Shayne Sawyer takes a look at an informative panel at Loma Colorado Main Library. Gary Herron photo.

Shayne Sawyer knew about the Holocaust when she was a young girl, having seen numbers tattooed on older relatives’ and family friends’ forearms while she was growing up in southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
She knew a little about what those concentration camp survivors had been through back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but none of them wanted to talk about it.
“It was kinda common for (kids) my age to have relatives and friends (that had been through it),” Sawyer said. “My best friend, five years older, had been born in Austria; her parents had been in a concentration camp and had numbers.
“People really didn’t talk about it; they wanted to go beyond it, but you never forgot. That’s the Jewish way: ‘Be glad you’re alive and go on.’”
Naturally, she was curious to see the traveling exhibit at the Loma Colorado Main Library in Rio Rancho: “Americans and the Holocaust: A Traveling Exhibition for Libraries,” an educational initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Library Association.
After all, as a Jew, she had experienced prejudice and basic hatred; “I was probably one of 20 Jews,” she recalled, “My gym teacher called me a k—.
“I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was derogatory.”
Sawyer said her mother went to the school to report the slur and that teacher was gone, looking for another job.
Later, the family moved to Encino, where her neighbors in her teen years were mostly Jewish.
“We were all friends,” she said. “I grew up at a time when you could have your doors open and my parents didn’t worry about us. … We were free to go anywhere without fear, (but) growing up, you stuck to your own.
“There were places in Los Angeles where racism was apparent, but not in the Valley,” she said, recalling a speedy but necessary drive through Watts.
The family name wasn’t originally Sawyer, she said, but because the original surname was hard to pronounce when her paternal grandparents arrived in America from Austria, it was changed to an easily pronounceable name.
“My maternal grandmother came from Stalingrad; my maternal grandpa was from Poland,” she said.
“We didn’t go to Christmas pageants; we celebrated all the Jewish holidays.”
Sawyer has taught world history, but said, “If I remember correctly, maybe two pages (deal with the Holocaust). They didn’t dwell on it; we had no time. I would’ve spent more time on it, but the kids today don’t care.”
Youth don’t understand the enormity of the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews dead and 12 million people altogether, including the Roma, gay people, professors and other threats to Hitler, she said.
“Because of video games, death to them means very little,” Sawyer continued. “… They’ve never been through a war where they were threatened.”
She wishes students would glean more about the past so they don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
“We have one year to teach world history — it covers 250-300 years. It depends where you start it, and it ends in the 1980s,” she said.
“Part of it is because that’s all the time we have.”
Sawyer perused the library’s display, contained on a dozen or so panels, but told someone accompanying her she still had questions.
Americans knew very little about the ongoing atrocities at the time, learning much more after American troops liberated the concentration camps and the gory news was reported back in the states.
“Europeans knew about it — French, English, Dutch. But if you were living in Iowa, you didn’t know about it, until we went there,” she said.
It made sense at the time, she rationalized, because Americans were more concerned about sending U.S. troops off to war, not long after World War I — the “war to end all wars.”
Plus, the country was committed to internment camps of its own, corralling people of Japanese heritage — even those who had deep roots in the U.S. and were bona fide citizens here.
Posters at the exhibit depict how America was warned more about Hitler’s threat to U.S. children than the actual dangers presented by the Nazi regime.
Another panel says the Nazi murders of Jews began in the summer of 1941 after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and that more than 4.5 million Jews had been killed by 1943.
On June 14, 1941, the first prisoners arrived at Auschwitz; on Sept. 5, 1942, Nazi Germany issued a death penalty for anyone aiding Jews.
“People have tried to compare (the Holocaust) to other acts of genocide,” she said, “but I don’t know where there were 12 million people (exterminated) and they didn’t fight back.”
Overall, though, she said, “I think the people who can relate to (the exhibit) are seniors; they lived through it. Then our generation, because we grew up hearing about it.”
The exhibit runs through Nov. 13 during normal library hours.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer