When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum first opened in 1993, there were no tours of the Permanent Exhibit. After my fellow survivor, Susan Berlin, and I came to volunteer at the Museum we wanted to conduct tours for the many high school students who visited the Permanent Exhibition. We met with three staff people in the Education Department and they gave workshops on how to conduct educational tours of the Permanent Exhibition for a few volunteers and some staff. This was a significant beginning for many tours to follow.
After I had given a few tours, a tall, thoughtful young man joined our tours. His name was James Fleming, and he was 17 years old, a senior in high school. He seemed to me very serious and wanted to learn everything he could about the Holocaust. The Museum was starting a new program called Bringing the Lessons Home, which would introduce high school students in the Washington, DC, area to Holocaust history. He was the first high school ambassador for our Museum to graduate from that program. Then he went off to college.
I was happy to see James when he decided to come back to our Museum after graduating from college. He turned out to be well read and cultured, and he earned the position on our staff as the program coordinator of Youth and Community Initiatives. Now he brings hundreds of high school students to the Museum for guided tours and discussions. He says that he is “making it his calling to make the lessons of the Holocaust resonate with the next generation.”
Now, the Bringing the Lessons Home program introduces thousands of Washington, DC, area high school students to Holocaust history each year. The program also enables the most inspired of those students to become tour guides and ambassadors through their high school years and beyond. These ambassadors then share the history and its relevance with their families, friends, and communities.
More than 700 of them have gone on to be program ambassadors, giving tours of the Museum and sharing what they learned about the Holocaust. Their ages range from 16 to 38 years old.
I was excited to be invited to their first reunion, marking the 20th anniversary of the program. It took place in the Meyerhoff Theater. There, the past two decades were recalled and honored by our Museum director, the director of the Leadership Programs, and James Fleming, the program coordinator of Youth and Community Initiatives. I was so proud of James, just the way I feel about my grandchildren. I could not stop smiling as I was sitting in my chair in the theater. I know that my old friend, Susan Berlin, who had passed away, would have been proud. In the audience were many of James’s ambassadors who follow in his footsteps. Perhaps some of them will work for the Museum at some future time. Our first teachers, as well as many who are on the staff in the education department of the Museum were there also. The donors of the program sat in the front and we applauded them loudly.
After the wonderful program, which included not only fine speeches, but also numerous films of the ambassadors in action, there was a marvelous reception in the Hall of Witness where many of us reminisced about times past.
Like the Holocaust survivors of the Museum’s Speaker’s Bureau, these ambassadors will have the opportunity to teach people to be proactive and not simply onlookers when they see injustice taking place. When entire classrooms come to the Museum, I have seen these ambassadors connect and establish a special relationship with their peers so that everybody listens and cares. The ambassadors work as witnesses and want to testify. They are moved by what the Museum is trying to teach and want everyone to understand what prejudice can do to people. This experience at the Museum has changed them. They have become articulate and can speak in public. They are our torchbearers and will be able to draw people’s attention to the importance of the past and the lessons we can learn from it to better understand the present and, therefore, make better decisions about the future. They and the Museum will be here when the survivors are all gone. I thank them for being our ambassadors.
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