Sunday, January 27, 2002

Daniel is a composite figure, but the experiences he represents were very real. By presenting his story in a sensitive way, he can teach children about the Holocaust without scaring them.

That was the mission of educators at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who created “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” with older elementary and middle school students in mind. “Daniel’s Story” is a permanent exhibit at the museum in Southwest Washington that is separate from the brutal images of the main part of the museum.

“We have shaped this exhibit so people can understand and identify with Daniel as a child,” says Shari Rosenstein Werb, director of educational programs at the museum. “People can go through and understand that a terrible thing happened to this boy. Older children and teen-agers can talk about his relationship to his family and his community through events in history and Daniel’s diary.”

Indeed, while the main section of the museum explores the events in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s on a large scale such as images of Germany’s Third Reich and entire Jewish communities that were wiped out “Daniel’s Story” takes the suffering of the Holocaust and puts it in terms children ages 8 and older can understand.

Food, for instance, is an important theme in the display. In the late 1930s, Daniel’s prosperous German family had hot soup in the kitchen and cookies in the cookie jar. As they were moved into the Lodz ghetto, they had only old turnips to eat. At the end of the display, Daniel talks about the moldy bread he had to eat at the concentration camp.

Visitors walk through Daniel’s life, beginning in 1933. At the start of the exhibit, there is a nice house, and Daniel has his own bedroom with books, toys and sports equipment. A little farther along, it is evident that Adolf Hitler has come to power, and Jews’ freedoms are restricted. This is shown in a “No Jews Allowed” bakery window and park bench and by the worried entries in Daniel’s diary, which visitors are invited to read at many stops along the exhibit’s path.

Daniel eventually writes about how he has been kicked out of school and is forbidden to use the public swimming pool.

“They hated anyone who wasn’t like them,” Daniel says of the Nazis. “That meant us, because we were Jewish.”

In 1938, Daniel’s family was moved into cramped, dirty quarters in the Lodz ghetto. In 1941, visitors learn, the family was taken to Auschwitz.

“My worst fear has come true,” Daniel writes. “They are taking us away.”

Rather than have visitors walk through a model of a concentration camp, exhibit designers let them see the bleakness from behind a fence and listen to Daniel tell the story through a voice recording and film. He talks of how everything was taken away, how his head was shaved, how he “worked like a slave” and was always hungry and cold.

Visitors also learn that Daniel and his father were separated from his mother and sister and that they survived the camp, but the women did not.

A great deal of discussion with teachers, children and psychiatrists was done in developing an exhibit that would teach but not frighten, Ms. Werb says. All along the way, Daniel’s diaries and photos explain what visitors are about to see. That way, if the exhibit becomes too powerful, visitors can walk fast or skip a portion.

At the end of the display, which takes about 30 minutes to see, children are offered paper and markers to write down their feelings about Daniel and his story. Some recent ones are posted on the wall.

“I could never have done what Daniel did,” one youngster wrote. “He was very brave.”

Said another: “I feel very sad. I think it was very unfair for innocent people to die in such a cruel way.”

Parents and children also can learn about the Holocaust together at the museum’s Family Sundays events. These are free 70-minute hands-on workshops aimed at children ages 9 to 12. Some of the topics include capturing memories through diaries (as Daniel did), recording survivor recollections and using poetry and art to tell a story.

“These projects get people thinking and talking,” Ms. Werb says.

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