"You could put yourself up there, and look at your hair color and look at your eye color, and know that you wouldn't be living in that time," said Hannibal, one of approximately 80 students from Kensington International Business High School who traveled from their North Philadelphia school to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Ricardo Bracero, 18, said that he was most affected by the evidence he saw of Nazi violence against children.
"They didn't care how young the children were," he said. "I saw babies' clothes, and I couldn't believe it. Little children — and you would do something like that to them?"
The Dec. 5. trip is an integral part of a history elective called "The Holocaust," in which students learn strictly about the Shoah for half of the school year. During the other half, the kids switch gears and study the civil-rights movement in America.
Teacher Art Newman believes that his four classes — made up primarily of African-American and Latino students — can relate to the plight of the Jews because of discrimination that their own respective groups have faced in the past.
"I think that being in the inner city, a lot of times, they don't realize that there are other people that have suffered," stated Newman, 35. "They localize the issue of African-American hardship or Latino hardship, and now they've expanded that into something else — into other people's pain."
'That Really Stuck'
This is the third year that the course has been offered at Kensington International; each time, Newman has partnered with the nonprofit Champions of Caring, an organization that promotes education to combat prejudice and promote community-service activities. Along with providing suggested course work, the organization sponsored the trip to the museum. The Kensington International group was joined by students from Parkway-Northwest, University City and Simon Gratz High Schools in Philadelphia.
During one particular class period before the trip, Bracero, who was looking at a photo of dead bodies stacked one on top of the other, said that he was horrified by the supposed normality of it all.
"People were just walking by bodies as if it were just nothing — like it was an ordinary thing to just see," said Bracero. "That really stuck in my mind."
Saeda Washington said that she actually shed tears during one of Newman's classes.
"It hurt to know that things like that are still going on," she said, alluding, in this case, to the situation in Darfur, Sudan. "It makes me want to try and make a difference."
The Holocaust class will conclude with a community-service project. In prior years, students have delivered toys to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, collected canned-food items for distribution to the needy or installed smoke detectors in low-income homes in the Kensington area.
"[The students] come to the museum and realize the depths of evil, and flip it around and become a champion of [their] community," said Newman.
Before his Holocaust-studies class this year — and even before last week's trip to the museum — 16-year-old Edwin Matos was not certain if the Holocaust had actually occurred.
"I was not sure if it did happen or if it didn't happen; I was in the middle because I was confused," he admitted. "It's not a joke; it did happen. To walk around and see Nazi uniforms — and seeing uniforms with black-and-white prison stripes — really hit me."
As the students left, several dropped money into a donation container, even though they hail from a known low-income urban neighborhood. And on the ride back to Philadelphia, Newman noticed that his students were less rambunctious and more mild-mannered than during the ride down.
"I was just looking around, and I can see their faces — they look like they've seen something they've never seen before," relayed the teacher. "I just know that they're going to act more mature when they're in my class again."