Holy Cross students turn gym into Holocaust Museum
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Eighth graders at Holy Cross School started their own Holocaust Museum with a Nazi lie: "Arbreit Macht Frei."
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Xavier Cervantes, Amanda McBride, Sabriel Shirley and Kelsey Hughes look at a model of the Auschwitz concentration camp made by Shirley and classmate Jesus Martinez.
"Those words were over the gates when the Jews were brought into Auschwitz," said Amanda McBride. "It means 'Work Will Set You Free.' They thought that if they worked, they would go free. They didn't know they were going there to die."
The class spent the entire third quarter studying the Holocaust. Then on March 27, they turned their entire school gymnasium into a display of what they learned, offering their knowledge to the rest of the school.
Teachers Netty Doyle, Christopher Eager and Marsha Brown came up with the lesson to tie in all three of their disciplines - language arts, social studies and math respectively - into an integrated lesson plan.
In addition, they taught the end result of stereotyping and national scapegoating to students in a school that is perhaps the most perfectly integrated school in Kansas City.
"We have four main groups here - white, African-American, Hispanic and Oriental," Kelsey Hughes explained. "Then we have different people in each one of those groups."
During their study of the Nazis' systematic extermination of 10 million people, including 6 million European Jews, the Holy Cross students were required to read books not only on the Holocaust, but on war and other forms of prejudice.
They also wrote papers on such themes as "Apathy Can Allow History to Repeat Itself" and "Social Justice Is Everyone's Responsibility."
In addition, they had to use their geometry skills to design models based on scenes from the books they read and mobiles bearing the personal qualities of a Holocaust victim each student was assigned to research.
The students began their guided tour through the museum by asking guests to draw out of a basket a slip of paper bearing the name and photograph of one of the victims. At various points of the tour, the fate of that person was revealed as the Holocaust unfolded.
One of them was Stefania Podgorsaka, a Polish Catholic who began working in a grocery store owned by a Jewish family after her father died in 1938. When the family was ordered into a Jewish ghetto, Podgorsaka began hiding other Jews in the attic of her family home. At the end of the war, she not only survived, but every person she hid also survived.
The stories, however, were not always as happy. Bertha Adler, whom McBride researched, was gassed to death two days after she arrived at Auschwitz.
"When I found out, I was in shock," McBride said. "I thought she was hidden and was safe."
Marcus Fass, whom Xavier Cervantes studied, went into hiding in a forest.
"I have no idea what happened to him," Cervantes said. "He was never heard from again."
Magdalena Kusserow, whom Hughes studied, was a Jehovah's Witness. She was put to work on the household staff of an SS officer and survived the war.
"Out of 13 people in her family," Hughes said, "only three lived."
The program of study also included a "Day of Prejudice" that drove the point of the futility of racism directly home.
The students said their class was divided into an elite group, a middle class group, and a despised group. With teachers carefully monitoring the activities and providing a post-exercise debriefing, the elite group was given special privileges, while the despised group wasn't even allowed to talk.
"You know how they picked it? The elite group was everybody who had a vowel at the end of their name," said McBride, who was in the elite group. "How stupid can you get?"
At lunch, the despised group had to sit together and endure the taunts of the elite group.
"We all got together and we walked out," said Danielle Lewis, one of the despised group. "I felt really mad. Friends started turning on friends."
One of the despised group, Alvin Marroquin, didn't join the walkout. That's when the exercise began to get out of hand. Other students pelted him with food.
"I was considered to be trash," Marroquin said. "After it was all over, everyone told me they were sorry. It made me feel closer to my friends."
Although they were born more than four decades after the end of World War II, the students said their research made history come alive and relevant for them.
"I never really listened before. I was kind of apathetic about it. I really didn't think I needed to know anything about it," Hughes said.
"Both of my grandpas fought in World War II," said Hughes. "One of them doesn't like to talk about it. His ship got blown up, and there were a lot who didn't make it off the ship alive. I want to talk to him about it now."
McBride said her German Catholic grandfather and his family, including McBride's mother, escaped from Germany just before Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
"I heard about them crossing over," she said. "My grandpa died when I was eight. But he told my mom stories, and she told me."
"It's important to me," Cervantes said. "You find out what happened and why it happened. Even though I didn't know any of these people, they all are real to me now."
For Hughes, the causes of the war and Holocaust boiled down to the human inability to follow a simple commandment.
"God says to love each other," she said. "People just didn't trust in God's love."