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March 30, 2011

Trying to touch a nightmare

Middle school students create Holocaust museum

ROYSE CITY — Students at Royse City Middle School took their research project a bit further than normal when delving into the story of the Holocaust during World War II. The students created a museum within the walls of a portable building behind the school.

And the reviews coming back from visitors are quite high for the efforts made by the students.

Old newspaper reprints line the walls of the portable building, and the German slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) hangs over the door, much the same way the Jews saw those words when arriving at Auschwitz.

One of the more noted features of the exhibit is a small closet renovated to resemble the inside of a railroad cattle car, like the ones used to transport massive numbers of Jews on trains in Europe.

Charlie Didear mans that post, explaining to visitors the true dimensions of a real car, and explaining the process used to move the Jews in large numbers.

“They packed them in just like cattle,” Didear said. “Only I think it was a little worse than cattle. With cattle, at least most of the time they would feed them well.”

As many as 23 students have squeezed into the replica railroad car. With the reduced dimensions, 23 can be an uncomfortable crowd. Students are quick to point out the real thing was even more cramped.

On the opposite side of the room is another strange display. An aquarium full of hair rests next to two pillows, with a sign indicating the pillow-stuffing was also human hair. This display noted the products made by the Germans with actual bodily remnants of the Jews who had gone through the gas chamber.

“My hair used to be down to here,” motions Julia Lynch with her hand held horizontally across her chest. Lynch, like many other students at RCMS, donated her own hair to the project. She greeted visitors with a short-cropped hairstyle, what was left after the extracurricular activities. Motioning to a glass display case containing an empty metal can that used to contain the poisonous chemical Zyklon-B, she adds that it was manufactured by a well-known pharmaceutical company.

“It used to be made by Bayer,” Lynch said. “That’s one of the little side things we learned.”

The museum was the collaboration of two teachers: Kelly Elliott, an eighth grade pre-AP English teacher, and Victoria Downs, who teaches seventh grade Gifted and Talented students. The project began with research and ended with deciding how to convey that research to others.

It was more than a month in planning and included field trips to the Holocaust museum in Dallas.

The tables of the museum are lined with old photographs, scale models of concentration camp buildings, and reflections on that chapter in history by the students themselves. One display compares the meals eaten at a concentration camp; one representing the food eaten by the German soldiers, and another representing the daily ration afforded Jews. On the opposite wall, wooden boxes form a graph showing how many were lost in each year. The graph for 1942 stands prominently taller than the other years with 3,159,000 victims.

“That was the killing year,” said Madison Runnels motioning to the graph.

“I knew the basics of it,” Runnels said when asked how much she knew of the Holocaust before going into the school project. “But I didn’t know how many it really was. Six million people, it was just very sad.”

The museum was toured by students at RCMS as well as being held open for after-school visits by the community on four evenings.

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