For High Schoolers, Holocaust Museum Connects History To Today

WASHINGTON — Being in the crowded, confined space of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was uncomfortable for Kevin Smokyday. It wasn’t because of the photos and videos that he saw in the museum’s permanent exhibit, but the place that it brought him back to. Originally from Kinistin First Nation in central Saskatchewan, Smokyday is a survivor of Canada’s mandatory residential schools for native children. 

“We should have more time here,” he said after the visit last week as part of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas trip to Washington, D.C. “Even though the first part [of the museum] was very uncomfortable, because a lot of it was triggering because a lot of it is very similar to what I went through as a residential school survivor. I wasn’t a name; I was a number.”

Smokyday is a Plains Ojibwe elder and a teacher at Takoda Prep, a Minneapolis open high school for Native Americans. Takoda Prep was part of a “Cultural Collaborative” with Bet Shalom and its high school education program. The Collaborative is an elective program led at the synagogue by Rabbi Jill Crimmings, and at Takoda Prep by Smokyday and Jen Langreck.

The Residential Schools were, in the words of Canada’s first prime minister, intended to “sever children from the tribe” and “civilize” them. However, in the last year, many unmarked mass graves of hundreds of children were discovered.

“There were 30 of us, 35 of us in my little boys dorm,” he said. “Five are still alive. And a lot of them died from alcohol, drugs or violent death.

“You read about stuff. And I lived it. So I can relate to a lot of this. I can really relate to a lot of the generational trauma that these young people carry. I carry that same trauma.”

The Cultural Collaborative was one of several groups of students and teachers from both local high schools and colleges that were part of the JCRC’s trip on April 5. The Rum Fund at the JCRC is a sponsor of the Bet Shalom/Takoda Prep program.

“Our teens self selected into so they chose this over cooking or tutoring younger kids,” Crimmings said. “It’s teens that really wanted to have more of an enriching experience.”

Of the ten students that participate in the program during the year, only three were able to be on the trip. Some had spring break conflicts; others, Langreck said, couldn’t come because they wouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID.

“There’s a pretty long history of distrust of the government and medical fields,” Langreck said. “There were sterilizations happening in the 90s. Like, recently. So there’s a lot of distrust.”

The groups of kids are able to find common experiences in the mundane, everyday stuff, and not just the trauma that the two groups have.

“There’s a lot of overlap between the history and experiences, but also just within the culture of things like respecting your elders and the strong traditions around food,” she said. “We share similarities there.”

Langreck said the group is reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and found a cultural connection there.

“The ghettos and then the concentration camps and stuff like that, we connected to Fort Snelling,” Langreck said. “It was a concentration camp for Dakota people.”

Crimmings said that her students talked about how little they knew of Native American history.

“Our students were interested in learning about another culture,” she said. “None of them knew about anything what Abraham Lincoln did related to Native American community and because they don’t learn about that in public school.

“I got a lot out of it that I’ll be bringing back, and [Langreck and Smokyday] did too, and so as educators, it’s important for us as well. It’s a unique experience, and it’s a different way to see the Holocaust Museum. I’ve never seen the Holocaust Museum through the lens of the Native American community.”

A group of first-time visitors

Hanging up overlooking the main floor of the museum is a quote from Elie Wiesel: “The museum is not an answer; it’s a question.” That resonated with the two teachers and a handful of students from the Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis, who were all making their first trips to the museum. 

“We have lots of questions,” said Kate Hennessy Fisk, a teacher at Wellstone. “I’ve been a world history teacher for a long time. And I’ve done work on Holocaust studies. And I’m convinced it needs to be part of the curriculum. But it’s always a challenge when I have to teach a one year class and how much to zoom in on. And so coming here, is a reminder this is worthwhile.“

Hennessy Fisk said that the visit to the museum underscores many of the issues of the times we live in now.

“The denial of history or patterns continuing around the lack of international cooperation on the  status of refugees,” she said. “This story is important on its own, right. But it also it connects to other stories and experiences that are still happening in the world today. I’m just walking through the exhibit making those connections, as well as be living within this story.

Original participants

For almost as long as the JCRC’s trip has been happening, Minneapolis South High School has been sending students. Their participation is supported by the Kelen Family Foundation; Irwin Kelen had a relationship with Neil Anderson, a teacher at the school, and the foundation’s relationship continues with the school.

Macy Ashby, the South teacher who led this year’s group, has also been the previous seven times. Ashby teaches a genocide studies class at the school.

“There’s a ton of information in the museum and it’s content that I’ve been teaching and that I spend a lot of time with,” Ashby said. “But I come across new things that I see, or things that stand out.”

Ashby said her students’ self-directed learning also helps in picking up new information.

“Sometimes it’s something that a student did a project on, and that specifically is relevant to something that they were talking about, and I see it in a different light even if it’s the fact that I already knew about,” Ashby said. 

Ashby acknowledges that a genocide studies class is not something usually seen at a high school, but she said that a class like that can give the students a different way of viewing the world.

‘They’re able to really see a connection between history and today: When we talk about the Holocaust, and then we talk about antisemitism today, or we talk about historical genocides and then talk about genocides that are happening today,” Ashby said. “They’re able to really make those connections and see that here’s something that happened in history, but here’s something that’s still happening and being able to see certain patterns and ways that things escalate.

“It really has been, over the years, something that I see them coming into this understanding of how things fit together in the world. And that’s really awesome to see.”