Holocaust essays win national recognition for KMS teens

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Among the 500 entries in the junior division of the Elie Wiesel Writing and Visual Arts Competition, Andreya Aitchison, left, was awarded third place and her KMS classmate Isabella Horton, won first. — Photo courtesy Kyrene Middle School

By Diana Nelson

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scroll down for the complete award-winning essays by Isabella Horton and Andreya Aitchison. Top honoree says her goal in writing is to change reader’s perspective.

Kyrene Middle School students in the Gifted and Talented Program are keeping history alive with their award-winning writing.

The Holocaust is certainly a somber subject for any writer to tackle; but, two 14-year-old KMS students accepted the challenge and submitted their entries into a national contest.

Named for the Holocaust survivor and late author, “The Elie Wiesel Writing and Visual Arts Competition,” focused this year on keeping the history of the Holocaust relevant. Each year, the national Holocaust Commission invites middle-and high-school students to respond to a specific question with a written essay for a chance to win a cash prize.

Recently, the results were announced and, out of more than 500 entries in the junior division, Isabella Horton won first place, and her classmate, Andreya Aitchison, earned third place. Both are enrolled in the English-Language Arts class taught by Debra Rosenblum.

In a generation more accustomed to text messages, each of these writers expresses a passion for creative writing, essays and poetry.

Isabella Horton says that her favorite part of writing is to challenge the reader to see something they might not have before and to maybe change their perspective.

“A well-crafted essay, book, speech or poem can change a person’s life, and it can change history,” said Horton via email.

“Telling a story, or writing an argumentative essay is like weaving threads of thoughts and ideas, facts and experiences, and beliefs and histories into a beautiful and intricate fabric.”

Andreya Aitchison says that writing helps her to express herself and to grow into her own identity along with the chance to explore society’s behavior.

“I love to write about the big questions; like how do we choose to relate with one another, why we are here, and what we should do while we exist,” said Aitchison via email.

She also enjoys the structure of Debra Rosenblum’s class, which she says is uniquely nurturing.

“I am surrounded by a talented group of students, and a fun-natured teacher, who is a professional writer herself. This helps me get the feedback I need,” said Aitchison.

“We also engage in partner editing, where we receive basic grammar, construction, and spelling suggestions from our peers before we present our work to our teacher for additional criticism.”

The specific topic of the Holocaust did prove challenging to both writers. Ultimately, after struggling through several drafts of her essay, Horton began to research the alternative-right for inspiration.

“I watched videos, read articles, and especially comments. I was attempting to understand the nature of this deep hatred that this growing community still shares. This lit a fire within me,” said Horton, “and telling the truth inspired me to write.”

In her essay, Horton states that “the Holocaust is one of the greatest modern tragedies, where an entire two thirds of the populations of European Jews were murdered. The level of cruelty and turpitude is almost unfathomable. Survivor testimonies of the suffering and heartbreak could bring one to tears. For this reason, these events must be kept close in our hearts.”

And, in her essay, Aitchison, shares some similar sentiments by writing—“keeping the Holocaust alive with witness testimonies are so important… they shed light on this tragic chapter of humanity and educate people so this never happens to us again.”

Rosenblum grew up on the East Coast and moved to the Valley in 2007; then, she started teaching in the Kyrene district. She also began her own writing career and became a best-selling USA Today author.

“It’s wonderful that I’m able to satisfy my two passions– educating and nurturing youth and writing fiction,” said Rosenblum.

“Last year, I had the freedom and class availability to run two semester classes, which created a winter and summer edition of ‘Literal Scorpion,’ an anthology of fiction and creative non-fiction. They are available for reading on the KMS website.”

 

Do They Live On?

By Andreya Aitchison

The Holocaust was a tragic time in history that forever changed humanity, and the hatred it produced still trickles into our lives today. During the time of the Holocaust, millions died at the hands of Hitler’s Third Reich. Today, racism and hatred are taking on a new face, with online interfaces, messages can range far and wide in a millisecond. Keeping the Holocaust alive is essential to continue learning from our grave mistakes. We, as a society, keep the Holocaust alive with witness testimonies that can be found in books and videos, or survivor interviews. These recounts are so important because they shed light on this tragic chapter of humanity and educate people so this never happens to us again.

The things we do to keep the Holocaust in the minds of the public and not forgotten include reading books written by Holocaust survivors, watching videos about the events, and giving our listening ear to survivors’ testimonies. First of all, the books that have been written about the Holocaust provide a deeper understanding of the innermost thoughts people had during that time. In The Diary of Anne Frank, a young girl in Amsterdam went into hiding and unfortunately did not live to see peace. In her famous and heart wrenching diary, she writes after she’s gone into hiding, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out…” (Anne Frank) Another book describing a Holocaust experience is Night, by Elie Wiesel. He describes his horrible experience in Auschwitz involving being worked nearly to death, losing his parents and sister, and nearly freezing to death as the war was ending. Elie wrote about his trek through the cold.  “The icy wind whipped my face. I was constantly biting my lips so that they wouldn’t freeze. All around me, what appeared to be a dance of death…” (Elie Wiesel)  Secondly, we had the privilege of hearing a survivor speak at our school, a unique experience that tragically cannot exist for much longer. Watching survivor testimony on video, with Oprah Winfrey and Elie Wiesel when he was still alive, was powerful as well. When he was still alive, we could ask him questions, a leisure not provided in books. This let us know more details than he included in his writing. The fact that videos are so accessible makes them a powerful tool to educate and spread awareness around the world. Hearing the voice of someone who has done so much in their life, and feeling their courage to tell their story in person is so powerful, as well. Ellie Orrin visited our school, and hearing her voice made the Holocaust that much more real for everyone there. It is a shame that we cannot experience this for much longer, as those who survived are nearing the end of their lives, so using other means of communicating their stories is essential if this memory is to live on. These things that we do to keep the Holocaust alive in our schools, homes, and lives keep this memory from ever being forgotten, a vital step forward in humanity proving that we could be better than the people who did this, and we can prevent it in the future.

