Bay Area teens travel to D.C. to ponder Shoah, race

Classmates dashed Christopher DiVittorio's hopes for humanity last week when they paraded a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood through the halls of his high school.

He had just returned from his first visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where the Dublin High School junior and nine other non-Jewish teens from around the Bay Area participated in a three-day educational program on racism and bigotry. The program was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

The teens were selected for the trip by their teachers for demonstrating leadership and writing thought-provoking essays on racism.

On DiVittorio's first day back at school, the white hood surfaced and shattered the high that three days of talking to Shoah survivors, ADL activists and teens of various ethnic backgrounds had given him.

The paper hood was fashioned by a student as a prop for a class presentation but had fallen into the hands of other students, who played catch with it in the cafeteria and, perhaps without forethought, tried it on for size.

"This is one of the most overt acts of prejudice, which I would have noticed whether I had gone on this trip or not," said DiVittorio, who is Japanese and Italian and whose grandparents were placed in U.S. internment camps during World War II. "But I felt it more deeply. I was talking about it to my friends and they said, `Gosh, calm down, Chris.' "

The youth also has noticed patterns and nuances at school that before his trip he had not acknowledged.

"You do see people gravitating toward members of their own race," he said. "We have a multicultural club with only three members, but they are all Indian."

As part of the ADL program, DiVittorio and his tripmates must continue with classmates at their own schools the dialogue that they began in Washington.

Fellow traveler Randi Ervin, also of Dublin High, talked about reproducing the ADL's shmoozy format for discussing bigotry at her school.

"Everyone was very open. You could talk to the [ADL staff] in a personable way," said Ervin. "I expected it to be more formal and uptight.

"It's interesting to see that on all ends of the spectrum there have been victims of hate," added Ervin, who is African American. "The barriers are everywhere."

Cynthia Houng, a junior at Mountain View High School, said she was surprised by the ADL staff's passionate activism. She noted that it reminded her of professors her mother, a doctoral candidate in history, talks about.

"I used to assume that people with passion lose it as they get older or disappear into academia."

Her peers, she said, are cynical and apathetic toward politics. "They don't care about much other than getting cars and stuff."

Born in the United States to immigrants from Taiwan, Houng said she is no stranger to the idea of persecution. The ADL trip, she said, helped her to personalize the Holocaust and to make a connection to her own family's experience as political dissenters against Taiwan's government.

Her maternal and paternal grandparents fought on opposite sides of the Taiwanese camp. Like some Shoah survivors, they don't talk about their painful histories. But Houng's activist parents have encouraged their daughter to understand the politics of discrimination.

For that reason, the teen said she sometimes relates better to "red-diaper babies" born to American Communists in the 1930s than to kids her own age.

"I feel that I have to [work toward social justice]. My parents were active in their home country and expect the same of me."

Houng was particularly moved by a quote she read at the Holocaust Memorial: "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness."

Added Houng, "That's kind of how I feel for all the history in my family."

With Ervin, DiVittorio and the other ADL trip teens, she will devise a way to raise her classmates' consciousness in the weeks and months ahead.

DiVittorio said he will think back on the Holocaust Memorial and the survivors as he sets out on this task.

The Shoah "was done by people not too long ago," he noted.

It wouldn't "take much to push you over the edge. We walk the line between this and peace and harmony every day."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.