Senior creates week to remember Shoah

Sitting cross-legged at a high school assembly, Rachel Zislis listened to the concerns of minority groups — including African Americans, lesbians and gays — and wondered why no Jew spoke. After all, it was Discrimination Week, one of Mountain View High School's efforts at multi-culturalism.

But rather than feeling slighted, Zislis took it upon herself to organize Holocaust Remembrance Week, April 22 to 26 at Mountain View High School in Los Altos, in an attempt to educate her peers about her own heritage.

Each morning for a week, a different speaker will address up to 100 students about some aspect of the Holocaust. The program is not mandatory; teachers decide if they want to bring their classes.

On Monday, April 22, Adrienne Scheck of the San Francisco Holocaust Center will discuss genocide against the Jews. Tuesday, April 23, Glenn Early, a scholar for the National Council of Christians and Jews, will talk about Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust. In addition, the school's choral group –Touch of Class — will sing a medley of songs from the movie "Schindler's List."

Speakers for the rest of the week include Auschwitz survivor Jack Gelb, Jeanette — a hidden child, and Charles Gensler, a Dutch minister and camp liberator.

Zislis, a Mountain View senior and member of Temple Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, doesn't recall asking why Jews weren't included in Discrimination Week. Instead, she "followed her guts" and suggested Holocaust Remembrance to her principal.

Zislis based the program on a weeklong commemoration she observed while visiting Bradley University in Illinois last year.

Mountain View history teacher Frank Novaro helped Zislis put her plan into action.

She began with two phone calls — one to the Holocaust Center, the other to author Harold Gordon.

Zislis met Gordon, a child survivor of the Holocaust, at a book signing. Her mother purchased Gordon's autobiography, "The Last Sunrise," but it was Rachel who "couldn't put it down."

"I don't like to read so much," she said. "But when I find a topic I like, I read everything I can [about it]. `The Last Sunrise' was that book."

In fact, Zislis became so fascinated with the Holocaust that she chose to write her senior thesis on the music and literature that it spawned. She also is writing a paper about notorious Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele for her chemistry class.

In preparation for Holocaust Remembrance Week, Zislis designed fact sheets which she and friends will distribute during the school lunch hour. One sheet gives a timeline from the Nazi rise to power to liberation of the concentration camps. The other details Kristallnacht, the Jewish ghettos and the gas chambers.

"She [my mom] wrote. I dictated everything I knew about the Holocaust. And then I looked into several books for more information," Zislis said.

Zislis also prepared follow-up questions for teachers to discuss with their classes. They range from "Who was murdered and by whom?" to "Could this happen again and how can we prevent it?"

Meanwhile, Zislis and friends are designing posters with barbed-wire fencing drawn at the top to remind teachers and students of the Holocaust education events.

"The Jewish population at my school is small, maybe 2 percent," Zislis said. "It's so diverse here and there are so few Jews. I'm taking a risk but I feel it has to be done."