WARREN, NJ – Twenty students in the elective, college-level honors section of the Holocaust & Genocide class at Watchung Hills Regional High School traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Oct. 16, to meet a Holocaust survivor and get a better understanding of just how widespread the intolerance toward Jews under the Nazi regime in Germany and other countries in Europe before and during World War II. For more information about the Holocaust Memorial Museum, go to www.ushmm.org.
Students in the regular sections of the Holocaust & Genocide course augment their classroom studies with visits to the Museum of Jewish heritage in Battery Park City in downtown Manhattan, www.mjhnyc.org, and the Holocaust Museum and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove in Nassau County, N.Y. And in the bus during the way down and back to Washington, D.C., the students viewed several films related to their Holocaust studies.
Likewise, this year’s fall dramatic production by the Script and Cue student theater group is “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It is about a Holocaust victim in Holland, who along with others eluded capture by the Nazis for two years by remaining hidden in a secret space in a building where her father worked. After the hiding place was discovered, and Frank was taken to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, and died there in 1945. The Diary of Anne Frank will be performed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Nov. 20, 21 and 22, in the school’s Performing Arts Center.
The Holocaust and Genocide course at Watchung Hills has been taught since 2010 by Social Studies teacher Ryan Murray. Since 2010, the annual enrollment has grown to more than 150 students, and has been expanded to include a separate honors class which provides students with the opportunity to receive college credit in conjunction with the Kean University course, “Holocaust, Genocide, and Modern Humanities.” Murray, who has a master’s degree in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Kean University, has worked on numerous school-wide initiatives such as guest speakers, class trips, fundraisers and programs to help foster genocide awareness. This is the fourth year Murray has brought his students to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and it was the 10th time he, himself, had visited the museum. “Every time, I see something more, something different that I hadn’t seen previously,” he said.
Every time, he walks away with something different, he said, but it never gets easier to see what the museum teaches. Among the students who went this year, Natasha Yankaskas of Millington, Nate DiBari of Warren Township, and Lauren Picone of Gillette, all said that while they while visiting the museum once is not enough to take in all it has to offer, and they would like to return some day to try to take in more of what they saw, still they would need to wait a period to let what they did see sink in. “It was heavy,” said Yankaskas. “It takes a heavy toll on you.” “It was overwhelming,” said DiBari. “I had been there before,” said Picone, “but everything there leaves a very heavy impact. More than what we hear about it in class. Yes, I would go back, but not right away. It is very intense.” Yankaskas, DiBari and Picone all agreed that the museum helped them to understand just how widespread the holocaust was.
Murray said classroom instruction for the course covers the history of anti-semitism and hatred against the Jews in Europe. It also covers the historic origins and conditions in Germany at the time of the rise of the Nazi regime in the decades between World War I and World War II. While the class covers the historical facts of the millions and millions of people, Jews and others, who were massacred during the Holocaust, Murray said the course makes a point of going far beyond the statistics. “The course talks about the individual human beings and families who were involved,” Murray said. “We meet survivors.”
At the Museum in Washington, the students were greeted by a woman known as “Helena,” who is a Holocaust survivor, Murray said. Like Anne Frank, she was hidden by “upstanders,” that is, people who take positive action in the face of injustice. In Helena’s case, she was hidden by assuming the identity of a Roman Catholic. Murray said this is an example of a theme that he covers in the Holocaust & Genocide class. “Events like the Holocaust shows the worst in humanity,” said Murray, “but it also shows the best. You can see the best in those people who helped survivors like Helena. They refused to give in. They refused to turn their backs.”
Murray said he has spoken to the cast of the Watchung Hills production of The Diary of Anne Frank, telling them that they are doing their part to make sure the story doesn’t go away. He told them it is everyone’s responsibility to fight prejudice and discrimination. In November 2011, Murray sponsored a month-long program at Watchung Hills aimed at genocide awareness and social action. The program included a traveling museum display honoring “upstanders” during the Holocaust, and concluded with a school-wide assembly featuring a Rwandan Genocide survivor and activist, Jacqueline Murekatete. That year, the Watchung Hills students raised more than $3,000 to help fund a humanitarian center in Rwanda. Now, the school often uses the concept, “be an upstander, not a bystander,” as a call to action to be more socially aware.
In April 2012, Murray was awarded the Jack Zaifman Humanitarian Award for his work in Holocaust education. One of Murray’s initiatives is to hopefully see the expansion of Holocaust education. It is currently only mandated by five states. In 2013, Murray was a key speaker at Kean University’s panel discussion about the state mandate on Holocaust education. Among the other speakers on the panel were former Gov. Tom Kean Sr. and Paul Winkler, executive director of the N.J. Commission on Holocaust & Genocide.