Chautauqua Lake students reflect on powerful trip to Holocaust Museum

Chautauqua Lake High School Student Shannon McKee talks about her experience visiting the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and her experience there, during the Hebrew Lecture Series on Sunday, July 15, 2019 in Hurlbut Church. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

With each passing day, the events of the past fade further into the annals of history.

But according to the members of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua and the students of the  Chautauqua Lake Central School District, an understanding of world history cannot be allowed to fade into obscurity.

In March, a group of students from Chautauqua Lake Central School visited Washington, D.C., on a Hebrew Congregation-sponsored trip to learn more about events that have shaped the world.

On that trip, they went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where they worked to engage with and understand the historic tragedy.

On July 14, as a part of the Shirley Lazarus Sunday Speakers Series, those students, along with Holocaust refugee Walter Harf, spoke in the Hurlbut Church Sanctuary about their time in D.C. The talk was titled “Lessons Learned from the Experience and Study of the Holocaust and Human Rights,” and each of the students said the experience was a profound one.

For CLCS alum Shannon McKee, the trip her senior year provided a deeper understanding of the shocking truth of the Holocaust.

“After learning about the Holocaust all year, I felt very well prepared for the material we were going to see in the museum … but there were so many displays that, although I knew I would encounter, I was still shocked to see,” McKee said.

McKee said witnessing the history up-close allowed her to process things in a way that traditional study hadn’t allowed her.

“It is one thing to read about history and to see the pictures,” she said. “But to be able to see the real artifacts and almost experience different pieces of it is a different thing.”

Rachel Biekarck, another Chautauqua Lake alum who went on the trip in March, took the messages and stories of the museum’s exhibits to heart. She said she felt more galvanized and motivated to enact positive change than she ever had before.

“Before going to Washington, I felt that I would have had feelings of discomfort and wanted to speak up … but after going there, it made me feel more powerful and confident to speak up and say something about it,” Biekarck said.

After the students spoke about their experiences directly, Harf led them in a Q-and-A session, in which he asked them about the kinds of things they felt and dealt with while touring the museum.

Chautauqua Lake High School Student Rachel Biekarck talks about her experience visiting Washington D.C.’s National Holocaust Museum and her experience there, during the Hebrew Lecture Series on Sunday, July 15, 2019 in Hurlbut Church. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

According to the students, while some things were uncomfortable and difficult to confront, the experience was eye-opening, and brought depth and context to the material they had been learning about in school.

But the students weren’t alone as they walked through the museum. With them were their teachers, set on providing a valuable and enlightening experience for their young students. And like their students, the teachers also confronted the painful history held within the halls of the museum.

“It’s frightening, the modern connections to where we were, to where we might be headed, to some of the propaganda and ideas of now,” said teacher Betsy Rowe-Baehr. “I think a lot of the students left troubled.”

And as troubling as the material was for some, teacher Emily Pendl said she discovered some incredible things as well.

“What stuck out to me was the amount of young people listed (in the museum) as rescuers,” Pendl said. “You look at those names, and they’re children; they’re college students standing up and taking action.”

This trip to the Holocaust Museum was part of a larger effort to connect the students of Chautauqua Lake School with the history of the world.

After they returned, each student took on a project where they learned more about victims of the Holocaust and worked to create displays and materials designed to make an impact on their classmates.

According to Pendl, the effort to deepen the students’ empathy, courage and understanding of the wrongs of history is endlessly worthwhile.

“I think that’s why what we’re doing here is so important,” Pendl said, “because it’s these kiddos that are going to save all of us.”

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The author Duard Headley

Duard Headley is from tiny Yellow Springs, Ohio, and studies journalism and American studies at Miami University in Ohio. Coming hot off the heels of performing in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer, he is excited to cover theater at Chautauqua, merging his love for writing and theater into one experience. In his free time, he enjoys acting, reading, and staring wistfully into the distance as though he were deep in thought (He usually isn’t).