Holocaust still teaching lessons

December 21, 1998

George CasuttoBy ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

North Hagerstown High School teacher George Cassutto used the Internet and a powerful personal story to illustrate to a group of students the potentially tragic impact of prejudice.

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In conjunction with a unit entitled, "The Beast Within Us," some 20 students in Erdine Williams' freshman English class last Tuesday sat quietly, eyes riveted to the Internet images of Cassutto's now-deceased parents - Dutch Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust - projected onto a TV screen.

The group faced the reality of ethnic cleansing's horrific consequences as a haunting picture of Cassutto's maternal grandparents, Abraham and Leah Rodrigues, who were killed at Auschwitz, stared at them from the screen.


By making students aware of history, Cassutto said he hopes to help keep it from repeating itself.

He cited the "little Holocausts" in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda within the past two decades.

"Prejudice occurs in the United States all the time," he said. "We have to be constantly vigilant to that kind of information."

While Cassutto explained the dehumanizing Nazi "Science of Race," the students stared at a poster-sized photograph depicting a mountain of shoes stolen from the feet of Jews condemned to Nazi concentration camps.

As Cassutto read aloud his poetic homage to a Jewish youth's lost childhood, the students visualized poignant images of yellow stars, merciless guards and burning flesh, and tried to imagine themselves among the estimated 11 million victims of the Holocaust.

"I don't believe I would have made it through," said Jeremy Rudolph, 16. "I don't have the kind of strength it takes to make it through the beatings."

Cassutto's mother, Elisabeth Rodrigues Cassutto, was herself a teenager when World War II ended. Much the same as her elementary school peer, Anne Frank, Elisabeth Cassutto was forced to hide in the cramped attic of an Amsterdam home.

Cassutto asked students to imagine sitting silently on a bed for hours at a time, facing death if detected. Similarly, he asked them to envision taking on a new identity, family and religion, as his mother did when sheltered by a "righteous Gentile" in the Dutch countryside.

The students imagined themselves in Ernest Cassutto's cramped Rotterdam jail cell, plagued by digestive problems and marked for death by his cell door's yellow star.

The class sat mesmerized as Cassutto related the story of his father's survival - the star having been stealthily removed by a "double agent" in the Dutch underground movement. When he told the true-life tale of the "Last Jew of Rotterdam," his father, Cassutto projected the Web site of the same name onto the screen.

As the lecture wound to a close, Cassutto implored students to rail against prejudice.

"You can't let yourself get tied into prejudice," he said. "It's a destructive decision."

He also warned the class to be skeptical of Internet information, including Holocaust sites posted by people who deny the tragedy occurred.

If people said it didn't really happen, "I'd tell them to go to the Holocaust Museum and see how disturbing it is, to look at the shoes," said Travis Perry, 14.

"I'd ask them to explain why so many people died," added Jennifer Thomas, 14.

"When you teach a child how to accept others despite differences, you're teaching the Holocaust," Cassutto said. "That's the lesson."

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