The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of God in providing light in the oil lamps of His chosen people when supplies were limited and food was scarce.
It's also a time which commemorates the Jewish people's victory over their oppressors in ancient times.
It's in that same spirit that a group comprised primarily of Christians and their Jewish friends wish to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in human history — a time known as the "Holocaust."
Former Horn Lake Middle School teacher Susan Powell recalls the curiosity and sadness of her students when she informed them of the plight of millions of Jewish and gypsy children who died during the Holocaust of the late 1930s through 1940s in Europe, and all of the pogroms which preceded it.
"The children I taught at Horn Lake Middle School had never heard about the Holocaust," said Powell who gave an address on the subject to school children from Pleasant Hill Elementary School, where she now teaches. "Many of the students I taught were African-American and Hispanic and had been discriminated against, so now they were learning about another group which had been discriminated against. The children loved the idea of collecting pennies for the children who had perished in the Holocaust."
Powell said through the efforts of schoolchildren and home-schooled students, more than $28,000 was raised through the efforts. An additional $4,000 was raised through donation of pennies from the Belz family, owners of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
It was Powell who came up with the idea to collect 1.5 million pennies in honor of each of the children who died during the Holocaust.
The Unknown Child Foundation, under the leadership of Diane McNeil and her board of directors, was soon established.
This past year, the Unknown Child Holocaust Exhibit, housed through March at the DeSoto County Museum, opened to the public. Hundreds have come through the museum since its opening.
The exhibit details in stunning, haunting photographs, the haunting, gaunt faces of children and those interned at concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Stacy Harrison, speech teacher/special education instructor at Pleasant Hill Elementary School, said it is her hope that children will come away with an informed sense and appreciation for history.
"I hope they will learn more about the history of the world they live in," Harrison said.
McNeil, President of the Board of Directors of the Unknown Child Holocaust Foundation Inc. who spearheaded the exhibit, said she sees parallels between days of persecution during the Holocaust and today.
"I think what it's doing is helping people realize that in the past there has been a huge divide between Jews and non-Jews," McNeil said. "Students are seeing there is still a big divide today. The students go through the exhibit and they are in tears that groups could do this to other human beings, especially children," McNeil said. "It teaches them love and understanding and compassion. We are not deterred to tell the world about the children who perished during the Holocaust."
Architect Doug Thornton with AERC said eventually the Unknown Child Memorial will be housed on between three and a half acres to four acres, costing between $2.5 to $3 million in Phase 1.
Thornton said the Unknown Child Foundation has a signed letter of intent with owners of the Circle G Ranch to house the memorial on the former ranch owned by Elvis Presley in Horn Lake. Elvis' mother Gladys Presley is of Jewish descent.
"We believe these children need to be remembered," Thornton said.
Holocaust survivor Jack Cohen of Memphis was one of those few Jewish children who survived the Holocaust. He spoke to students Wednesday at the DeSoto County Museum.
Cohen, a Greek citizen, was age 9 when he heard a knock at the door.
Cohen and his family were told to get their belongings and be ready to be transported to a unknown destination.
Danger had been in the air for weeks. Greece had been occupied by forces friendly to the Nazis. A curfew had been implemented. Cohen had watched children his age murdered in the streets.
Eventually, Cohen's entire family would be given fake identification papers and would be housed in a monastery three hours from civilization.
The family existed on wild mushrooms and dandelion greens and whatever else they could forage.
Each Friday, a small lighted candle in the one room where the family took shelter gave Cohen hope the war would be over and they would be rescued.
Cohen said at least three Greek priests, including a bishop, "stuck their necks out" to help shield Jews from persecution and certain death.
"With the grace of God, we were able to survive," said Cohen, now 85.
Cohen's daughter Sarah Beth Wilcox told school children Wednesday that in today's world, such persecution of people of different ethnicities still goes on.
"This is not just something that happened 75 years ago," Wilcox said. "It's still happening today. It was because of the Greek Orthodox Church that my father and his family survived," she said, adding that people need to stop bullying and persecution when they see it.
Her father Jack agreed.
"Tolerance is not enough," Cohen said. "It's important to accept people beyond tolerance. Acceptance is the key."
Dr. Lisa Manning, PhD., who authored the grant that assisted the DeSoto County Museum with operating expenses that kept the museum up and running due to last year's legislative shortfall, said the Unknown Child Exhibit teaches a valuable lesson.
"Dr. Cohen's message of tolerance that we should be accepting of others is powerful," Manning said. "We are all from the same God."
Brian Hicks, Executive Director of the DeSoto County Museum, said since the Unknown Child Holocaust exhibit's opening, between 7,000 to 8,000 people have come through the exhibit.
"We've had multiple groups come through — everybody from people in Memphis churches and synagogues to tourists — even a man from California who flew out and flew back after seeing it."
"It's probably been one of the most successful temporary exhibits that we've ever had and certainly one of the more heart-wrenching and powerful. It's something that should be seen."
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.