When you first walk into Belltown’s Henry and Sandra Friedman Holocaust Center for Humanity Museum, the bright atmosphere is in stark contrast to what you’d expect from such a dark period of history.
A passport is immediately placed in your hands as the friendly, knowledgeable staff welcomes you warmly. You look down and see the name and photograph of an actual Holocaust survivor whose identity you now possess.
“It was very difficult for the Jews to get away, especially after the Nazis had occupied Europe, because they were not citizens any longer, they didn’t have passports,” said Dr. Laurie Warshal Cohen, special projects and development coordinator for the center.
Warshal Cohen explains this grounds visiting students and helps them identify with a survivor.
“We are trying to connect kids; they need to know that these aren’t faraway people — they’re here, they grew up here, they have a life,” she said.
As students move through the center, they follow the events of the Holocaust in chronological order.
“(The tour) takes a visitor through stages that lead to genocide,” said Dee Simon, executive director, during a tour of the center. “It also takes visitors through the stages that represent and identify human rights violations during this period in history.”
Students see numerous haunting artifacts, many from actual Puget Sound Holocaust survivors who were children themselves as they fled for their lives. Other items, such as single, battered shoes, which are on loan to the center, humanize Holocaust victims before students watch video testimonials from local survivors.
Prior to leaving the center, students are asked to fill out a card and answer the question, “How does change begin with you?” Their answers adorn a concrete pillar just inside the center’s entrance.
“Don’t be silent; see injustice, say something. Be a voice for change,” read one card.
“Keeping my heart and ears open to what I see, hear, and experience while learning from those I meet along the way,” read another.
One Holocaust survivor, Peter Metzelaar, 80, said that he hopes that all students leave the center knowing that they can make a difference, even when it comes to something as commonplace as bullying.
“I’m not saying that the Holocaust was about bullying, but to some degree it was; putting down somebody else at the cost of raising yourself up,” Metzelaar said. “Some people say, you’re different from me, you look different from me and they kill you. Hitler did it. Having awareness of tolerance is important; if you look different, or do something different, or you don’t like me it doesn’t mean you have to kill me.”
According to Simon, the center is so critically important for youth in the Puget Sound region because of these valuable lessons that empower students. Unfortunately, she said, the Holocaust is not a subject that is required to be taught in our schools; it is only recommended.
To combat this, the center has created a number of what it calls teaching trunks. The trunks contain a variety of Holocaust-themed reading material for an entire class in addition to videos, posters, maps, activities, and a teacher’s guidebook. Each trunk is geared toward different levels of education, from fifth grade through high school.
Washington-based teachers can apply to borrow a teaching trunk for four weeks at a time through the center’s website for free with a suggested $20 donation to keep the program running. Teachers who wish to visit the center should also apply through the center’s website well in advance, as the center is currently booking tours into the spring.