the student leans in toward the survivor's ear
Survivor Helen Farkas speaks with a student at the JFCS Holocaust Center’s Day of Learning, March 19, 2017 (Photo/Trish Tunney)

Survivors bring history to life for students hungry for learning

While most high school students wouldn’t choose to spend their weekends inside a classroom, Piedmont High School senior Danny DeBare did. The Jewish teen, along with hundreds of his peers, gathered last Sunday at a San Francisco high school to bring Jewish history into focus.

“Participation is everything to get the full effect of learning the history,” said DeBare.

Now in its 15th year, the Day of Learning, organized by the JFCS Holocaust Center, brought together Holocaust survivors in the Bay Area and 750 students and educators from schools in the region — from as far away as Modesto — to listen, engage and learn about the past and how its lessons apply to the future.

At the beginning of the March 19 event at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, JFCS Holocaust Center director of education Morgan Blum Schneider addressed the crowd in the auditorium and showed a short film on Hans and Sophie Scholl, teenage siblings who were nonviolent resisters in Nazi-era Germany and were executed for their opposition.

After the film, prompts asking “What will you take a stand for?” and “How will you change the world?” appeared on the screen. Several students responded, declaring they would stand up for LGBTQ rights, fight hate crimes and anti-Semitism, and protest what they viewed as racist policies coming out of the White House.

“About 85 to 90 percent of students here today do not have a Jewish background,” Schneider said later. “The goal is to supplement what is taught in the classroom.”

Much of the day was spent in breakout groups of about 30 students in a classroom, with a facilitator making a curricula and student ambassadors guiding the discussions. DeBare and Stuart Hall High School junior Nicholas Everest served as student ambassadors, part of their duties as Manovill Holocaust History Fellows, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services. “We push the discussions further,” said Everest. “This day kind of engages history that they wouldn’t get in a typical classroom setting.”

Hitler, eat your heart out.

The sessions touched on a number of subjects, such as the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, reimagining gender, U.S. immigration policy and the role of Holocaust memorials.

Adrian Schrek, director of the Teen Curriculum Initiative, a Jewish LearningWorks program that promotes Holocaust education, led a discussion titled “Awake and Fight: Acts of Resistance in the Camps and Ghettos.” She asked students to write down their definitions of resistance and posted them on a whiteboard. Students then debated whether they agreed with the definitions and discussed how they applied to their own lives.

Students later heard stories from 16 Holocaust survivors and their adult children. The son of a survivor, Danny Petrasek, 61, said he wanted to make sure his father’s story was known. Petrasek’s father escaped a labor camp in Czechoslovakia and joined the Soviet Red Army. He said his father had a different outlook on life than many survivors and was always optimistic about the future. “My father had the feeling that he could control his own destiny,” said Petrasek, who noted that many children of survivors spend their lives feeling guilty about the ordeals their parents went through.

Gloria Hollander Lyon, 87, told the students about her extraordinary life. She survived some of the most infamous concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbruck. Her family fled their small town in Czechoslovakia on Passover to avoid detection by the Nazis. They were eventually found and shipped to the death camps. “It’s important to teach our young people what we have been through, and how to protect yourself and the democracy we live in. What happened to us is important, and there are so few of us left.”

Lyon and most of her family survived the Holocaust and were able to relocate to the United States. Lyon mentioned how big her family is today, including nine grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.

“Hitler, eat your heart out,” she said.

Carly Nairn
Carly Nairn

Carly Nairn is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mongabay, Guernica, SF Weekly and KQED, among others. She lives in San Francisco.