In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 8th graders at Gidley School in El Monte City School District carefully placed Stolpersteine across their campus with the names of Holocaust victims and survivors. Students then spent the day educating their fellow classmates on the Holocaust and the specific people engraved on their squares.
Stolperstein, which literally translates to “stumbling stone”, is a 10×10 centimeter brass stone used to remember victims of National Socialism between 1933 through 1945. Students supplemented stones with gold sheets of paper, writing the name, birth date, and death or liberation date of specific individuals. The project was introduced and led by Gidley’s eighth grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. David Castillo. He was inspired to start this project after seeing actual stolpersteine on cobbled sidewalks in Berlin during an educational academy that focused on Jewish life before and after the Holocaust.
The purpose of Gidley’s stolperstein project was to let students reflect on the fates of Holocaust victims, ensure sensitivity to human rights crimes, analyze anti-semetic propaganda, explore the importance of tolerance, and create empathy. “There were definite ‘OMG’ moments from students,” said Mr. Castillo. “Some found it amazing that people actually survived while others were caught up in [the] morbid lottery, where their featured Jewish person either sought refuge, were arrested, liberated, or in most cases, murdered.”
Eighth graders did not parse details and many recognized the importance of openly talking about these historical events with their peers. “I think it’s really important that we learn about both the past and other cultures,” said Gidley 8th grader, Giovanni Avilas. Classmate, Leah Gonzalez added, “The Holocaust is a reminder for us, not just to know about important historical facts, but to learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again.”
Many students were quick to point out similarities of propaganda and hate speech used against Jews during Nazi Germany to similar hate spread on social media. “Right now, I’m seeing a lot of anti-Asian and anti-Hispanic hate,” said 8th grader Anthony Altamirano. Giovanni believes lack of awareness is the root of intolerance, “I think [people] aren’t learning about other cultures and you see that reflected on social media.”
Mr. Castillo agreed, “These types of cultural projects are important because they promote diversity. Differences should be celebrated and diversity needs to be internalized…my biggest takeaway from today was the installment of empathy in my students. I hope they are able to travel back in time and put themselves in the shoes of European Jews to understand that events like the Holocaust begin with simple blaming and name-calling.”
To conclude their Holocaust unit, Gidley eighth graders will be taking a virtual tour of the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, hear from an actual living survivor, and work on a cross cutlural project with students from Israel.