At Holocaust Museum LA, A Timeless Lesson That Schools Don't Always Teach
For the past seven years, Valley High School students have been making the yearly trip from their home in Las Vegas down to Los Angeles.
They end at Pan Pacific Park, at the oldest Holocaust museum in the country. Survivors founded Holocaust Museum L.A. in 1961, after they realized they each had a personal artifact to share from before World War II. They wanted to make sure future generations remembered and learned from this part of our history.
That history is never too far away, as reports of rising antisemitism demonstrate. But it’s also not always accessible.
“The whole reason we started doing [the trip] was because there was two paragraphs about the Holocaust in the textbook that was provided to us,” says Valley High history teacher Andrew Magness. “I thought that was bullshit.”
Students quietly look through the drawers of artifacts from the Holocaust and World War II the museum has on display. Michelle Nuñez, a 17-year-old senior, contemplates a Nazi flag.
“I feel like seeing the artifacts, like firsthand… I think it's one thing seeing them through pictures online or in a textbook, but like actually seeing it in real life. I think it's a different experience,” Nuñez says.
HMLA docent Priscilla Schneider leads Nuñez and her classmates through the museum. Schneider’s parents survived the Holocaust.
“People don't run and leave their families, their culture, their countries, their language to run somewhere else just for no reason,” Schneider says when speaking about her parents’ story to the group of students. “Have empathy and sympathy to understand when people are going through these things, people running for their lives.”
The museum teaches students about the Holocaust in a way that humanizes that history, by coming face to face with primary source objects and listening to personal and familial stories from the Holocaust. Jayne Mendoza, a senior at Valley High, says she didn’t know what to expect coming to the museum.
“I'm really surprised, like all the stories, especially what Ms. Priscilla said about her parents and how bad it really was inside of the concentration camps,” she says. “Like it's easy to read about them, but seeing actual pictures and seeing how people were treated and hearing stories is really mind-opening.”
Frankly, nothing has changed.
Gathering around a small replica of Hartheim Castle, Schneider tells the students about the real one in Austria. Nazis turned it and other hospital facilities into euthanasia killing centers with gas chambers and ovens during WWII. Estimates show that between May 1940 and May 1941, Nazis murdered 18,269 human beings at Hartheim Castle.
“This is what could happen if you were a German family with a child with disabilities. It's knock-on-your-door and they say, 'hey, we are taking your kid to a special school',” Schneider says as students look at the replica. “Now, I am absolutely certain that when their parents voted for Adolf Hitler, they didn't think they were voting a death sentence to their kids.”
As high school seniors, the students on the tour are now or will soon be eligible to vote. “This was a consequence of what happened when people were not paying attention. It always matters how you vote and the decisions that you're making in your public life,” Schneider says.
≠There’s a quiet hum in the room as students assess the weight voting can hold, of the power and responsibility they hold over the future.
Thinking About Power
In November 1945, the first international war crimes trial in history convened in Nuremberg, Germany. Over the following 10 months, the court charged 24 Nazi regime leaders with war crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and conspiracy to commit these crimes.
Thousands of other Nazis evaded justice for their horrific crimes. Some tried to escape by fleeing to different countries, such as Adolf Eichmann, though his efforts were unsuccessful.
Eichmann was one of the leaders of the Holocaust, playing out Hitler’s “Final Solution” of murdering all of Europe’s Jewish people. Eichmann tried to use the defense in court that he was just following orders, and in his words, “merely a little cog in the machinery” of destruction.
“We know that was a lie cause this is the guy who gave the orders to kill those half a million Hungarian Jews,” Schneider says to the group of students looking at a photograph of the convicted Nazi.
The messaging behind “just following orders” goes beyond the Holocaust.
“I want you to think about that because you’re young people, you're all gonna be getting orders and giving orders and what those orders are and how you carry them out is going to be the measure of who you are,” Schneider tells the students.
