Students Embrace Horrible Lessons Of The Holocaust Camp Gives Teens Chance To Challenge Hate
The buzz of conversation faded as Beth Dutton made her pitch. She told her students that she wanted them to present dramatic readings of letters and poems written by young people their age more than half a century ago.
A teenager with black lipstick and a dog chain for a necklace accepted one piece, and so did a young woman from Germany. After all the scripts had been handed out, Dutton hesitated, her eyes scanning the young faces. She had one more request.
“How many of you,” she asked, “do not mind wearing the kind of Jewish star these children were wearing on their way to the death camps?”
For a moment nobody moved. Then, silently, every hand shot up.
The dozens of teenagers were at an idyllic campus above Lake Champlain for a 10-day course, the International Summer Institute for Youth in Holocaust Studies. Organizers say the institute, in its second year, is apparently the only program of its kind in the country. One session is held each summer.
Tuition is $600 for the institute, which ends with a visit to the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Nearly all the students receive full or half scholarships, making finances precarious for the organization, which relies on donations.
In some ways, the institute feels like a summer camp, with swimming in the afternoons and burritos and whoopee pies for dinner. The teenagers sleep in bunk beds, sharing dormitories at the University of Vermont with boys who are at a soccer camp. Lights out is 10:30 p.m.
But the students spend much of their time trying to understand how the Holocaust came to pass. Every night they hear accounts from victims, rescuers and soldiers who liberated the camps.
Most of the educators at the institute, members of a fledgling group in Montpelier, Vt., called Parents, Teachers and Students for Social Responsibility, are not Jewish. They are less concerned with the details of history than with arousing their students to act against discrimination.
There is much talk about more recent hate crimes like gay-bashing, the Bosnian war and the bombing in Jerusalem on July 30.
“We are responsible to one another, whether a person is in Bosnia or South Africa or here in the United States,” a music teacher, Sheila Nudd, told the students. “I hope you know before you leave this week that you are your brother’s keeper.”
Although the Holocaust occurred decades before they were born, many of the students are not strangers to discrimination. Three are refugees from Bosnia, one was born in South Africa and another lived in the Philippines. Several young Vermonters are black in the country’s whitest state, and a few are Jewish.
Two young women from Bonn, Germany, had wondered how they would fare at the institute. “My parents,” said Lena Groenveld, 17, “were very afraid that here everyone would say: ‘You are German. You are one of them who are guilty.’ I told my parents: ‘I am not guilty. I am too young.”’
Most students say their own interests, not parental prodding, attracted them to the institute.
Takiyah Asia Shippe, 14, a black girl from Morrisville, Vt., said she attended because she decided that she could use a primer on the Holocaust. “I was thinking about what we learned in school,” Takiyah said, “and we didn’t learn anything.”
When Harry Bialor, a Polish survivor, told of his experience, nearly everyone in the room wept. For the three young people from Bosnia, the survivors’ accounts are specially poignant.
One, Nermin Cejvan, 19, silently compared the survivors’ experiences to his. He fled Bosnia in 1992, after three days in a Serb prison camp near Banja Luka. In 1994, Cejvan and his family immigrated to Manchester, N.H., where he rarely talked about the war. If his new friends asked questions, he said, he gave terse answers. But after a Holocaust survivor spoke at his high school this year, Cejvan began to discuss his experience.
“It’s more difficult if you keep it to yourself,” he said. “I can’t forget anyway. So I’d rather hear about people who’ve been through similar stuff.”
For students who have not lived through a war, though, the question often comes up whether the institute is too heavy, too depressing for young people.
The director, Glenn Hawkes, said he and other organizers had concluded that students could handle the information. “They want to know the truth,” Hawkes said.
Still, he included time for reflection and creative expression by scheduling classes in the arts.
“This is really heavy-duty information,” said Sha’an Mouliert, who teaches relaxation techniques and dance. “If they get overloaded, they’re not going to be able to retain it.”