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Students hear personal stories of the Holocaust at Riverfront Museum

“My mother was born in Berlin in 1927,” Julie Luner told Mark Bills Middle School 6th grade students gathered in a classroom at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. “My mom and her family had a good life.”  Luner, a volunteer docent from the Jewish Federation of Peoria, showed the students black and white photographs of her mother and aunt as small children and another of the girls and their father in a canoe.


That idyllic childhood began to unravel when Adolph Hitler was elected in 1933. Luner emphasized to the students that Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany through a democratic election. “That’s one lesson I want you to take away today,” she told students. “Your vote matters. When you’re 18, go vote.”

 Volunteer Julie Luner shows students photos of her mother's family

The students listened as Luner told of her family’s experiences during World War II.  As part of the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s Every Student Initiative, all kindergarten through 8th grade PPS classrooms pay one curriculum-focused visit to the museum each school year. Between late October and early December, field trips for PPS 6th and 8th grade students include presentations on The Peoria Holocaust Memorial.


Little-by-little life changed for Germany’s Jewish population as anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior became acceptable and encouraged by the Nazis. One day when her mother went to the park to play, she saw that German flags were replaced by Nazi flags. Soon her mother’s best friend would no longer play with her because she was Jewish. Her father – a judge -- was fired from his government job and Luner’s mother and aunt could no longer attend public school.


Luner’s grandparents tried to emigrate to other countries including the United States, Canada, India, China and Bolivia. “Other countries wouldn’t accept Jews,” she said. Eventually, Luner’s mother was sent to live with a foster family in the Netherlands. She last saw her parents and sister when she was 12 – about the same age as the students listening. Her family was murdered at Auschwitz.


Luner’s second lesson to the students: be an Upstander, not a Bystander.


In the Netherlands, Luner’s mother and her foster family worked for the Philips company, making electronics for the Nazi war effort. Owner Frits Philips saved 382 Jews by convincing the Nazis that their labor was integral to the war effort. In truth, factory workers were sabotaging the electronics to thwart the Nazis. “Mr. Philips was an Upstander, not a Bystander,” Luner said.  Eventually, the factory workers, including Luner’s mother, also were sent to Auschwitz before being liberated by the Allies.

 Peoria Holocaust Memorial Peoria Riverfront Museum    Mark Bills students tour Peoria Holocaust Memorial

Before Luner led the students outside, she showed them more photos, including one taken in the U.S. years later, of her mother meeting Mr. Philips. Outside, students took in the human cost of the Holocaust illustrated by 11 million buttons in glass Star-of-David and triangular-shaped cases. Each button represents one person. Six million Jews and another 5 million people considered enemies of the state, including people with disabilities, Seventh Day Adventists, Roma Gypsies and homosexuals were murdered, Luner told the students. “If someone tells you the Holocaust didn’t happen, tell them you know it did because you met someone who experienced it and lost their family.  Be an Upstander, not a Bystander.”



Through its annual White Rose Society Essay Contest, the Jewish Federation of Peoria invites 7th and 8th grade students from Peoria and Tazewell counties to research and recount the life of a specific child or youth who experienced or witnessed the Holocaust in Europe. The entry deadline for this year’s contest is Jan. 30, 2020. Click here for information, rules and entry forms:


The second-place winner of the 2019 White Rose Essay Contest was Victoria Erickson, now a freshman at Richwoods High School.  Click here to read Erickson’s essay.