First published in the May 14 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank Unified School District recently invited a number of Holocaust survivors to speak to classes about their experiences in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Dolores Huerta Middle School hosted six Holocaust survivors in late April to address the school’s English classes, and Monterey High School hosted a similar event on Monday. Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in Hebrew is called Yom Hashoah, was on April 28 this year.
Courtnie DiPiazza, who teaches 8th-grade English at Dolores Huerta, organized her school’s event in conjunction with the Burbank Human Relations Council, a nonprofit that advocates for diversity and civil rights. DiPiazza explained in an email that her students were studying the Holocaust in preparation for their reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and wanted them to hear from those who had a personal experience with the atrocities.
“My students connected with the speakers,” DiPiazza said. “They related what they heard to acts of hate they’ve seen online or at school and made disturbing parallels to what’s happening in our world today. My students remarked on the deep, systemic racism in our society, and even opened up about instances when they’ve experienced injustices based on race or sexual identity.”
Speakers included Joseph Alexander, a Polish Jew who survived being in 12 concentration camps; Dana Schwartz, who was 4 years old when Nazi Germany invaded Lviv and whose family was forced into a ghetto; and David Lenga, whose entire family, except his father, died in the Holocaust.
DiPiazza also partnered with local resident David Meyerhof on the event. Meyerhof started helping organize Holocaust presentations about a decade ago, when he befriended longtime local volunteer Sylvia Sutton. After Sutton’s death, Meyerhof — whose parents and grandparents fled Nazi Germany themselves — continued her mission, connecting local school districts with Holocaust survivors. While the BHRC has been organizing Holocaust remembrance programs in recent years, Meyerhof returned to help this year.
The program’s time is running out, said Meyerhof, who is also a Holocaust speaker coordinator for the Glendale and Los Angeles unified school districts. About 10 years ago, there were roughly 25 speakers. Now there are seven.
“For me, the significance of it goes way beyond just a history lesson,” Meyerhof added.
He pointed to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, comparing it to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But echoes of the Nazi regime, Meyerhof believes, are also found closer to home. Longstanding discrimination against people of color, he argued, as well as voter suppression and the possibility of the Supreme Court rolling back abortion rights should also cause concern — and spur action.
“Something the students learn is, when there’s hate and wrongdoing, is not to ignore it,” said Meyerhof, whose grandfather and Nobel Prize recipient Otto Meyerhof escaped Germany with the help of the Varian Fry, the “American Schindler.”
“You can’t ignore it,” Meyerhof added. “Hate will not go away by itself.”
Burbank itself had at least a few encounters with Nazi supporters in the 1960s. A 1961 article from the Burbank Daily Review chronicled the police confiscation of a Nazi flag that was flying in front of a Mariposa Street residence. Los Angeles Public Library photo records contain pictures from a 1963 American Nazi Party rally held at McCambridge Park.
Archival video taken of the event, apparently by Reuters, shows that a crowd of people shouted down the event speaker Ralph Forbes, commander of the party’s western division, with several attendees yelling at him to leave.
DiPiazza affirmed the importance of the Holocaust remembrance event, both to retain the memory of the atrocities and to encourage students to remain alert against modern threats.
“To say this year has been difficult as an educator is a tremendous understatement. But witnessing history and seeing my students make connections to what is happening in our current political climate is a reminder of how powerful our stories are,” she said.
“These stories need to be heard and must not be forgotten. As a teacher, it can be overwhelming when you realize that the future is in your classroom. Through the conversations we’ve had of equality and intolerance after the Holocaust speaker program, I can tell you our world is in safe hands.”