Teacher’s wish comes true: Students visit Holocaust Museum

Jun. 10, 2014 @ 10:34 AM

“I feel that the threads of our lives are intentionally woven,” said Vivian Connell. “I’m feeling lucky.”

Some of Connell’s luck comes from unlikely sources, people who used to be strangers who wanted to help the Phoenix Academy teacher take her students to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“I’m gratified and relieved,” she said. “But I’m also really hopeful that it (making the trip annually) will continue. I’m feeling weaker but it’s easier to accept the disease now that we’ve taken the trip.”
Connell was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and may not be able to work another year. She wanted to give her students a trip that would permanently affect their lives.
What began as a trip to the Holocaust Museum grew into much more as people across the country caught wind of Connell’s efforts and of her urgency.
An anonymous West Coast donor offered to pay the remaining balance of the trip following $10,000 in donations. One donor provided $25 credits for the students in the Holocaust Museum gift shop, while another donor has offered to pay for the entire trip next year.
National Archivist and former Duke University Librarian and Vice Provost of Library Affairs David Ferriero gave the group a private tour of the National Archives prior to its opening and showed them Holocaust-related documents, including the original Nuremberg Laws and photos of the artwork stolen by Nazis during WWII and the Monuments Men.
The group also received a guided tour of the Holocaust Museum. One of the docents was a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. She was featured in one of the videos playing in the museum.
Erika Ventura, Savannah Cox and Adarius Kelley-Byrd were among the students on the trip. All three agreed it was an experience they’ll never forget.
“From going there, I feel like every one of us grew up a bit,” said Savannah Cox. “We all wanted to be respectful because of how many lives were lost, that they died and to think about what could have happened if someone had done something.”
“It was a humbling experience,” said Adarius Kelley-Byrd. “It made me realize that it’s not always a time to play around. That was a life-changing experience.”
Ventura said that the USHMM helped her understand the Holocaust more clearly and that “the museum wasn’t an answer, it was a question. Would you say something if this was happening?”
Also on the trip were several Karan refugees, who saw much of their lives reflected in the Holocaust Museum.
“I saw my life had a similar to the experience of the Jews – that the Karen people experience ethnic violence and genocide in Burma,” Wah Tee Ku said through a translator. “Comparing the life I saw in the museum, the Karen -- the ethnic groups in Burma – we were faced with rape, forced labor and death, so it reminded me a lot of this when I saw the museum.”
One thing that resonated with many of them was the display of the shoes of Holocaust victims who were killed.
“One thing still remaining in my mind are the many, many empty shoes of the victims, because these shoes each belonged to someone who was killed – someone who was innocent,” said Eh Kaw Mu. “This affected me because I think of my own people (the Karen) in Burma where I have seen the empty shoes of people who were killed by the Burmese government.”
Veteran Clyde McPherson teaches social studies at Phoenix Academy and served as a chaperone on the trip. The shoes were a reminder for him too.
“The shoes. … Thousands and thousands,” he said. “If you forget about it, it’ll happen again. It resurfaced some memories.”
As she reinforced the importance of remembering, Connell made herself unforgettable. Cox and Ventura said that they wear bracelets that they got from the USHMM to remind them of the lessons they learned on the trip and of Connell.
“She’s an extraordinary person, particularly with our students and their well being,” McPherson said. “She’s been outstanding. I won’t ever forget her.”