Museum program connects kids with those who died in Shoah

When Zachary Miller of Princeton, N.J., went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time in March 2007, he was preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah and looking for a chesed project.

In January, Lindsay Barbash, who lives in Middleton, Mass., was searching for a mitzvah project for her bat mitzvah celebration.

Both youngsters found what they were seeking in the USHMM’s R3: Remembrance, Reflection, Response, a free online educational program.

The goal of the R3 program is “outreach to youth, reaching them where they reside,” says Dana Weinstein, director of membership at the museum.

“We wanted a detailed program that also was engaging. And we hope that the experience will spur the kids to think about the lessons of the Holocaust and its relevance to today.”

Geared to kids aged 11 to 15, R3 honors the more than 1 million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust by telling their stories with videos, images and facts.

Youngsters can visit and create a personal home page to which they invite their friends and family members to learn about the program. They also may encourage visitors to the home page to donate money to the USHMM. (Shira Mitchell, the museum’s membership relationship assistant, says that fundraising is a minor part of R3 and that only a few thousand dollars have been raised. She doesn’t know what percentage of participants have included fundraising information on their home pages; both Miller and Barbash say they did.)

Each child who signs up is given the name of a child who perished in the Holocaust, Weinstein explains. The museum has a registry of 14,000 children with names, birth dates, birth countries and other information.

Children who sign up for R3 can request their paired child victim be from a certain country or even ask for a family member who was killed during the Shoah, she says.

Miller’s child victim was Szmul Besser of Poland, who was killed at the age of 12; Barbash was paired with Elsa Adler of Austria, who was 13 when she was murdered in Auschwitz.

The most important result of going through the program was “learning to appreciate what I have now — that I had a bat mitzvah and didn’t live during the Holocaust,” Barbash says.

Miller was struck most by the small amount of food the kids were given and how many died of starvation.

He also was saddened by the way the children were separated from their families. “Everything was rushed, and they were unable to say good-bye,” he says. “They went one way and their families went the other.”

As a result of his experience with R3, Miller interviewed a survivor, wrote a story based on the interview and read it during his bar mitzvah weekend.

R3 has been online since May 2007, Mitchell says, although the museum only started publicizing it earlier this year. So far, nearly 2,200 kids have gone through the program — including 85 from outside the United States.

Youngsters can sign up individually, or join the program as part of a group. “We know they are coming from a wide variety of sources,” Weinstein says, “but sometimes we see participants from the same school or organization. We want Holocaust education to reach as far and wide an audience as possible.”