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Putting history within reach

Educator Scott Markle with the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center explains uniform insignia to eighth graders Nate Olson and Kaileigh Miller during a classroom session in the Holocaust museum at Superior Middle School Thursday. Both the center and the Douglas County Historical Society provided items for the inaugural in-school exhibit. Maria Lockwood

Every year, Superior Middle School students visit the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.

“This is the first time we came to them,” said center educator Scott Markle.

A library classroom was transformed into a Holocaust museum for the week. After months of diving into the Holocaust through books, a live performance, films, presentations and research, eighth grade students experienced their own in-school display.

“It was really interesting; I learned a lot more about it,” said Jessica Roatch, who toured the museum Thursday. “You got to actually, like, see what was going on. You got to touch the uniforms and all that. You got to see what the identification cards were like.”

Hearing the experiences of Auschwitz survivor Henry Oertelt impacted her the most, Roatch said

For some, the link became personal.

“I felt like I was there when I, like, put the stuff on,” said her classmate, Nate Olson, who tried on a number of different military coats and hats. “It was really cool because my grandfather was in WW II … just really cool.”

Their tour started with a taped-in rectangle on the floor. Students filed into the space, half the size of the train cars that brought Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. It was close quarters for the youngsters with just 20 people, less than half the number who would normally occupy that much space in a boxcar.

“They would be on the train for days at a time. No water, no food, no bathroom. If they were lucky, they maybe had a window but other than that … it was horrible,” said eighth grade English teacher Amanda Lindquist, who organized the museum. By walking them into the space, she said, they were “making it as tangible as possible without trying to actually emulate it.”

In one corner of the room, the youngsters looked through identification cards that told the true stories of people who lived during the Holocaust. Some survived. Some did not. A visual history wound through the room, tracing the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945.

“You’re just scratching the surface,” Lindquist said. “You’re barely getting into it.”

Yet it was effective.

“This is so awesome,” Markle said.

After the tour, students returned to their classroom to discuss the roots of genocide and hate. It doesn’t start at birth.

“You may not like to eat certain foods, but you’re not judging people based on their skin color or judging people based on their religion or their gender or anything like that,” Lindquist said. “If we didn’t know hatred as babies or toddlers, how did it happen? When did it start?”

Maybe in elementary school or middle school, students said. Examples of hate are easy to find — on television, in the movies, at home, walking down the street, on social media, in politics and more. People laugh at derogatory jokes sometimes, or make snap judgments about others.

“Can we change that, though?” Lindquist asked.

“Yes,” students said.

“That’s what I want to encourage you to do,” Lindquist said. “I encourage you to think about your actions and if you make that snap judgment, you want to give them a chance. And I want you to try to change it and to try to be honest with yourself about who this person is.”

It took weeks of work from fellow English teachers and students to set up the in-school museum. They pulled timeline photos from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site, www.ushmm.org, then cut and laminated them. The museum provided the ID cards; Northern Lights Assistant Principal Mary Anderson-Petroske donated framed photos and material for a corner exhibit on Anne Frank.

“There’s no way I could have done this without the students who helped and there’s no way I could have done this without my colleagues,” Lindquist said. “We started on Tuesday, the first tour. Five minutes before the tour was supposed to come through I was still running things through the laminator and pasting them up.”

They’re already discussing what to do next year, what they can add.

“It’s really important, especially with everything that’s going on in politics, everything going on in Syria, it’s really important for these students to understand that, one, history repeats itself and two, they can do something about that,” Lindquist said. “They can change it. It is not up to adults, it is not up to other people. They can do something right now to make this world a better place.”

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