WASHINGTON – The Colorado and Nebraska teenagers gathered in front of a 20-foot-tall photograph of American soldiers viewing corpses of prisoners shot by retreating Nazis at the Ohrdruf concentration camp.
“My heart stopped at that first picture,” said Abi Waldman,a 16-year-old sophomore at Thornton High School.
She was one of 20 Colorado students chosen from 17 high schools to participate in the annual Anti-Defamation League Robert B. Sturm Youth Leadership Mission. Students visit the capital for four days to learn about prejudice,discrimination and oppression. Twenty Nebraska students were also part of the group.
Visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is part of the program,and the photograph is the first display in the museum's permanent exhibition.
Despite the graphic photographs,the authentic camp uniforms and the biography of a Holocaust victim or survivor that each student carried through the museum,Waldman focused on why she applied for the program.
“I came because my rabbi said this is an opportunity,” she said. “We're here to stop fear,fear that drives us not to control situations.”
Paula Brown,assistant director of education for the league's Mountain States region,sat on a bench in front of the “Voices of Auschwitz” exhibit,listening to student Max Vinnik.
A 16-year-old sophomore at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village,Colo.,Vinnik said the exhibit angered and frustrated him.
“As a Jew,it makes me realize what hate can do at the highest level and how important it is that we do this,” he said. “We're the future. And in 30 years,we'll lead the country.”
“It's not just Jews in this group,and it's not just Jews making a difference,” Vinnik said. “It's more than religion; it's equality of all people.”
Brown took a deep breath and wiped her eyes.
“It's always interesting to walk through this exhibit,looking through their lens,” Brown said. “They want to take action not from a place of revenge,but from a place of education.”
“It reaffirms my passion for my work,” she said.
Tuesday night,the group got an even closer look at the Holocaust. For an hour,the students sat mesmerized as a petite woman with graying hair and a slight German accent recalled her childhood under the Nazi regime.
Bea Karp,a 73-year-old Holocaust survivor,told students about her family's struggles through the Nazi's French labor camps and her numerous moves through orphanages and a convent after she was rescued.
Karp,who was 2 when Hitler gained power in 1933,and her sister survived. After the war,they moved to London and then to New York. Karp learned in 1951 that her parents died at Auschwitz.
“It was a terrible time,” said Karp,who lives in Omaha,Neb. “To this day,I don't understand how something like that could've happened.”
“I hope you will be aware of what goes on in your city,state,country and in the world,” she said.
The students gave Karp a standing ovation and were even more resolved to share their lessons with peers and community members. The league requires students to create a project based on their visit to the capital,which ended Wednesday.
“She's a very courageous woman,and her faith in all of us to carry the message is empowering,” said Vanessa Perez,a 17-year-old junior at Montrose High School.
Andrew Shum,a junior at George Washington High School in Denver,struggled to find words.
“I'm in awe,” the 17-year-old said. “For me,it's been a step closer to getting intimate to this subject.”