S.F. Holocaust sculpture becomes touching experience for the blind

"Is it like a cage?" asks an inquisitive Rebecca Washington after slowly dragging her hand along the rusting barbed-wire fence of the Holocaust memorial in San Francisco's Lincoln Park.

"Yes, exactly," responds Alysa Chadow, her teacher at the California School for the Blind, as a group of five classmates lingers nearby. All the students are visually impaired; some have developmental or learning disabilities as well.

At school in Fremont, the 13- to 15-year-olds have been reading "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." In learning about this young woman, who was in their age range when she was hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, they are also learning lessons about the Holocaust and the potential outcome of intolerance.

Last week Chadow brought her students to the memorial, located directly across from the Palace of the Legion of Honor, to help them "form a connection between the statues and what ended up happening to Anne."

She instructs them to touch the late sculptor George Segal's memorial of 10 bodies lying on the ground and one survivor peering out through barbed wire.

Upon discovering the statue of the survivor — who is standing — James Lee is surprised by its lifelike size. Melissa Manic and Anthony Machado, meanwhile, hover above the sculpted, mass grave of Holocaust victims.

Dion Lewis kneels next to one of the patina-on-bronze bodies and taps it with his fingers like he's tapping on a typewriter. This produces a loud clinking noise that echoes across the memorial.

Slowly he places his fingers and the palm of his hand against the leg, and strokes the emaciated limb from thigh to foot and back.

"The bodies feel cold," he says afterward while standing quietly near the group, bundled up in a blue parka.

"They're just stiff, lifeless like stone and stuff," adds Rebecca. "How come they left these people on the ground?"

Chadow, who is Jewish and visually impaired, explains that the Nazis turned against the Jews because Jews were different and therefore the Nazis "didn't want them to live." She tells them that the people on the ground represent the victims of this persecution, and the lone man standing represents the survivors.

"This is not a happy sculpture," she says.

"What they were doing to these people was uncool," notes student Rhonda Cruz.

In America, Chadow continues, "It's OK for someone not like you to live in the same place with you…because we are free here." That's partly why Rhonda's father immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, and James' parents came here from China, she explains.

"Here we don't end up on the ground."

The students do not say too much, but their silence seems to denote understanding.

Beyond helping them comprehend the Holocaust, these lessons of tolerance hit closer to home than the youngsters may realize, says Chadow.

The students "are tolerated and loved at the school, but as adults they're going to go out there and face intolerance. Reading Anne Frank is a way of teaching them the reality of intolerance."

Punctuating that point, she says she not decided whether to tell them that "eventually one of the groups killed during the Holocaust was the disabled."

As the students eat lunch near the memorial, another group of children laughs and chatters nearby, rolling down the grassy hill leading up to the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

"Even if they just get a little bit out of this, then that's good," says Chadow. "It always surprises me the way these things penetrate, and in their own way [the students] are able to process it in the context of what we've been talking about."

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