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Ginnie Graham: Taking teenager to Tulsa's Holocaust Center prompts deeper discussions

Ginnie Graham: Taking teenager to Tulsa's Holocaust Center prompts deeper discussions

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My teenage daughter was stunned to see the Ku Klux Klan robe, Nazi uniform and mannequin of khaki trousers and white golf shirt holding a tiki torch.

It’s the first exhibit inside the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art‘s Sanditen/Kaiser Holocaust Center. The center expanded into a multistory renovated space in November.

Hate links the three outfits from different eras. The last shows how bigotry doesn’t need a uniform: Darkness can lurk inside anyone. Looks can be deceiving.

My daughter got that quickly, without explanation, and stood staring.

Before the pandemic, middle school students in Tulsa Public Schools and other schools took field trips to the museum, with a focus on its Holocaust Center. It became unsafe to conduct these visits until a vaccine began curbing the virus.

It was among many things kids missed out on during the public health emergency.

Things are different now. The museum is open with some restrictions, and summer is a good time for grownups to take youths for a visit.

With the political rhetoric ratcheting up to inappropriate evocations of the Holocaust, it would do everyone good to reflect in this center.

Recently, my daughter and I were given a tour by Director of Holocaust Education Nancy A. Pettus, joined by community volunteers Charlotte Schumann and Yolanda Charney.

Education remains central in the renovated space, with architecture and design subtly evoking emotion.

Nazi flags and other emblems of power from the Third Reich are displayed in cases on the floor, not worth elevating to eye level.

Everyday items that would have been in a typical Jewish home before the Holocaust hang on a two-story wall upon entry. They include dolls, a chess set, shoes and a teddy bear. Some things, like a prayer shawl and menorah, led my daughter to ask questions about religious traditions.

We had the perfect guides to explain tikkun olam, meaning to “repair the world,” practices of atonement and the ritual of handwriting the Torah.

“What we want people to know is that they had lives before the Holocaust, had lives like everyone else,” Pettus said. “These are items of a free Jewish population.”

By the second floor, we were peering out from behind bars onto that wall; those everyday items out of reach.

“Whoa!” was all my daughter could manage.

Information is presented in text, graphics and videos featuring Tulsa Holocaust survivors recorded through the years. Only two are still living.

It can be a lot. My normally loquacious daughter was quiet, soaking it in.

Occasionally, Pettus would ask questions to gauge what my daughter already knew. Most students read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and there are culture touchpoints in movies and videos.

Nowadays, kids hear Holocaust references thrown out as part of political disagreements, blurring the horrific history with modern political partisanship. Sorting that out comes from Holocaust education.

The first floor is dedicated to the rise of the Nazi political party with propaganda as the weapon of choice. Loyalists were gained by leaning on misinformation, centuries-old myths and hateful cartoons.

It wasn’t just the posters and leaflets of Jewish people with exaggerated physical features. The insidious narrative lived in children’s books, adult literature and education textbooks.

“I didn’t know that it was a build-up,” my daughter said. “It didn’t go from zero to 100. It wasn’t like concentration camps just happened.”

A wall features one of the 1930s German student-led book burnings, rooted in nationalism to cleanse the country of Jewish authors and literature on political movements.

A photograph of students in the straight-armed salute lies under the 1822 Heinrich Heine quote, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

That was the first photo my daughter took. She’s a prolific reader.

The second photo she took was of the poignant art installation depicting Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, located along the stairwell. Artists Tracey and Rick Bewley of Oklahoma City hung shards of colored glass above a tattered synagogue scene.

“It feels weird to say it’s beautiful, but it is beautiful and sad,” my daughter said.

It faced a bench labeled for Jews only, and around the corner hung a photo of Jesse Owens winning the gold medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany.

That took our conversation into the parallels with the American Black civil rights movement.

The upstairs focuses on how the Nazi party used its power for genocide, oppression and totalitarianism. Among the items: badges different prisoners wore in the camps, an SS officer’s diamond ring, a Zyklon B cannister and a bookcase hiding a photo of the Anne Frank secret staircase.

Toward the end, photos show some of the resistance fighters and helpers.

Pettus pointed to Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker and nurse who smuggled children out of the Warsaw ghetto. She was caught by the Gestapo and sentenced to death but escaped after an underground network bribed officers for her release.

“We have to leave kids knowing about the rescuers,” Pettus said.

Schumann added, “Many survivors were helped by righteous Gentiles.”

That segued into the breathtaking gallery of the “Kinderstone” project. For years, youths visiting the museum were given a stone with the name and age of a child who died in the camps. Docents often made sure the visitor was the same age as the child on the stone.

The many decorated stones have been turned into art displays of statues. Seeing the names of 13-year-olds who died so cruelly made a lasting impression on my 13-year-old.

Going through the museum with her opened up discussions we otherwise would not have had. Nothing was too graphic or too heavy to handle.

Our wonderful guides added personal stories about Tulsa’s Holocaust survivors and local soldiers who were liberators. The museum has since opened the Oklahoma World War II Veterans Memorial.

Schumann and Charney linked this past to the hurt they feel when hearing people conflate public health mask wearing or social media fact-checking to that genocide.

Bigotry and hate continue to exist. But using distorted references to the Holocaust in describing people with whom you disagree doesn’t address those.

Everyone should call out hate, but don’t confuse a person's being wrong with being a Nazi.

This tour was one of the most interesting, introspective and informative experiences I’ve shared with my daughter, and it's one other parents ought to have this summer.

Featured video: Mickel Yantz, director of collections and exhibitions at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, on the museum's new Holocaust exhibit


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