and children leave, she said, “with greater appreciation of how bullying can escalate.”