Nothing prepared Ariel Villaruel for what she saw at Auschwitz, the 15-year-old said last week, only a few days after returning from Eastern Europe.
“When you read about it, you don’t think it would ever have that much of an effect on you,” she explained. “You feel sad for a while. But when you see it, you feel different. It’s horrifying.”
Villaruel, whose family is from Trinidad and Venezuela, traveled to Eastern Europe with seven classmates as part of a trip organized by their global history teacher at the High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice, a public school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Their trip gained attention in early March as articles appeared in the New York Daily News and The Jewish Week highlighting their vigorous efforts to raise money for the tour — a goal they reached two days before their scheduled departure, said their teacher, Christine Fryer.
“We went down to the wire,” said Fryer, who proposed the trip, an 11-day journey that began March 26. Fryer estimated that $12,000 was collected as a result of The Jewish Week article, more than half of the nearly $20,000 cost of the trip.
Like Villaruel, most of the eight students are black, Latino or a mixture of both, with little or no exposure to Holocaust history until they began studying the subject in high school. The eight, all from various inner-city neighborhoods, met with a Holocaust survivor shortly before their trip, a conversation their teacher felt would help prepare them for what they saw.
Jamal McNeil, 14, said he and his classmates visited four other countries in addition to Poland, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany, but that “the only thing that stuck out” in his mind was Auschwitz, especially the piles of baby clothes and baby shoes.
Those piles drove home the point that the Nazis killed infants and toddlers, along with their other victims, said Jamal, whose parents are both from the Virgin Islands. “That could have been your sister, your brother or you.”
Similarly, what stuck out for Amanda Remy, 15, were the piles of human hair — an exhibit that Remy, whose father is from the Virgin Islands and mother from Alabama, couldn’t bring herself to look at. In her mind’s eye, she said, that hair “was on someone’s head.”
Having seen the worst of what humanity is capable of, though, the students returned to New York with a new sense of purpose, Fryer said, adding that the teens are already planning to discuss their trip with young, middle-school students.
“I think it’s our responsibility to pass along our knowledge,” said Sami Gashi, 14, an Albanian-American and the only Muslim among the eight students. “Maybe the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if people were learning from history.”
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