This article originally appeared in the Aug. 14, 2015 issue of The Press Enterprise. View clip online.
Becky Dell went to hell for summer vacation. It wasn’t the first time for the middle school teacher, and if history is any indication, it won’t be the last.
In July, Dell toured six concentration camps, taking her tally to 11 since 2011. She saw displays of braided hair she was not allowed to photograph out of respect for human remains. She walked into a gas chamber, its concrete walls stained blue through a reaction with the cyanide-based pesticide that was turned on people. She stood before a mountain of shoes, many children-sized, and thought of her own four children whose first pairs she had saved.
She cried, and she cried some more.
“You can imagine two weeks of stuff like that taking an emotional toll,” Dell says. “But it was worth all the tears to come back with information to pass along to my students.”
Dell teaches eighth graders at El Cerrito Middle School in Corona. Every spring, she covers “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a Jewish teen’s journal about hiding from the Nazis in a “secret annex” above an apartment. Frank died in a concentration camp in 1945.
“You can’t teach ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ unless you teach about the Holocaust,” Dell says. “Otherwise they’re going to read it and have no idea why this young girl is in hiding for 25 months.”
She assigns research projects and takes students to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage.
“It’s hard for the kids to comprehend (the extermination of) 6 million Jews,” Dell says. But she can provide images “that will bring this story to life for them.”
Some images are in the form of stories Dell has collected, such as that of a woman who arrived at a concentration camp still wearing her wedding gown. Other images are photographs showing Dell standing inside a gas chamber or beneath the arch at Auschwitz.
Dell never learned about the Holocaust in school in the 1970s. She didn’t learn about it until watching a television miniseries in 1978, a year after graduating high school.
She’s watched “probably just about every Holocaust movie ever made,” and has read more than 100 books on the subject, many of which she has since donated to the middle school library.
She eventually discovered she never learned about the Holocaust in school because few American World War II veterans told of the horrors they had witnessed. Unspoken, their stories went untaught.
Sam Oosterveen, 14, a freshman at Santiago High School in Corona, learned about the Holocaust throughout school in his native Holland before his family moved to Corona in July 2013. Yet when he studied the topic in Dell’s class this past spring, it was the first time he had ever taken a Holocaust-related field trip or visited with a survivor.
That survivor, Michael Resmo, 86, plays a big part in Dell’s journey. They met when she first brought her students to listen to him speak at the Tolerance Education Center in 2011. Dell eventually visited all three camps where Resmo was interred, forging a bond so heartfelt that he vowed to talk to her students every year until he was “no longer able to talk.”
Dell’s passion for the Holocaust surprises some people when they learn she isn’t Jewish. She teaches about it because she’s “a human being and everybody should care about what happened to those people.”