More than 570 sophomores from the Pittsburgh Public Schools toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., in March, courtesy of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District and some private donors.
The Tolerance Program as the trips were called, were a revitalization of an educational initiative run by the ZOA from 1999 to 2005. It was reintroduced this year in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) and the Holocaust Center, and through some support from the city of Pittsburgh.
Zalman Shapiro, former president and chairman emeritus of the ZOA, created the Tolerance Program.
“Through the program, we hope to engender tolerance and understanding of others in the future,” said Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the ZOA-Pittsburgh District.
The children selected to go were required to meet certain criteria, said Erin Breault, a world history and A.P. psychology teacher at Pittsburgh CAPA High School. The criteria included having never before been to the museum, a grade average of A or B, no suspensions and good attendance.
“Other than that, it was first come, first served,” Breault said. “They filled up the slots.”
Although the kids study the Holocaust in school, local educators believe a visit to the Holocaust Museum, with its video narrations of survivors’ stories, told by the survivors themselves, is invaluable.
“The kids get the stories from actual people who experienced the Holocaust,” said Breault. “They got to see the documents, the films, the photographs and paperwork from the time. They got to see recounts from actual people. And they were riveted by the actual stories. It was so much more emotionally visceral, hearing those voices. The kids were visibly moved.”
Although the students learn about the Holocaust in their formal studies, the visit to the museum gives a sense of realism to what otherwise might be processed as just another historical event.
“The kids were really into it,” said ZOA-Pittsburgh District President Ira Frank, a chaperone for seven students from Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School. “They asked a lot of good questions.
“The trip does teach kids about tolerance,” Frank added, noting that the lessons they learned about hatred and discrimination can be applied to incidents occurring in the 21st century.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, who chaperoned a group of students from the Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy last week, said he was moved by discovering the Holocaust through the eyes of high school students.
“The moment the elevator doors open on the fourth floor, no words are said,” he recounted. “They take it all in as they experience history. You can’t help but notice their reactions.”
Peduto first accompanied a group of high school students on a ZOA-sponsored trip to the museum 10 years ago.
“I went on the advice of Zalman Shapiro,” Peduto said. “He said, ‘You really should do this, not only to see it for yourself, but to see it through the eyes of the students.’ ”
The students especially connected with exhibits focusing on the young people who were forced to live through the horrors of the Holocaust, Peduto said.
“Some went over to look at the [exhibits] about the resistance going on in Poland,” he said. “They understood that young people were going out into the woods to lead the resistance movement. They got it because the people involved in it were their age.”
Both the ZOA and the Pittsburgh Public Schools hope to continue the program next year, contingent on adequate funding.
“We hope to keep doing this for our students,” said Michael Dreger, PPS social studies curriculum coordinator. “We have a great Holocaust curriculum, but the museum trip builds on that.”
Pavilack, who has received comments back from students who participated in the trips, sees the powerful impressions the museum tours create.
“When I walked through one of the train cars, I started to cry, and I am not one to cry in public, but it really touched me,” wrote one student upon returning last week from the trip.
“I think we had an impact on the students’ memories,” Pavilack said. “They see the museum and it’s a lot different than learning about the Holocaust in a textbook.”
All students who participated in the trips will write essays on their impressions. Social studies teachers from each school will choose essays to submit to the ZOA, which will have a committee award prizes for the winning compositions.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)