In 2007, Danny Spungen, an avid stamp collector, met a man selling a collection of more than 250 letters, postcards, and other materials related to the Holocaust. It changed his life. Spungen, a member of the Rotary Club of North Chicago, Illinois, bought the collection. Since then, he has acquired thousands of additional items, and he takes a rotating selection of artifacts into schools around the world to help students find a personal connection with the Holocaust. When they see and sometimes hold these objects, the reality of the Holocaust becomes clearer. It’s a controversial approach among some museum curators, who worry about preserving objects, but Spungen believes it is worth it in order to give students a stronger understanding of genocide.
THE ROTARIAN: What does your traveling exhibit look like?
SPUNGEN: Our exhibit usually has 18 long tables. It used to be set up chronologically. But kids think in categories. So now I have one table dedicated to children’s drawings from concentration camps — pictures of dolls or flowers or cars. Another table is dedicated to people who are not Jews but did things to save Jews. After the students have had a chance to see the objects, we ask them to do one of two things: They can write an essay in the voice of an artifact they have chosen, talking about how it feels to be that letter or envelope, and what that piece has seen; or they can look at a piece and write about why they are interested in it, and how it speaks to them.
TR: Do you involve Holocaust survivors in your presentations?
SPUNGEN: Every time I take the artifacts out for an exhibit, I try to bring survivors. The exhibit is the introduction. The survivors are the key. We are now recording survivors we work with, talking about pieces from the collection. When they are no longer with us, this exhibit will be incredibly important.
I believe that going to a museum or seeing photocopies dilutes the interaction.
TR: How do you choose which objects from your collection you take into schools?
SPUNGEN: It’s always changing. And the material is not chosen by me. I work with students at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Illinois. A Carmel history teacher, Jim Schuster, attended an event I had to display the collection, and that started our partnership. The Carmel students tell me what material speaks to them. They have taught me so much. For instance, they told me we needed chairs around the exhibit tables. We want students to engage with the letters, which are protected in archival polyester sleeves.
TR: Students could see these things in museums. Why risk objects getting lost, stolen, or damaged by exposure?
SPUNGEN: I believe that going to a museum or seeing photocopies dilutes the interaction. I want the most direct relationship possible between the witness and the student. Museums don’t give you that. If an artifact is on display at all, it is behind glass. In our exhibits, you can pick up a piece, and for that moment you and you alone are connected to that piece.
TR: Do you talk about other genocides in history?
SPUNGEN: I use the Holocaust as an example of how and why genocides occur, why humanity breaks down. The exhibit now ends with an identification card of a Tutsi man from Rwanda. He was killed when a church was firebombed in 1994 during the genocide. His brother retrieved the ID card. On the label for that card, we list things about him: his favorite food, his favorite sport. I spend a lot of time in discussions of the exhibition talking about other genocides.
— HANK SARTIN
• This story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.