I will remember that day forever. As co-founder of a non-profit that fights anti-Semitism through the arts, I was meeting with a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had some time to kill, so I shadowed a group of inner-city youngsters as they were led through the labyrinth of history that is the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Built on ground that the American Nazi Party tread on in Skokie, the museum is a dark Disneyland that draws children from Chicago public schools to encounter how bad hate can get
As if they don’t know what hate is. Many of these kids were African American, and no stranger to their own history of persecution.
Leading the tour was an elderly woman — spry and confident about the subject matter. During the Holocaust she suffered through separation from her family, and the grisly knowledge that she was the only one to make it out of the death camps alive. Here she was, leading a pack of youngsters through a wide-eyed and rapt attention silence.
And the children listened.
Here was the dregs of a country led by a maniacal narcissist who scapegoated a religion for the ills of his country. The ugliness of humanity was graphically portrayed, and it inspired the beauty of what I was witnessing: a connection was being made between these kids and history. They meekly raised their hands and their questions were thoughtful, and they provoked a response that often was choked back with tears from the survivor. The answer gave way to another question, and when the children nodded in understanding — they moved silently to another exhibit. They began to understand.
The arsenal against hate has no more formidable weapon than the relationship forged between a survivor and a child, and now that may be going away thanks to threatened budget cuts by The U.S. Department of Education under Betsy DeVos. Educational reform will lead to the cutting of “unnecessary programs” that may impact these visits by children. The same money that creates these field trips of tolerance and understanding also fund trips to mosques, temples, churches and other institutions where inter-cultural education inspires kinship and empathy for each other.
We can’t let this program be cut.
Curt Lowens, 91, is not only a Holocaust survivor, he’s a hero. Having worked as a teenager in the Dutch Resistance, Curt was responsible for saving the lives of over 100 children. Curt is also a SAG/AFTRA actor and enjoys speaking with children.
“I’m very impressed with the attention that children have. When I speak to them, I feel them listening and they come up with some good questions. One can spend a lot of time answering their thoughts, but the situation is difficult especially if the teacher does not continue the conversation back in the class and encourages their thoughts,” Curt stopped for a moment and reflected.
“There are so many factions in today’s world, like the Turkish massacre, Rwanda, it happens in all corners of the world. Sometimes it is very abstract to the child, and sometimes it doesn’t directly connect. People are fleeing from every country of the world, whether it’s Syria, Senegal or Somalia. I don’t think survivors have the answer. All we have is experience, and some of us were babies, not even as old as the children that we speak with. We sometimes have our own difficulty in connecting the events to what is happening today.”
Curt’s voice and the voices of other survivors may be stilled in the not so distant future. This is why we must act now to enable the interplay they have with public school children.
A Change.org petition has been set up to convince the Dept. of Education not to defund this crucial program. The hashtag #DefendDontDefund is being used to shine a light on this issue, and to make it go viral.