Rebecca Dupas always begins her tours of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with questions for students. “Why do we start with this image?” she’ll ask at the fourth-floor entrance to the permanent exhibition. Standing before photos from the 1945 liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, she points out shadows, juxtapositions, paradoxes — a half-dressed figure with the haggard face of a middle-age man and the spindly legs of a child.
They enter Holocaust history where American soldiers entered it, she’ll say, as she begins to introduce students slowly to industrial dehumanization and mass murder; to the philosophical underpinnings of the the Nazi Final Solution.
The petite African American woman, in her dark denims and patent-leather flats, seems scarcely more than a student herself. And she remembers the student she once was when she visited the museum for the first time, then came back, then took classes, then led tours, and now works there full time and sometimes writes poems about survivors.
Nearly 20 years ago, the museum began the Bringing the Lessons Home program in an effort to make Holocaust history relevant to young people in inner-city Washington. Twenty years from now, Holocaust survivors may all be dead and what was lived history will pass into distance with only artifacts left behind.
Whether Holocaust history will matter deeply, when survivors can no longer give it voice, is a source of reflection as the museum marks its 20th anniversary this week.
People such as Dupas play a central role in that.
Dupas, 31, is now a coordinator of leadership programs for the museum, but she sometimes still gives tours, as she did in March when she posted an invitation on Facebook for friends to visit. Her knowledge of the permanent collection extends not just to key places and dates and people, but also to a recognition of how long students need to pause at the Tower of Faces and where they’ll cry. It extends to the the realization that while she can draw obvious modern-day parallels, students have to make their own links. It’s how the history becomes personal.
She points out Nazi charts on racial superiority and images of Jewish-only benches. She used to point out “Colored Only” similarities, but stopped. “More often than not, someone will say, ‘Just like the South, or civil rights,’ ” she says.
In a section on radio propaganda, students cite the centrality of local urban stations like WPGC or WKYS to their own lives and invoke modern radio programs that broadcast hate talk. “The more sophisticated groups understand that there’s still propaganda going on. My job is to set up the possibility of that connection. It will click in now, or it will click in later.”
Dupas was born in Louisiana and moved to Prince George’s County with her mother, a correctional officer, and sister, who owns a day care, when her parents split up. She has lived in the District, Prince George’s and Baltimore. After graduating from Towson University, where she studied English and secondary education, she taught high school literature before joining the museum full time last year. She’d learned about the Holocaust Museum as a junior at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, and the following year she applied for the BTLH program. There were only two paragraphs about the Holocaust in the history books “and I just had so many questions,” Dupas says.
“Every Tuesday or Thursday, once a week for 12 weeks, I would take the Metro to the museum and we would have classes in the morning.” Students had to tour their families through the museum to graduate. That summer, she attended the museum’s Summer Youth Leadership Seminar, where they met up with youth organizations from around the country. She felt honored to be selected, to be associated with a prestigious museum. She was given a travel stipend for the commute, and at 18, began touring visitors as a part-time ambassador, interacting with survivors and creating artwork from it. Her artwork was poems.
She worked as a tour guide, in visitor services and archives, and as a part-time program coordinator. While at Towson, she coordinated a series of programs between the Black Student Union and Hillel. “That was the very thing I learned to do working at the museum,” she says. To “use the history to have a broader conversation about human relationships.”
She has sometimes had to answer questions about her involvement with the museum, which seems to some inorganic. “The question would always be, ‘Why the Holocaust?’ I do recall someone saying why not the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.”
The answer, Dupas says, is because the Holocaust Museum offered her the opportunity.
The museum revolves around its muscular collection, narrative power and starkly evocative architecture, which transformed the museum landscape. It is little changed in its 20-year history, says Sara Bloomfield, director since 1999. It is one of Washington’s most popular destinations, with over 1.6 million visitors annually and nearly 35 million visitors since it opened, including more than 9 million schoolchildren and 91 heads of state.
It includes more than 17,000 artifacts and has 26,200 historical photographs and images available on its Web site with a goal of digitizing millions of pages of Holocaust documentation. Almost a decade ago, images of Alexander Katan, a dwarf from Rotterdam, first alive, then his skeleton, were removed at the request of his family; the only time such a request has been made, Bloomfield says. She calls it a reflection of the constant tension between the museum’s need to memorialize the dead and to educate the living.
The famous quote by German theologian Martin Niemoller, which begins “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out . . . ,” had been in the middle of the exhibit, but was moved to the end, before the Hall of Remembrance. “We want to challenge our visitors to ask not what would I have done, but what will I do?” says Bloomfield.
Bringing the Lessons Home now includes 76 schools in the District, Maryland and Virginia. More than 2,300 students have participated in its Summer Youth Leadership Program and 650 students have served as ambassadors. “This program actually leads into where we’re heading next,” Bloomfield says. Nazis were young; society change agents are often young. “That’s part of the important premise of this program. They are going to shape the future and make changes, or not.”
Dupas’s story is special, Bloomfield says. “I knew her as a young person, she came back, then for our 20th anniversary she read that poem.”
Dupas has read her poem “An Unlikely Voice,” about her connectedness to Holocaust history, during the four-city anniversary tour, which culminates in June. She’ll read it again Monday at the National Tribute to survivors and World War II veterans. “It’s one of the moments you think you are the luckiest person in the world to work at this museum and work with this person.”
People tell Dupas she works at “too sad of a place.”
She knows people “who don’t have an interest in visiting this museum because it appears to be an institution solely for Jews and their experience” she says, but it’s not. It’s universal, and eternal. “It is an introduction to what happens when people do not act,” Dupas says. “It allows people to understand where they sit in the story.”
Aysha Hoque, 16, a sophomore at West Springfield High School and a graduate of BTLH, agrees. Her family is Muslim but Hoque says no one has ever given her a hard time about her participation in the program. “I think it’s relatable and universal, and everyone can learn from the Holocaust,” Hoque says.
A few weeks ago, visitor services representative Jordan Allen, 33, talked to Dupas near the bag check. The Duke Ellington High School grad was in the 1997 Bringing Home the Lessons class. “Coming out of D.C., I got the backlash,” he says. “Why are you taking this class when it’s not your history?” But his special ed teacher knew of his fascination with history. “I can say it is my history now because I’m sharing it,” Allen says. “I’m bringing awareness to genocide.”
Dupas has been writing poetry since middle school; about friendship, family, love. She hosts poetry programs in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, and has released three poetry CDs. She has written about survivors, and a Navajo woman she met outside her office a few weeks ago. She still sometimes gets emotional in the museum. She recently heard the calling of names in the Hall of Remembrance. She thought about Holocaust victims, and African American ancestors whose names have been lost.
At an August 2010 tribute to Stephen T. Johns, a security guard killed at the museum in 2009 by an avowed racist, Dupas read a poem she wrote titled “Light Up the Darkness.” It evoked slavery, concentration camps and ended like this:
“Keep looking toward the light
Because the evil of this world doesn’t take a day off
And you must decide
Remind yourself with every stride
If evil can move with such determination
. . . so can I.”
The exhibition “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust” opens Tuesday and runs through 2018. The museum is also hosting two days of sold-out events to mark its 20th anniversary, including a National Tribute dinner on Sunday when the Elie Wiesel Award will be presented to Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, on behalf of World War II veterans, and Polish Resistance fighter Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, on behalf of those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. On Monday, former president Bill Clinton and Founding Chairman Elie Wiesel will speak at the National Tribute Ceremony Commemoration ceremony. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW. 202-488-0400. www.ushmm.org.