Kerri DiSanzo said she will never forget her most recent trip to the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft.
DiSanzo, who teaches social studies at the Millstone Township Middle School, said she believes a recent event left an indelible mark on 180 eighth-graders who experienced an emotionally charged day that was filled with speakers and firsthand accounts from survivors.
The trip is arranged in accordance with a state mandate for the teaching of the World War II-era Holocaust, DiSanzo said.
The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education is a nonprofit volunteer organization founded in 1979 as the Center for Holocaust Studies. According to the organization’s website, the center addresses human rights and civil rights issues worldwide.
The museum has a mission to educate about historical issues relating to the Holocaust and genocide; to eliminate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice that damage society; and to develop creative programs and activities regarding these crucial human issues. The center serves the community through an extensive library of books, periodicals and media materials.
“We experienced the wonderful program that is provided to many New Jersey students,” DiSanzo said. “No text or novel can compare to hearing the words of these survivors.”
The keynote speaker was Michael Berenbaum, a prolific author about the Holocaust whose most recent book is “After Tragedy and Triumph.” Previously, he was the director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Berenbaum spoke primarily about the importance of being an “up-stander.”
“When we do not stand up for persecuted people and instead we are bystanders to bullying and intolerance, this lays the earliest foundations for crimes against humanity and genocide,” Berenbaum said.
His sentiments were echoed by state Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth).
Survivors of the Holocaust and of genocides in Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda related their personal stories to students who were placed in small groups, according to DiSanzo.
“These brave speakers provide primary source information that recounted the horrors of their experiences. The students seemed amazed at the ability of people to survive under such impossibly horrific circumstances,” DiSanzo said.
A woman who survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia told a grim story. One comment made a significant impression on DiSanzo. She said the woman told the students that “the next time you think you are having a bad day, think of what you heard today and feel better.”
“These are painful, dark and disturbing events in world history, but we believe our students may better understand and empathize with these ghastly events in history by attending” an event such as this, Di- Sanzo said.
To DiSanzo, a poignant moment of the day was Chantey Jung’s story. Jung survived the Killing Fields in Cambodia in the 1970s. At the age of 9 she was separated from her family and faced starvation. She worked in rice paddies and ate a spoonful of rice a day. She watched the murder of her father and was forced to live in a hole in the ground for two years.
“How does someone deal with all of that?” DiSanzo said.
The teacher said she found it astonishing to hear firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors, especially when their stories touched on aspects of luck and random acts of kindness in a concentration camp. Despite all the horrors these survivors endured, they kept hope alive by doing small acts of kindness for others, such as sharing food or blankets.
The students will use the information they learned to write poetry and present reports about genocides throughout history, according to DiSanzo.
“I think one would have to be made of stone to not be moved by these stories of survival and triumph over adversity,” she said.