To learn a little bit about tolerance, 20 Lompoc High School students spent a sunny vacation day this week exploring the darker chapters of human history.
Ranging from seniors to freshmen, the students were picked by school counselors to participate in a full-day visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
“They’re kids that have had problems at home, or something tough that they’ve gone through,” said Lompoc Police Officer David Lamar, who said some of the students had been involved in fights on campus, and a few had even been arrested in the past.
As the Police Activities League executive director, Lamar wrote a grant for the Santa Barbara Foundation to help fund the trip, which he said he hopes will be the first of several such trips.
The students loaded a bus before dawn Monday and headed to Los Angeles, where guide Lloyd Wilkey met them at the museum, and led them on a special tour, complete with discussions geared toward teens.
Wilkey introduced himself and assured the students that there was more to the museum than the Holocaust of World War II.
“I’d hate to wake up at 5 a.m. and take a three-hour bus ride just to get smacked in the face with the Holocaust,” said Wilkey.
In fact, the group’s tour began in what was probably the most lighthearted of the museum’s sections — a section on immigration and the importance of exploring personal heritage. A video-recorded comedian Billy Crystal cracked jokes as he played a Jewish immigrant, and helped lead the group into the exhibit, entitled “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves.”
“I didn’t know it was going to be about more than World War II,” said junior Jessie Juarez afterward. “It taught me that maybe I should look into my own ancestry.”
In between video presentations, Lloyd asked the students that if they had to leave their home in a hurry, and were going to a strange land where they might have no friends, family, or speak the language, what would they bring?
“Playstation 3!” one teen quickly answered.
In the Holocaust portion of the museum, the jokes died away, as the students quietly looked over archive footage of starvation and death.
Through the exhibit, the students were given an ID card for a Jewish child of the Holocaust, and given biographical information about them. At the end of the exhibit, a final set of terminals allowed the students to find out if their child survived, or became one of the 1.7 million children who were killed.
Freshman Suzzy Robles said she learned that her little girl died of typhus.
“I just learned a lot more about what happened in the camps,” Robles said.
At the end of the exhibit, a wall of plaques helped commemorate the thousands of people who risked their lives to try to prevent the Holocaust.
“You could have resisted, you could go along with it, or you could just turn your head and pretend to not see what was going on,” said Wilkey, asking the students what choice they would make.
“What really caught me was the amount of deaths for the Jewish people,” said junior Thomas Duran, after visiting the Holocaust exhibit.
Jesus Cubillo, a Lompoc High senior, said he was glad he came on the trip.
“I understand a bit more about why people discriminate now,” he said.
During lunch, the learning continued. The museum name tags that everyone had been given at the start of the day had colored triangles on them. As the students enjoyed lunch, Wilkey told the group that the colored triangles were the same used in concentration camps by the Nazi’s to help identify different types of prisoners: Red for political prisoners who did not support the Nazis, black for “genetically inferior” Gypsies and the mentally ill, and pink for homosexuals.
“When I said ‘homosexual,’ why all the laughter? We’re talking about a group of people being targeted just for being different, just like every other one of you,” said Wilkey.
After lunch, the group had the opportunity to hear a presentation by a Holocaust survivor. Her name was Gloria Ungar, and she talked about the horrors of the Holocaust, such as arriving at the gates of Auschwitz at the age of 13.
“The night sky was red ... with the cinders from the crematorium,” Ungar said.
At the end of the day, Wilkey led a discussion among the students, talking about all they’d learned during the day. He pointed out that racism, anti-Semitism and even genocide was still occurring.
“Who’s going to fix all that?” Wilkey asked.
“We are,” said Lompoc freshman Martine Tamayo, half joking.
“I hope so ... I hope so,” said Wilkey.