MY CHAT WITH 8TH GRADERS ON AUSCHWITZ
By Noemi Koji Santana
For the past 15 years, I have been involved in one capacity or another with a small cluster of community-grown charter schools in the Bronx, New York. I served on their founding Board of Trustees and later, in my capacity as consultant, helped develop their business office, lead them in a strategic planning process that set the foundation for their network administration, as well as managing their rebranding. Through all of this, I have seen them grow from a Kindergarten to fifth grade school to three schools that will eventually all be K through 8th grade.
The student body is comprised largely of inner-city Latino children, from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico Honduras and other Central and South American countries. There is also a growing number of new African immigrants. The rigorous curriculum has increased the chances for success for many of these children, as they graduate and find themselves in some of the best high schools of the City of New York. Because the schools are small with only two classes per each grade and also due to low to no attrition, we get to follow these students from Kinder through graduation. Students many times refer to me as the picture lady since I am often called upon to record school life and events with my camera.
I also get to dialogue with faculty in their professional development room or during lunch breaks. It was one such occasion that created a unique opportunity for me to be a guest speaker for an eighth grade class, recently. The Social Studies teacher, a young, warm, funny and vivacious first-generation Dominican who can often be found in the gym during recess playing basketball with his students, was talking to me about the unit on the Holocaust he was currently teaching and I mentioned the fact that I had been to Auschwitz four times. His eyes lit up and it didn’t take but a minute for him to extend an invitation for me to speak to one of his classes about my experience.
Their letters reflect the chat better than anything I could say.
Noemi Koji Santana
Dear Mrs. Santana,
Thank you for your visit and talking about your experiences of visiting the Auschwitz camp. I have learned much more about the feelings of the generations of the Germans and Jewish people.
They feel ashamed, embarrassed of what their grandparents or parents have gone through or did. It’s very depressing because people don’t want to talk about what had happened to them, they don’t even look you in the eye.
Also by looking at the pictures, the camps were horrifying; it was depressing to the Jewish people. This relates to a novel named Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand and the Japanese internment camps because they were also depressed, lonely, and felt out of place.
Two places that caught my attention were the forest and the Ash Pond. It helped me visualize how clueless the Jewish people were and innocent about their upcoming death. It also tells me how the ashes of the people were thrown in the pond because they didn’t seem important but in actuality every single one of them were.
Your experience helped me learn that I should always “sing” because singing keeps hope, light and faith up, no matter the situation we’re in. Thank you for sharing your experiences of the Auschwitz camp.
May 24, 2016
Dear Mrs. Santana,
I enjoyed your speech about Auschwitz. Thank you for teaching us about how Jews felt and how it would feel if we went and just looked at Auschwitz. I thought it was interesting that the people who were descendants of the Nazis almost felt the same as the descendants of the Jews.
Your visit and how you showed us what was going on and how you felt actually visiting Auschwitz makes me look at the Holocaust in a different way than before. It makes me realize that not only Jews feel sad and depressed about what happened. It turns out that what happened in the Holocaust affected both sides and now they both are feeling the pain and guilt of the Holocaust.
May 24, 2016
Thank you for changing my perspective and point of view on the Holocaust.
It was great to see actual pictures of how everything looked and how these people had no privacy whatsoever. I’ve always read about the Holocaust and seen movies but never had anyone speak about it in the manner that you did. You made me not only see the bad but the good. You allowed me to understand that those who died had a happy life before all this and were joyful overall. You made me see how even if these people are gone their memory and braveness is still with us.
I used to think when the Holocaust was over everything was fine … well, that wasn’t the case. I remember you saying there was a small town that had a population of 2 million and that went down to 200 Jewish people. I also remember when you spoke of your neighbor that would bake cookies for your children and how she had an opportunity to live a life in the U.S, a chance not many had. It’s interesting How her family was in the camps and they would write to her until one day the letters just stopped coming one by one. I admit it was a lot to take in and can’t imagine how she handled it.
Thank you for spending your time to inform us about the Holocaust and teaching us that it’s not something that should be forgotten or ashamed of but something that should be known and spoken about.
May 24, 2016
Dear Ms. Santana,
When you came to my class and spoke about your visit to the Auschwitz camp in Poland you taught me a lot. Instead of just reading articles and seeing black and white photos I got colored pictures and a personal story of someone who visited. I learned that there was a pond (ash pond) where they would put the remains of people that died. Also they would put candles along the side to commemorate the deaths of the people in the camp. When they would eat bread and soup no one wanted to be first or last. If you were first you would get water , and if you were last you would get sand because they wouldn’t clean the dishes. I never knew that and thanks to your visit I learned that. They had a small stove and heater. Also the bunks were wooden and crowded with about 6 people. I can’t believe that. When you told us that my mouth dropped. But what made me very sad was that change in population. I still can’t believe it went from two million to only two hundred.
As you were speaking I started to think of my ELA class. I can connect your experience to the article of Mine Okubo. She was a Japanese American but she was also put into a camp, an internment camp. Now I thought of how they were treated and more of how Mine Okubo was treated in that camp.
When you came and spoke to us I could see your feelings of when you visited in your eyes. When you were speaking I saw your eyes getting worried and I was shocked to know how long ago your visit was and how it still affects you. When you spoke to us about you sleeping in their S.S. camp where the Germans slept my mouth dropped. I am also very proud to hear of that group that you’re in. As you explained it I saw an interest in it. But it seems tough to surround yourself in that horrific past. I don’t know how you did it.
Now on to the pictures you showed us. The children looked so young. I can’t imagine being a parent and knowing what can happen to my child. I can’t believe it. Marion, I believe that’s how you spell his name, it was great that you were able to speak to him. That was a great feeling, right? The loyalty that runs through that camp is unbelievable knowing the consequences. I love it how someone sacrificed themselves. He was like Louie Zamperini. He is a runner from the book Unbroken which I am reading in ELA. The prisoner who hides the letters was a rebel just like Louie Zamperini and trying to hold on to that last little bit of dignity he has left.
I am truly grateful that you took the time out of your day to share with us your story of visiting the camp.
Noemi Koji Santana was born in the Bronx, New York. She has worked in many industries both in Puerto Rico and in New York in health and education. She has contributed to Family Life Academy Charter Schools for the past 15 years as Board member, as consultant, film director, author, Director of Communications, Marketing, and as a consultant. She and her husband, Sensei Francisco “Paco” Lugoviña, have brought their Zen practice to the streets of New York, Springfield, Massachusetts, the countryside of Normandy, France, to Tibet, and to the death camp at Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland. Noemi was given transmission as Dharma Holder by Sensei Sheila Hixon in November of May 24, 2016