At Bronx Science, A Different Kind Of Lab
Fri, 01/16/2009
Staff Writer
The entryway of The Bronx High School of Science is dominated by an enormous, tiled mural depicting scientists and their empirical discoveries, along with a quotation by the famous philosopher and education reformer John Dewey: “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.” But in the case of the only Holocaust museum located within a New York City public school, imagination accounts for more than just scientific advancement. For 30 years, the Holocaust Museum and Study Center, one of the first Holocaust museums in the nation, with a unique and sweeping collection of artifacts, has been a centerpiece of this school, helping to shape the lives and perspectives of its diverse student body of nearly 3,000 people hailing from all over the city and world. Located in a back room within the school’s library (though slated to move to a larger space with modern technology later this year), the collection was founded in 1978 by Stuart Elenko, a history teacher (now retired) at Bronx Science. After World War II, Elenko worked with a Jewish survivor organization, and from that time collected Holocaust artifacts, which he eventually donated to the museum. The museum is entirely student-run, with student guides taking a “Holocaust Leadership” class that meets daily and prepares them for the complex task of navigating their peers and other visitors through the complicated, tragic history of the Holocaust, while teaching tolerance and understanding. “My goal is ultimately that the students learn how to empathize, especially with someone different. In a school as diverse as Bronx Science, I think it’s an essential goal,” says Sophia Sapozhnikov, the English teacher who for the past two years has taught the Holocaust class and administered the museum. “Bronx Science has a reputation for churning out scientists and Nobel Prize winners, but I also want to develop thinking, feeling, empathic human beings.” The class takes an in-depth look at the history of the Nazis, the Jews in Europe and the legacy of the extermination of six million Jews and five million others, and makes comparisons between the Holocaust and other genocides for its students, who come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Sapozhnikov’s classroom looks much like any other in this public school, cluttered with plastic-and-metal desks, posters, bookbags and kids. But once she begins teaching, a quiet falls over the room and the students turn reflective about their reasons for committing to a yearlong Holocaust class and tour-guide training program. For Perri Feldman, who long felt a connection to the Holocaust, taking the class was a way to confront the sadness she felt lingering around the history of the Jews during World War II. “I didn’t like to talk about it, but it’s important to talk about what happened because it could happen again if we don’t make people aware of it,” she says. Despite her sadness, she realized that “I could be one of the people who could help make it not happen again. So I fought through it, walked into the museum … and didn’t let the sadness prevent me from learning about it.” Now, says Feldman, she realizes “you can never escape human nature, but you can address stereotypes and make society better.” Feldman’s classmate, Arielle Kellman, says she always read a lot about the Holocaust, but what inspired her to take the class was its mission statement. “It preaches tolerance and makes sure hatred stops and we spread peace,” says Kellman. Nick Capon, a Catholic student, says he welcomed the opportunity to learn about Judaism and religions other than his own; he also appreciated the chance to learn public speaking and leadership through the tour-guide training. “To be able to teach other people was something I wanted to do,” he says. In addition to focusing on Holocaust history, the class, which students say has become its own community within the vast building, teaching members how to get along with each other, helps students address the tensions inherent in a school as large and multicultural as Bronx Science. “Our school is diverse and we see tensions and problems within the different ethnicities,” says Laura Karson, mentioning a recent incident in which a student scrawled, “the Holocaust didn’t happen,” on a poster advertising the museum. The school combated that graffiti and ignorance by holding a Tolerance Day, during which the members of the Holocaust class were central participants. “We explain through the museum what can happen if we don’t learn about each other,” adds Karson. “A huge thing this class does is correct misconceptions,” says Madison Gardiner. “The Holocaust wasn’t just [a persecution of] Jewish people; there were five million other ‘outcasts’ attacked during World War II,” as well. “It focuses on the nature of genocides in general,” says Katia Lin, a sentiment echoed by other classmates, both Jewish and from other traditions. “Not just about genocide but about how to help victims.” While the group of students discuss their motivations for taking the class upstairs, others are downstairs in the museum learning the techniques of how to guide visitors through the museum from seasoned upper classmen who have undergone the training themselves. “The Holocaust was the climax of anti-Semitism,” explains Josef Goodman, a senior, as he points out the museum’s rich and varied material artifacts. They include part of a Torah scroll salvaged from Kristallnacht, a Jewish concentration camp medical orderly jacket and Sonderkommando Nazi crematorium orderly jacket, a collection of Nazi-imposed Star of David patches from various countries and a transcript of the Israeli police interrogation of infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. There are colorful posters and devastating documents, many of which cannot be found in more established museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown in Battery Park City. There are no labels on any of the artifacts, which ensures that the students know their stuff: by the end of the training, their knowledge of specific Nuremberg laws, German society and even snippets of the Polish, German, and other languages that appear on some of the objects, is solid and impressive. Sapozhnikov hopes to expand the scope of the Holocaust museum’s visitors from current students, alumni and parents to other students from local public schools, as well as elderly residents of the nearby Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. To this end, the students have adapted the tour to fit all age groups and visitors, shifting the graphic details depending on their audience. “The gist [of the tour] is the same but we have PG, PG-13 and R-rated versions,” says Lucas Killcoyne, a student tour guide. Ultimately, he adds, “the real message of our tour is tolerance and acceptance.” For more information about the Holocaust Museum and Study Center at the Bronx Science High School, please visit: www.bxscimuseum.com.