Yaya Brown with a friend in the Holocaust memorial garden at Thurgood Marshall High School (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Yaya Brown with a friend in the Holocaust memorial garden at Thurgood Marshall High School (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

A garden of Holocaust education blooms at Thurgood Marshall High

More than 95 percent of the students at Thurgood Marshall High School are students of color. Most are Latino or Asian American. None are Jewish. But for the past school year, English teacher Jennifer Banaszek has taken it upon herself to bring Holocaust education to her freshman class at the school in San Francisco’s Bayview district.

Students and teachers have also built a butterfly-attracting memorial garden meant to be a healing space, filled with student artwork.

Banaszek is able to do all of this with a $2,500 Morris Weiss Award from Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center, an annual grant given to three Bay Area teachers to incorporate the Holocaust and “patterns of genocide” into their curricula to “inspire understanding, moral courage and social responsibility.”

The Holocaust is taught in 10th-grade modern world history in San Francisco public schools, according to Morgan Blum Schneider, who directs the Holocaust Center. But the subject is not tested in year-end assessments, so not all teachers focus on it.

“The teacher could choose to read a paragraph from ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and check, it’s done,” she said. “It’s often up to the teacher and the culture of the school.”

Banaszek has taught aspects of the Holocaust before, but the grant has allowed her to go more in-depth. She received the award after being nominated by the school librarian, Phil Crawford.

Thurgood Marshall has about 500 students, more than half of whom are English-language learners, some from undocumented or refugee families. Banaszek said she wanted to approach the subject from a human rights perspective.

That the Holocaust would be covered in an English class is itself a different approach. Banaszek said she believes reading literature — prose and poetry —“provides a human, reflective element to learning.” The students are reading the graphic novel “Maus.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 10 freshmen trickled into Banaszek’s classroom, a bit glassy-eyed in the last period of the day. They began with a five-minute guided meditation, doing breathing exercises (“feel a soothing lightness throughout your body,” a male voice on a recording said). Some students rested their heads, doodled or chatted quietly in the corner.

Banaszek’s classroom is lined with posters bearing social justice messages like “Protect kids not guns,” and “Black heroes of the LGBT community.” “Telling your story is radical,” one poster read.

Part of the Holocaust memorial garden at Thurgood Marshall High School (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Part of the Holocaust memorial garden at Thurgood Marshall High School (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

The lesson of the day was “Elie Wiesel: Human Rights Defender.” To begin, Banaszek projected a photo of the renowned writer and Holocaust survivor on a large screen in front of the class. In an author image from his later years, he is shown wearing a jacket and tie, his skin worn, cradling his head in his hand.

“If you could use one word to describe how he looks, what would you say?” Banaszek asked.

“So sexy,” one student joked.

“Wise,” one student said.

“He looks tired,” another student said.

“Stressed out,” a student said. “Forlorn,” another said.

Banaszek designed the curriculum with help from Facing History and Ourselves, a Massachusetts-based Holocaust education nonprofit, and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights nonprofit. During a recent class, the students learned about the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the next they would watch Oprah interview Wiesel. Earlier, Abe Mazliach, who was born in a displaced persons camp, visited the school.

There was no lecture on this Wednesday; instead, much of the classroom work was devoted to small-group exercises and discussions within student “hives” or desk pods. Students did partner reading drills — they read a lengthy interview of Wiesel by the writer and human rights activist Kerry Kennedy.

Three Wiesel quotes were presented, one from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”), and the others from media interviews (“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”). Students were asked to synthesize the quotes.

Yaidra Brown, or “Yaya,” a soft-spoken girl with an Afro, wearing an oversize sweatshirt and colorful leggings, said the quotes “seem to be about taking action, making your voice heard.” She wrote that she believed Wiesel was commenting on the fear of change.

“The only reason we don’t love each other is because we are afraid of difference, or a change in modern life,” she wrote.

A slight girl in glasses named Trinity thought that Wiesel was saying “that people who are complacent should stop and try helping instead,” she wrote. “People are aware, but they don’t change a single thing.”

Much of the discussion borrowed from today’s discourse on issues of social justice. Banaszek pointed to current U.S. policies, like curtailing abortion rights or separating families at the southern border, as possibly falling under the U.N.’s definition of genocide in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. One student saw the separation of families differently.

“I guess,” he said. “But ‘cide’ means to kill. So that’s what makes us assume it’s a mass killing.”

Banaszek said in her lessons she tries to include the students’ own experiences as racial minorities, and in some cases refugees or the children of refugees.

They know that Hitler was a bad man. But they don’t know how he came to power — that he was voted into office.

There is “a lot of hopelessness” among her students, she said. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to educate the community about the Holocaust, but also to help kids with their own traumas that overlap with what happened in the Holocaust.”

Schneider, who helps educate thousands of students on the Holocaust each year, said their knowledge on the topic can be like “Swiss cheese.”

“They know that Hitler was a bad man. But they don’t know how he came to power — that he was voted into office,” she said.

“It’s important for the Holocaust to be taught as an event in history, in a chronological manner. To understand that the Holocaust didn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Banaszek’s seventh-period students were not necessarily mulling the political machinations of the 1933 Reichstag that day. They were mainly focused on the basics, including how to pronounce Wiesel’s name (“not weasel,” Banaszek said, to some laughs, but viesel, with a V sound).

“Ohhh, like Wagner,” Yaya pointed out.

Students were glad to leave class a bit early to head out to the Holocaust memorial garden, built by teachers, aides and students in January on a small piece of lawn next to the school. A few raised beds held tomato and pumpkin plants, lavender, herbs and flowers. The space even boasted a young apple tree. (Perfect for apples with honey next Rosh Hashanah, Banaszek said.)

Students planned to attach ceramic tiles — some decorated with scenes from concentration camps, others in the shape of butterflies — to a short cement wall next to the garden. Other artworks dangled from tree limbs.

Students talked in clumps. A boy began to throw rocks, until Banaszek reminded him the garden “is a healing space.” Other students shouted to their friends who were yelling greetings out of an upper-floor window.

“We’re getting there,” Banaszek said a bit wearily. Some of her students struggle with behavioral issues, she said, in part due to difficult home lives. The garden, which is shared with the school’s culinary program, is intended to have a healing effect.

“A lot of kids at this school have experienced significant trauma,” she said. The garden has helped engage many students, some of whom aren’t even in Banaszek’s class.

“Throughout this whole process, after school, I’ll see a random kid and I’ll say, ‘Do you want to help me water [the plants]?’ I’ve never had a kid say no yet,” she said. “No one’s too cool to help in the garden.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.