Docent Honors Memories of Holocaust Survivors

Story by Lonnae O’Neal Parker in The Washington Post, April 26, 2013:

Rebecca Dupas always begins her tours of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with questions for students. “Why do we start with this image?” she’ll ask at the fourth-floor entrance to the permanent exhibition. Standing before photos from the 1945 liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, she points out shadows, juxtapositions, paradoxes — a half-dressed figure with the haggard face of a middle-age man and the spindly legs of a child.

They enter Holocaust history where American soldiers entered it, she’ll say, as she begins to introduce students slowly to industrial dehumanization and mass murder; to the philosophical underpinnings of the the Nazi Final Solution.

The petite African American woman, in her dark denims and patent-leather flats, seems scarcely more than a student herself. And she remembers the student she once was when she visited the museum for the first time, then came back, then took classes, then led tours, and now works there full time and sometimes writes poems about survivors.

Nearly 20 years ago, the museum began the Bringing the Lessons Home program in an effort to make Holocaust history relevant to young people in inner-city Washington. Twenty years from now, Holocaust survivors may all be dead and what was lived history will pass into distance with only artifacts left behind.

Whether Holocaust history will matter deeply, when survivors can no longer give it voice, is a source of reflection as the museum marks its 20th anniversary this week.

People such as Dupas play a central role in that.

‘A broader conversation’

Dupas, 31, is now a coordinator of leadership programs for the museum, but she sometimes still gives tours, as she did in March when she posted an invitation on Facebook for friends to visit. Her knowledge of the permanent collection extends not just to key places and dates and people, but also to a recognition of how long students need to pause at the Tower of Faces and where they’ll cry. It extends to the the realization that while she can draw obvious modern-day parallels, students have to make their own links. It’s how the history becomes personal.

She points out Nazi charts on racial superiority and images of Jewish-only benches. She used to point out “Colored Only” similarities, but stopped. “More often than not, someone will say, ‘Just like the South, or civil rights,’ ” she says.

In a section on radio propaganda, students cite the centrality of local urban stations like WPGC or WKYS to their own lives and invoke modern radio programs that broadcast hate talk. “The more sophisticated groups understand that there’s still propaganda going on. My job is to set up the possibility of that connection. It will click in now, or it will click in later.”

Dupas was born in Louisiana and moved to Prince George’s County with her mother, a correctional officer, and sister, who owns a day care, when her parents split up. She has lived in the District, Prince George’s and Baltimore. After graduating from Towson University, where she studied English and secondary education, she taught high school literature before joining the museum full time last year. She’d learned about the Holocaust Museum as a junior at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, and the following year she applied for the BTLH program. There were only two paragraphs about the Holocaust in the history books “and I just had so many questions,” Dupas says.

“Every Tuesday or Thursday, once a week for 12 weeks, I would take the Metro to the museum and we would have classes in the morning.” Students had to tour their families through the museum to graduate. That summer, she attended the museum’s Summer Youth Leadership Seminar, where they met up with youth organizations from around the country. She felt honored to be selected, to be associated with a prestigious museum. She was given a travel stipend for the commute, and at 18, began touring visitors as a part-time ambassador, interacting with survivors and creating artwork from it. Her artwork was poems.

She worked as a tour guide, in visitor services and archives, and as a part-time program coordinator. While at Towson, she coordinated a series of programs between the Black Student Union and Hillel. “That was the very thing I learned to do working at the museum,” she says. To “use the history to have a broader conversation about human relationships.”

She has sometimes had to answer questions about her involvement with the museum, which seems to some inorganic. “The question would always be, ‘Why the Holocaust?’ I do recall someone saying why not the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.”

The answer, Dupas says, is because the Holocaust Museum offered her the opportunity.

‘We want to challenge our visitors’

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