What’s a New York City public school known for science doing with a can of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide that killed so many millions of Jews during the Holocaust? You could look no further than Albert Einstein, who said: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
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So it is with a nod to the sentiments of the father of relativity that the Bronx High School of Science, New York City's premier science magnet school, cut the ribbon on its newly appointed Holocaust Museum and Studies Center on Friday. The event, tied to the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was held on a day when the entire nation seemed glued to the news of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, which was still unfolding. And that uncanny confluence of events wasn’t lost on the school’s principal Valerie J. Reidy, who delivered opening remarks.
“While we are primarily a school known for its science and mathematics, we are also aware of our significant obligation to prepare our students to be ethical adults and honorable leaders, to be strong enough to say no to evil wherever and whenever they encounter it, whether in Europe, Rwanda, Darfur or Boston,” she said.
It’s precisely that connection between science and morality, history and the present – the day’s dramatically unfolding events, notwithstanding – that helps explain how a New York City public school known for eight Nobel prizes and six Pulitzers became so invested in teaching Holocaust studies and tolerance.
The school, which has a primarily Asian student body, began collecting Holocaust items in 1978, long before many other museums followed suit. The new museum cost $1 million and took 12 years of planning, no small undertaking during this time of fiscal cutbacks and school closings. It was funded thanks to the active participation of the Parents’ Association, Alumni Association, and Endowment Fund, but also through the city and state of New York.
But the real story of how Bronx Science came to possess close to 1,000 Nazi-era documents and objects can be traced Dr. Stuart S. Elenko, a social studies teacher who worked at the school from 1966 to 1993 and who worked as museum founder and director until his death in 2009. Elenko believed that social responsibility was crucial to the study of science, a not-so-strange thought given how the Nazis twisted science to produce evil. Elenko began a course on Holocaust study that he felt required the inclusion of actual historical artifacts and a leadership initiative.
“He understood the importance of teaching students never to be victims, participants or bystanders and the powerful impact of original artifacts on the study,” explains Reidy.
Call it living history. To wit, Elenko went about collecting propaganda posters, both issued by the Nazis and the US government, SS uniforms, a can of Zyklon B, a letter signed by Adolf Hitler and passports from Jews hoping to escape Europe. He drew his share of detractors on the faculty, who questioned why a New York City public school needed Nazi paraphernalia to enhance its curriculum. But ultimately, his instincts and devotion to documenting history proved visionary.
“This was before the days of eBay and decades before the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” says Jill Vexler, Ph.D., the museum’s curator. “It took tremendous dedication and passion to amass the sort of collection he did.”
Elenko, who had no personal connection to the Holocaust, encouraged his students, many of whom were first- or second-generation Americans descended from Eastern European Jews, to seek items from their families. The collection was first housed in a room in the back of the school library. But it quickly outgrew the space. When the Museum of Jewish Heritage opened in Battery Park City, in lower Manhattan, it took on the excess artifacts. But most of the items were kept in storage, which defeated the purpose of having an on-site resource for students.
“What makes this museum unique is its access,” says Vexler, who has curated traveling exhibits on such Holocaust topics as labor camps and the Partisans throughout the United States and Poland. “Students can literally walk down a flight of steps and have all these resources at their disposal.”
Indeed, the museum now sits in a state-of-the-art facility in the school's basement, a few steps from gym lockers and the school nurse. And when the ribbon-cutting reception was over, it was students who flooded into the museum.
“It’s one of the main reasons why I chose this school,” said Lee Wolfowitz, 18, a senior from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who is director of outreach for the Holocaust leadership program. “My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who was in hiding during the war, so I understand the value of having this in the curriculum. It’s a big part of the culture of Bronx Science.”
For Rachel Hia, 17, a junior of Iraqi descent, the museum isn’t just about an isolated event. “My grandparents fled persecution, too,” she says. “It’s very important for me to be involved in this museum because we are the next generation.”
Indeed, you don’t have to be Jewish to find resonance in the many graphic testaments to genocide on display – a red collection can for the SS, Hitler Youth posters, signage from Jewish stores that read “Don’t Buy, Jewish enterprise,” even wooden boots worn by Jewish inmates at Auschwitz. The Holocaust leadership program is a three-year course that begins in 10th grade, meets daily and focuses not only on the history of anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazi party, but also on curatorial and leadership skills so its students can be docents at the museum and extrapolate the lessons of the era and apply them to the present. Many of its members are of Chinese, Indian and Korean backgrounds.
“Hatred threatens us all,” says New York City councilman G. Oliver Koppell, an alumnus of the school as well as the father of two alumni. He helped mobilize city council funds to contribute to the building of the museum. “Whether it’s the Jewish community or any other community, you always want to ensure that what happened doesn’t happen again,” he says.
And ultimately, it’s up to the students to make sure the museum remains a living institution of tolerance. The location will serve as more than an exhibition space. It’s also where class will convene, and where students can continue to contribute to the collection.
The design of the museum includes walls and shelves where the artifacts are exhibited, but there are many drawers that visitors can open to deepen their understanding of particular topics, such as ghetto life or liberation. “I left the bottom drawers empty,” says Vexler. “So future generations can push the conversation forward.”
Or as Sophia Sapozhnikov, the English teacher who currently conducts the Holocaust class says, “I want to develop thinking, feeling, emphatic human beings.” And that may be the school’s most remarkable accomplishment yet. After all, it was also Einstein who said, “It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.”