Stepping In

July 9, 2014
Students get more than a history lesson at the Virginia Holocaust Museum

A group of students files into the Virginia Holocaust Museum, pausing at the cattle car outside. They walk through rooms rimmed with barbed wire. They crawl through a potato hole modeled after one that Jay Ipson, one of Richmond’s youngest Holocaust survivors, lived in while in hiding with his family. They step into a gas chamber and walk past a crematorium.

They stand in a room lined with black and white photos of faces. These are the faces of people who risked their own lives to save one person, one family, or hundreds of people. And in a nearby room, three of those survivors wait to tell their stories of being saved by a stranger.

This wasn’t just a history lesson for University of Richmond students. Rather, it was a chance to learn what the Holocaust can still teach, 70 years later.

The annual visit to the museum has been a longstanding part of Jewish Life programming on campus. This year, Andrew Goodman, campus rabbi, decided to bring in the Student Development Office to incorporate themes from the campuswide bystander training program, SPIDERS Step Up. The initiative aims to teach students when and how to assist fellow students in potentially dangerous situations, such as excessive drinking, eating disorders, and discrimination.

“When I started thinking about the regular people who were responsible for saving a life, and the regular people who were responsible for doing nothing or hindering people, I realized that there was this opportunity to present with SPIDERS Step Up,” Goodman says. “The program focuses on the seemingly innocuous acts or inaction of different people on campus. It was clear that this was an opportunity to show how what seems like a small risk might be lifesaving, and what seems like a small oversight or the choice of inaction might be disastrous.”

According to Goodman, the museum offers a blank canvas, where objects, content, and docents can frame a conversation specifically for Richmond students. The tour focused on the many victims of the Nazi regime — not just Jews, but gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, and different ethnic and national groups. They also discussed other genocides that are still occurring today.

At first glance, it seems like an extreme comparison.

“Systematic genocide is different from what we see on campus,” Goodman says. “But on campus we feel a sense of security and people are less apt to actually act. When we see someone who’s in a place of peril, how we choose to respond to that matters. If we don’t see these lessons in the Holocaust, we’re not looking hard enough.”

Students on the tour took notice.

“After having the Holocaust framed in this way, and hearing the stories of the survivors, I really thought about how detrimental being a bystander can be,” says Brian Strauss, ’14, the former president of the Jewish student organization Hillel. “While you may not have the power to prevent atrocities equivalent to the Holocaust, you do have the power to do good, and for your student organization members to do good as well.”

Strauss’s experience represents how Goodman hopes to see Jewish life and student development working in tandem in the future.

“It’s a chance for students to learn how their experiences in the 20th century at the University of Richmond can be influenced by the history that they’re learning,” Goodman says. “And how their experience at seemingly innocuous social events become opportunities for them to reflect on whether their actions show the values they believe in.

“I think these two programs fit really well together and it’s exciting that we get to allow them to be in dialogue.”