Many high school juniors might skim through their history class unit on World War II, but not so much Jessica Schmidtmans students.
The Kennedy High School social studies teacher wants to make sure the war, and the Holocaust in particular, are ingrained in students minds.
As each generation passes, the Holocaust is something that goes deeper and deeper into the past, she said. So to make a personal connection is really important.
Thats why Schmidtman took the schools 48 juniors on a field trip May 6 to Portland, where they met three Holocaust survivors and visited the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park. The trip, which was the fifth for Schmidtman, was made possible through a partnership she has formed with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center.
Its one of the most painful moments in mankinds history, Schmidtman said. The more we educate kids about the horror of the Holocaust the more we can work to not have anything like that again.
The first trip was to the memorial, which was built in the 1990s by Northwest survivors and dedicated in 2004. The class divided into two groups that were led by docents Evie Banko and David Rutiezer. Banko is a Holocaust survivor, having only been 4 at the time of liberation, and Rutiezer is a descendent of survivors.
Survivors from the area went to six of the killing camps and brought back soil and ashes to be interned beneath a large stone of the memorial, Schmidtman said. There are quotes from survivors on the front, a brief history of the Holocaust as well. On the back of the memorial there are names of people that perished and their surviving family members. There is also a section dedicated to the Roma people (gypsies) that were also persecuted and murdered in the Holocaust.
Junior Kayla Barboza said the memorial was a powerful reminder of the lives lost.
It was impactful because they had (bronze statues of) items that would have been taken away, like a doll or teddy bear on the ground, she pointed out. One quote from a survivor (written on the wall) that had the most impact on me was talking about how he had to grow up without a father, mother, uncle or sister and resents people who grow up with those things. When you think of the Holocaust you think of the Jews being all together, but theyre all strangers; theyve just been placed in the same situation.
After the visit to the memorial, students went to the Oregon Jewish Museum where they met Holocaust survivors Eva and Les Aigniers. Originally from Czechoslovakia but living in Hungary during the war, they told their individual experiences. Les was put into forced labor to build a military hangar, then was sent to Auschwitz, one of the Nazi death camps. There, he lost his mother and younger sister, but his older sister was saved because she went into hiding. Eva lived in the ghettos of Budapest, narrowly escaping death when she, her sister and her mother were lined up to be shot into the Danube River, her mother traded her wedding ring for the lives of her daughters.
That story really stuck with me, Barboza said. I cant imagine thinking youre going to die and then by some miracle, you live.
She was also struck how brave the duo was to share their stories.
Im grateful they can stand up and share about that I know was hard for them to relive, Barboza said. Our class is lucky people are still alive to talk to us were able to see it from the inside point of view.
Schmidtman said they came forward, not because they wanted to relive the horrific events, but because they had to let others know.
They try to stress, Im not telling stories to make you feel sorry for me, but there are deniers out there, so that inspired them to educate people because they didnt want their story to be lost in time, Schmidtman said. There are things happening in the world now that may seem small but if people are indifferent, something like this could happen again.
Barboza said there are lessons she learned that day that she internalizes now.
There are always injustices and we have to be able to stand up for people, like bullies, she said. Even the smallest things will help people.