Speaking up: Lone Jack high school students study Holocaust and learn lessons on how to treat others

One by one the colorful butterflies – which symbolized the lives of a Holocaust victims – found their places at Lone Jack High School.

At first they dangled from their homes on the cafeteria ceiling. Then, those butterflies that survived were taken to a certain wall. Those that perished were posted on a memorial wall with the display, “We have the responsibility to never forget.”

One butterfly was designated to each Lone Jack student, who witnessed its fate during a month-long Holocaust project that touched many subject areas. History class provided the historic viewpoints. Science class offered insight into the unethical human experimentation that was part of the Holocaust carried out by Nazi Germany in the World War II era of the last century. English classes reviewed “Night” by Elie Weisel.

The project emphasized responsible citizenry, humanity and learning to stand up for what is right.

In math class, sophomore Justin Turner learned through equations and proportions how many people could stand in a boxcar. The imagery of how the Jews were carted to concentration camps hit home, he said.

Turner knew about the events from seventh- and eighth-grade history lessons, but the statistics and the degree of malice didn’t register then.

“Beforehand, you knew 6 million were killed and the Nazis were doing horrible things, but you didn’t know the different ways,” he said.

Turner related the lessons learned to daily life at a high school.

“If you go through the day and see a bit of messing around and teasing” of other students, he said, people can get used to it.

“You can’t just stand by,” he said. “You have to stand up for what you believe and that’s what hit me – to encourage people to stay strong.”

Sophomore Cameron Loren knew much about the Holocaust, but suggested that educators could cover the topic with younger students to drive home important humanity concerns.

“It’s not just about the Holocaust, but we are talking about democratic values that aren’t automatically sustained,” he said. “You can’t be a bystander.”

Evy Tilzer, whose parents survived the Holocaust, spoke to students as part of the project.

Tilzer used to accompany her mother, June Feinsilver, at school presentations and is now a speaker for the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.

She uses a presentation she put together years ago with photos of her parents along with historical materials and maps.

One student asked what young people could do.

“I said to keep learning, keep an open mind and don’t follow the crowd,” she said. “You know what’s right.”

Through her parents’ story of surviving a Jewish ghetto and concentration camps, Tilzer brings home that it’s not just a history lesson. Students can learn about motivation, perseverance and faith.

“History does repeat itself and we have to learn from our mistakes and we’ve got to keep trying,” she said. “I tell them in their young lives they will have some wonderful times and they will have some terrible times and I hope the wonderful outweighs the terrible. I want them to realize that my parents had the worst life that someone could be handed and if they could live through it, then that has much to say about human nature.”

The project was born from a discussion about the school’s bullying policy, said Matthew Tarwater, principal at Lone Jack High School.

“A lot of students struggle with empathy and putting themselves in someone else’s shoes,” he said. “And I’ve been encouraging the teachers to do cross-curricular for a well-rounded deep understanding of the topic.”

Math teacher Grant Brown mentioned Holocaust lesson plans, and the idea took off. Staffers took a professional development day in October to organize the project with a resource page on Google Drive so they could collaborate.

Teachers incorporated the idea into their classrooms. Students watched films and attended assemblies. Math classes counted grains of rice to illustrate the number of lives lost in the genocide.

Tarwater and other educators are eager to see the long-term effects on students.

“In a time of bullying in schools nationwide, our students (reflected) on what they could do in the face of torment and persecution,” said librarian Angie Gottesburen.

“It has truly been an amazing experience, from students studying music composed by Holocaust victims to studying the lives of righteous gentiles who risked all to save lives.”