The Holocaust Awareness Museum, which opened in 1961, is located inside the Klein Jewish Community Center at 10100 Jamison Ave. It has held many events, including one on April 11, which brought 139 students from five area schools into the center for a face-to-face meeting with Holocaust survivors.
Both museum President Chuck Feldman and Program Director Phil Holtje run the Holocaust Awareness Museum, which has had over 300 programs and reached over 35,000 students since 2012.
“The biggest part of our mission is to personalize the Holocaust for students,” Holtje said. “To have that personal conversation with a survivor really helps the students connect on a much deeper level, rather than having the kids be lectured for two hours.”
The middle school students in attendance on April 11 were from Fox Chase Academic School, Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, Conestoga Christian School and the Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School.
The students were bussed to the Klein JCC, where they first saw a play of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Afterward, they were greeted with pizza and beverages as they were allotted two hours to talk with the Holocaust survivor at their table.
Once the students finished their lunch and talks with survivors, they were sent to the one-room museum, which houses artifacts from the World War II era. Among the displays are war uniforms, gas masks, pictures and books behind closed glass cases.
“What makes this museum special,” Holtje said, “is that all of these artifacts are from residents living in Philadelphia. That’s what makes us different from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It gives our museum a Philadelphia feel.”
Feldman said the grant they received from the federal government has helped fund their efforts to educate the children of Philadelphia on the Holocaust.
Feldman is currently working to get Holocaust and genocide education mandated in Pennsylvania, which would make it the sixth state to enact the mandate.
“Once the students settled in they were all ears,” survivor Devora Neuman said.
Neuman, a native of Sasnowicz, Poland, talked to a group of students about her struggles during World War II, and her imprisonment. At one point, she had both the adults and children crying with her story of when the Germans came to her house.
“The only thing I really want to get across to the children is that no one should have to go through the pain I went through,” Neuman said. “It’s paramount that we keep the young ones informed on what happened in the past, because they may be the last generation to see us [survivors] alive.”
Steve Kozuhowski, a teacher at Hampton Academy, talked about the importance of preparing the children for what they were going to see and hear about.
“One of the things the museum stressed to us was the importance of making sure the children were equipped to hear about the travesties that happened,” Kozuhowski said. “We spent a lot of time before coming here making sure the kids were ready.”
Kozuhowski also spoke of the importance of the students learning about the Holocaust first-hand.
“I think this really helps the kids,” Kozuhowski said. “The hands-on approach really helps them learn in a way that they’ll remember.”
Kurt Herman, a Holocaust survivor, was in attendance because he likes telling people about his journey during World War II.
“I average around 24 speeches per year, so I’m talking to a lot of different people,” Herman said. “I’m an old man now, so I hope I’m still making sense and making a difference in these kids’ lives.”
Holtje explained that of the 35 survivors they have as speakers, nearly all of them were children during World War II.
“This, unfortunately, is a time where we may start to lose some of these wonderful people and with that, their wonderful stories,” Holtje said. “Now is the time to get the kids in here, because in a few years there may be no one to tell the story.”
Devora Neuman was only 14 when the Germans came to her house. She can remember her mother saying, “Don’t worry Devora, tomorrow will be better.”
Once the children had a chance to go to other tables and meet other survivors, the autograph signing ensued. Students brought around their biography sheets of the survivors and asked for their signatures.
Neuman finds the entire process to be extremely helpful and even fun in a way.
“I love kids,” Neuman said. “I get to go and help kids. I love that.”
– Text and video by Ean Dunn and Steven Foltz