Holocaust museum program named for slain guard raises teens' consciousness

Teens learning history's lessons are reminded that "racism and anti-Semitism are really alive and well," program manager Arthur Brown says.
By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010

When Wendy Holland heard that a security guard was gunned down at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last June, she didn't think much of it. She saw the clip on the evening news and went back to life as a 17-year-old in Prince George's County: advanced classes, sports practices, hanging out with friends.

Then, two weeks later, her principal came on during morning announcements at Crossland High School and called for a moment of silence for Stephen Tyrone Johns, explaining to about 2,000 students that the man who was shot and killed by an admitted white supremacist inside the museum was a 1988 graduate of the Temple Hills high school.

"That's when it hit me," Holland said. "That man went to this very school. And he died doing his job, protecting those people."

Until then, for Holland, the Holocaust was a few days in history class, a lot of people dead somewhere in Europe. And it was the name of a museum in downtown Washington that she had never visited.

But during that moment of silence, Holland recalls asking herself, "What was Johns really protecting?" when he stood in front of a rifle wielded by an 88-year-old professed anti-Semite named James W. von Brunn.

So when the opportunity came along, Holland applied to a youth leadership program that the Holocaust Museum has named for Johns, a program that asks students to "reach out to others and promote human dignity."

While her friends went shopping and to the movies this spring, Holland went to classes every Saturday for 13 weeks, studying Hitler's rise to power, the origins of anti-Semitism and present-day genocides. She learned the facts and the museum's nooks well enough to lead tours of the permanent exhibition: history lessons imbued with a 17-year-old's emotional delivery.

"Look at that synagogue," she said while giving a tour with Crossland classmate Lexus Griffin last week, pointing to a photo of a ravaged German temple. "All that beauty was destroyed, and for what? Because of pure hatred."

When school ended, Holland joined 49 other students from across the region for a summer internship that, in its 14th year, was renamed in honor of Johns. The students discussed the meaning of service and community, toured the FBI training center in Quantico and learned about national security and law enforcement.

"What was he really protecting?" is a question Holland can now answer at length as she escorts visitors around the museum. "I could tell you pretty much anything about the Holocaust," she says, tossing her braided hair over her shoulder.

She shows visitors photo displays of the Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps and railroad cars such as the ones in which Jews were taken to be killed. She walks across the foyer near the spot where Johns bled to death. Even the museum's freshest wound has become a part of its basic lesson.

"It teaches these kids that racism and anti-Semitism are really alive and well," said Arthur Brown, the program's manager.

Nearly 30 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 1993, but for many students who live within a few miles, the institution and the history it commemorates remain poorly understood.

"They come in knowing a minuscule amount," said James Fleming, an alumnus of the youth leadership program's first class in 1994.

For Fleming, the program has turned into a career. Since 2003, he's worked at the museum, training young docents and reaching out to local high schools. "I saw parallels between my history -- the history of blacks in America -- and this history," he said. "I made a lifelong commitment."

The program brings teenage Jews, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists into the same classrooms. "We've got students from parts of the world where people don't believe the Holocaust happened," said Lynn Williams, the museum's director of community partnerships.

Holland, who will return to Crossland for her senior year in September, intends to maintain her connection to the museum, a place that barely registered with her a year ago. Johns, she said, "didn't just die protecting a building or the people inside. He died protecting an idea, a memory . . . something I want to help preserve."

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