Over the summer eight local students traveled to Europe to visit memorials and historic sites commemorating the Holocaust. After months of study with the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, which hosted the trip, the students were well attuned not only to the numbers and historical facts, but also to the rhetoric and political climate that led to the Holocaust.
A little more than one month after he returned home, Trevor Mitchell, a senior at Madison High School, turned on the news only to see a Nazi flag splashed across the television screen. Coverage of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. filled Mitchell with “shock and fear,” he said. “On a deeper level, it’s just a very disheartening feeling.”
But then, Mitchell said, came resolve.
“It takes a special perseverance not to give up on the cause [of tolerance],” he said, “I might not be able to be in Charlottesville and take part in the counter protests, but I can do something when it happens in front of me in my backyard.”
That resolve was the goal of the class and the trip, said Chris Busbee, trustee of the Sue & Richard Carter Charitable Trust. When he came to the Jewish Federation two years ago with the idea for the program, inspired by a similar undertaking in New Jersey, he said the goal was to “change [students’] lives.”
As Ellen Ollervidez, director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio and community relations council director, interviewed applicants, the charge became clear: they would be “messengers of these stories.”
Students relayed their studies to several hundred people Sunday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio, located on the same campus as the Barshop Jewish Community Center. Each had two trifold presentations with research, archival footage, and documents exploring a facet of the genocide – from the rhetoric leading up to the extermination to the human stories captured in letters during World War II.
With each passing generation, Ollervidez explained, these firsthand accounts are being lost, relegated to documents in archives. Most education is limited to historical fiction and dates on an exam.
“A student’s knowledge of the Holocaust might be limited to the fact that Hitler killed 6 million Jews in an era that seems like eons ago,” Mitchell said. He now feels responsible to keep the history tangible and alive for his generation and the next.
For him, the moment of emotional impact came at a memorial at a train station west of Berlin, where an ordinary commuter platform had become a loading dock for transporting people to concentration camps. He thought of all the times he had dropped his dad off at the airport for work travel, fully assured that he would be picking him up again a few days later.
“It was here that the humanity of what we were seeing first struck me,” Mitchell said, “[The people on the train platform back then] weren’t afforded a modicum of the assurances I was afforded every time I went to the airport.”
Such sights are emotional, Ollervidez said, but they are also instructive.
“The entire course is really designed to study humanity,” Ollervidez said. It asks the students what kind of people they want to be. How they answer that, she explained, has immediate consequences.
Ollervidez and her co-teacher Juana Rubalcava, education director at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, did not have to convince students of the relevance of their studies. The students recognized the patterns and began to see them in current events, in small but important ways.
“If they understand their history they know that things can start small. Liberties can be chiseled at until they are under regimes that are harmful,” Ollervidez said.
Mitchell suddenly began to see and hear dehumanizing rhetoric all around him. “The echoes that I hear most often come from coverage of terrorism in the mainstream media,” Mitchell said.
By keeping the radical sect of Islam at the forefront of the conversation, he said, it’s easy for people to subscribe to false causes and fanatical positions. The antidote to fanaticism, he said, is exposure, relationships, and “a willingness to educate yourself.”
Speaking to the crowd, Jewish Federation CEO Ronit Sherwin expressed disappointment in President Donald Trump’s failure to appropriately condemn the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville. “I was ashamed this past week by lack of leadership from our president,” Sherwin said, acknowledging that her opinion might upset some of those in the room who approve of Trump’s policies. “I was hopeful that he might step up and say the right thing and do the right thing.”
While she was frustrated with the situation, Sherwin later told the Rivard Report that she was encouraged by the timing of the June trip, because it gave the students context for what was to come. “The idea was for them to change the world. And there’s a world to change.”
Sherwin and other adults at the exhibit expressed hope that the students would be empowered to take action. “I really believe that these kids are it. I hope that these kids take on the mantle of leadership and are inspired to go into public service and education,” Sherwin said.
For Catherine Nolan-Ferrell, whose 16-year-old daughter Clare Farrell participated in the course, the trip was a chance for her daughter to find her niche in what is, in a way, a family business. Nolan-Ferrell is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, specializing in the Guatemalan genocide that consumed the latter half of the 20th century. Her older daughter now works in Guatemala. For Clare Ferrell, seeing genocide in the European context broadened her understanding and the possible courses of action that could follow, Nolan-Ferrell said.
Despite being “thrilled” about the opportunity her daughter was given, Nolan-Ferrell saw the gravity of it as well.
“It’s a little bit difficult as a parent because you know they’re going to see some stuff that’s really disturbing, but you can’t protect them from it, because that’s the way the world is,” she said. She sees significant parallels between historical ethnocentrism and current events related to racism and anti-immigrant sentiments in American culture. When swastikas appeared in the Charlottesville coverage, she was glad her daughter could see them in the context of rising and falling tides of white supremacy and ethnocentrism.
That tide, she says, is ever-rolling.
“We like to say in genocide studies, ‘Never again,’” Nolan-Ferrell said, “But that’s malarky, because it keeps happening over and over and over.”