They saw the photos of those who died and those who somehow made it. They saw the instruments of mass death and learned who planned and executed it. They read stories of those who escaped, who survived, who even fought back. One by one, they passed underneath the words of Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, author, Holocaust survivor: For the dead and the living we must bear witness.
That's what the Paris Project hopes to teach these children: that they must bear witness, whether it be to the deaths of many — or just one.
The program is named for 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. She was gunned down in her Bartlett Park home April 5, police said, caught between warring gangs.
Three arrests were made. But detectives struggled to find witnesses. There's a "no snitching" code that still runs strong in many neighborhoods.
"How can we get them to safely speak up and make a difference?" said program organizer Tracey Locke, 39. "I just felt that after the Paris shooting we weren't necessarily reaching out to the kids who needed to hear that message most."
That's why the project brought 100 middle schoolers to the Florida Holocaust Museum on Friday.
What better place to teach children the price of staying silent in the face of violence?
• • •
In mere days and hours, rampaging Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, schools and synagogues.
It was November 1938 when the Nazi regime in Germany would inflict what came to be known as Kristallnacht, the "Crystal Night" or the "Night of the Broken Glass."
Gary Silvers was just a boy then.
He survived that night, and all that was to come. He was 9 when his parents took him to Shanghai, one of the few destinations German Jews could escape to.
The rest of his family never made it. They and more than 6 million European Jews died in the Holocaust. Millions more were also killed.
Silvers, now 80, is retired and living in Largo. He spoke to the children of the Wildwood Recreation Center in a museum room lined with the photos of hundreds of victims — and too few survivors.
"My father pleaded with my Jewish relatives, please get out, it's going to get worse," Silvers said. "They said 'You're nuts. You're crazy.'
"All my Jewish relatives died."
Afterward, docents gave the children tours of the museum. Guide Ros Miller, 54, told her charges this:
"You are the last generation to ever hear a survivor speak," she said. "Your children will never have anyone to hear speak.
"You can tell them yes, I heard a survivor and it is true."
• • •
In the center of the museum is an old wooden railroad boxcar. It is known as Auschwitz Boxcar 113 0695-5. It was used to take countless victims to concentration camps — and their eventual deaths.
"They just piled everyone on top of each other," observed 14-year-old Nehemiah Porter.
One student asked: Did they sleep in there, too?
"They lived in there for a day, or a week," Miller replied. "It didn't matter. Hitler was going to kill everyone. It was the 'final solution.' "
The kids also learned how prisoners escaped the Novogrudok ghetto. They gathered around a model of the ghetto and peered beneath the glass to see the small tunnel that ran beneath the prison walls.
"What if you were too big?" asked Daylan Perkins, 12.
"They put you through anyway," Miller said. "You had to shake and shimmy."
"Did the Nazis find out?" wondered Mikhail Hearns, 12.
"Not until the end," Miller said.
• • •
Afterward, the students stood outside the museum, talking about what they had learned. Some learned that they have questions for which there are no answers.
"How could they do this?" asked Daylan. "They took away a human life."
"All those people were afraid of one person," Mikhail said.
Fear is something these kids can understand. In some neighborhoods, the goal of the Paris Project — to break the code of "no snitching" — is not easily achieved.
"When you speak up, it's hard because you know not everyone is going to agree with you," Daylan said. "People can say things to hurt you."
"If you tell on someone, their family isn't going to like it. They're going to make sure you know it."
Locke hopes the children can make the connection between what happened more than 60 years ago and what happened just a few months ago.
"When left unchecked, when nobody stands up and does anything," she said, "it always gets worse."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.