Face-To-Face With History
“Every single student who walks through our doors, they come face-to-face with primary source objects from the Holocaust, and that really humanizes this history,” said HMLA CEO Beth Kean.
Kean is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She emphasizes the importance of teaching younger generations about the genocides of history’s past. “We know for a fact that education is the greatest catalyst for change. We know that's how you affect social change, is through education,” Kean says. “Every young person needs to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and understand where prejudice and racism can lead.”
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, more than 44,000 concentration camps and incarceration sites were established between 1933 and 1945 by Nazi Germany and its allies.
Students don't understand what these hate symbols mean, where they came from, and so, therefore, they don't understand the harm that they're committing.
In one of its rooms, HMLA has 18 interactive kiosks propped up on metal stands. Each screen represents a different concentration camp. Each has information on how many people were killed at that camp, what country it was located in, and photos from inside.
“It just like, puts me in shock that they actually experienced this. It's like I can't really imagine it, hearing everything that happened to them,” Valley High senior Emmely Minoth says as she looks at one screen. Standing next to Minoth, Nuñez says she was shocked to learn that there were concentration camps in France. “I think you usually hear like Germany or Poland, but I had no idea that there was any in France,” she says.
The group moves to the Children’s Memorial, where holes in the room’s walls represent the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust. Visitors can write a note to the children on a little piece of paper, roll it up and place the note inside one of the holes.
Lessons From A Survivor
Betty Hyatt was born in 1934 in Antwerp, Belgium to Dutch parents. And now she’s the final chapter of the student group’s tour, a living Holocaust survivor.
“I was 5 years old when the war broke out,” Hyatt tells the students. “What happened was that Hitler, who had become the thing in Europe, gave a speech every Sunday night and every Sunday night we had new rules, new regulations, new restrictions. And so this affected everyone, every family.”
When Nazi Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940, Hyatt and her family left their home to flee to Portugal. Her father, Nathaniel, was arrested in Vichy, France and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where he was murdered.
In order to survive, Hyatt was given a falsified name during the war, Berta Lambert. Along with her mother and brother, she survived the Holocaust.
“Frankly, nothing has changed. We still have war, we still have a refugee problem. Antisemitism is on the rise,” Hyatt said. “You're the next generation, and I hope that you stay in school and really progress, and that you have to carry on and do better than my generation.”
But the students have some questions. One Valley High student asks, if she were able to, what’s something she would ask Hitler.
That leaves Hyatt speechless, for just a moment. “I can't even contemplate that,” she says. “I can't, I, I have no clue what I would, maybe I would kill him. Maybe I'd make that one exception. I, I don't believe in killing anything, but, my God.”
Ignorance As A Gateway
Since HMLA found its permanent home at Pan Pacific Park in 2010, the museum has rarely experienced antisemitism, until recently.
“I think it's definitely related to what's happening in the world today… When, you know, someone like Kanye, who has a platform with 30 million followers, to use your platform and your voice to spew hate and antisemitism. That's just unacceptable,” says Kean, the museum CEO.
In 2019, a viral photo showed off-campus students from Newport Harbor High School giving the Nazi salute surrounding red solo cups in the formation of a swastika. HMLA reached out to that school and invited the students for a tour with their parents, where they spoke with a Holocaust survivor.
“It became apparent very quickly that this came from a place of ignorance and not from a place of hate… and students don't understand the meaning behind it," Kean says. "They don't understand what these hate symbols mean, where they came from, and so, therefore, they don't understand the harm that they're committing.”
She says that’s a reason HMLA curated an exhibit called Symbols of Hate, because they keep on seeing recurring incidents of hate on and off school campuses.
“Stereotypes and propaganda, and promoting that kind of racism is what led to the death camps, and then eventually the 6 million, but it started with words,” Kean says. “We all need to treat people with respect and we, our museum wants to build a culture that's really rooted in building empathy, treating people with respect, being more tolerant.”