Yeshiva girls give walking tour of the Holocaust

Ariella Cohen, from left, Rachel Herman and Nessia Ferneau are among the students who built the mini-museum. Photos by David Holzel
Ariella Cohen, from left, Rachel Herman and Nessia Ferneau are among the students who built the mini-museum.
Photos by David Holzel

Ascend a short flight of stairs and what lies ahead is a dim hallway. Inside the hallway, the rough walls have been painted and written on. Shafts of light shoot up at intervals.

Hazy figures are gathered inside. They are students of Yeshiva of Greater Washington’s girls division in Silver Spring. Some 20 15- and 16-year-olds — part of teacher Esther Schwarz’s 10th grade Holocaust class — are standing inside the mini-museum they built for Yom Hashoah.

Parts of the Yeshiva building are unused and unrenovated, giving the students the opportunity to create, in just over a month, their idea of what life was during the Holocaust and the lessons it taught.

Follow the cobblestones painted on the floor on one side of the hallway and the students will tell you stories of Jewish life in pre-war Europe. Rachel Rutstein shows the display of the cheder, the school where boys studied. Another display shows Bais Yaakov, the name given to schools for girls that opened after World War I, “because girls were drifting away from religion.”

The students have painted a forest on the wall. From left to right it grows darker, until at the end, only a stump remains. This is the story of the Jewish people, Ariella Cohn explains. “The stump shows we were not uprooted.”

On the wall at the end of the hallway, painted larger than anything in the museum, is the quotation by anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.” It ends: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Is there a lesson for today in this quotation? Nessia Ferneau says yes. “People don’t have equality in other countries, and we go on with our daily lives.”

Adds Ariella: “You have to speak up in the beginning, or else it gets worse and worse.”

Tenth-grader Rachel Rutstein describes the life memorialized by the stopelsteine, or stumbling stone.

Turn back now and the cobblestones become railroad tracks. You pass scenes of destruction: one exhibit shows burned papers, a challah cover and a tallit bag, flames painted on the wall.

Separating the two paths are stopelsteiner, replicas of the “stumbling stones” that German artist Gunter Demnig has laid in places where Jews had lived before the Holocaust. One brick in the museum belongs to Anne Frank. Everyone knows her story. But as the students tell the stories of others — they found them during their research — the museum becomes the sum of individual lives, each with a name, an age, a place and a circumstance.

“God is on our side,” says Sara Glaser toward the end of the exhibit, “and He wants us to be here. We can’t let this memory be forgotten — to show the other nations that they can’t get rid of us.”

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