We keep the Holocaust alive to alert our young to signs of repeating history, to make sure the story of the Holocaust remains raw and untwisted by powers of authority, and to avoid people becoming blind to human nature and exclusion. First and foremost, hate is becoming more normal in the media age we live in. Young, impressionable people are our future and if they become insensitive to the hate and negativity, then they won’t notice when the political climate starts to deteriorate. The people during the time of the Holocaust were shocked when people started dying but they overcame that and continued moving on until they were on the chopping block. I often wonder why these people didn’t see the terrible beast staring them in the face before they were killed. If we allow our children to understand the Holocaust and keep teaching these important topics in schools then our youth can prevent us from falling into the same trap once again. Elie wrote, “There are rumors,” my father said, his voice breaking, that we are being taken somewhere in Hungary to work in the brick factories. It seems that here, we are too close to the front…” This was a complete lie, but they believed that they would be given a better life. This resembles those who come to the United States, only to find camps separating parents and children, people starving, and the government trying to cover it up. Next, if we allow the exact details of the Holocaust to slip from our minds, then the facts can be twisted and used against us in the future. Leaders will have the power to threaten us with the situation of the Holocaust and other times like it. If the books and videos still exist, and if we keep passing on this story, then this can serve as a learning experience not a stepping stone for power. People want to exploit the catastrophe to achieve their own goals. At the other extreme, there are those who choose to believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen. If these groups get traction, and more people will deny the Holocaust or that the horrendous act was less than it was, then we risk having this memory due for respect and reflection twisted and corrupted with those who do not believe the fact and losing this dark learning experience that we have been provided. Finally, if we keep teaching the Holocaust and keep having intelligent conversations, then we will continue to be reminded of the extent that human nature can come to. It has been proven time and time again in history that we exclude people different than us and hate others for what they can’t change. It is a naive assumption that exclusion will never reach the level that it did then. The moment that we can stop fear from evolving into hate is the moment that we ensure that all future generations are safe from the monster we can become. It is vital that we all know that we can become brutal and violent when we are under the powerful control of lies and we should be aware of this, for if we are not, we will be blind to our own flaws, and we will be no better off than we were.

We keep the Holocaust alive in many ways like with books, videos, or survivor visits. All of these are important so we can protect our future and let this terror reside only in our past, thereby resisting the corruption of our present. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”(Maya Angelou)   The Holocaust changed the way we view our own personal capabilities as humans, and we recognized the hate crimes that can occur. If we are silent, we are no better than those inflicting the pain on others. Now that we are in the age of connectivity, we can use this to spread the good and hinder the hate. If we used these times in history as guidebooks as what not to do, then we just might have a brighter future. Now is the time to keep the wounds of the mass murder raw on our flesh and prevalent in our minds, for if this memory dies, as time moves on, then history would undoubtedly repeat itself someday. It is our conquest, so do they live on?

 

Facing Our Past Evils to Build a Better Future

By Isabella Horton

How could one man rally a country to commit atrocities against an entire nation? How could ordinary people, like our parents, teachers, and siblings be so blinded by their own pain and prejudice? Where does that evil come from, and is it in all of us? How do we keep such catastrophes from happening again? The Holocaust is one of the greatest modern tragedies where an entire two thirds of the population of European Jews were murdered. The level of cruelty and turpitude is almost unfathomable. Survivor testimonies of the suffering and heartbreak could bring one to tears. For this reason, these events must be kept close in our hearts.  Furthermore, it is necessary to keep this history alive through survivor testimony, evidence, and education; eyewitness testimony connects on a raw and profound level in the human psyche, but without evidence and education, history itself can be dismissed or denied.

Education is critical because it prevents the Holocaust from falling from the collective mind of society. In the United States, all children must attend school in some fashion. In this, we have the opportunity to educate this generation truly about the Holocaust and the psychological regression to savage cruelty and deceit behind it. Elie Wiesel says in the preface of his book Night, that with his testimony, he has become a witness with a moral obligation to attempt to “prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.” Although it is quite obvious that children at some point in their academic career should learn about the Holocaust, the true question is when? And how? The horrors of concentration camps and gas chambers, the starvation and illness, and the cruelty and evil are much to behold for most elementary school-aged children. The potential for serious trauma, particularly with more perceptive and empathetic children, is well-founded. However, instilling values in children and teaching them the lessons learned from the Holocaust builds a foundation for tolerance, respect, and love. Educated children are less likely to be deceived by unaccountable sources. Doctor Donna Mathews answers the question posed in her article’s title, “How should you talk to your child about the Holocaust?” with the following advice: Once youth mature and develop their reasoning and resilience, they can understand the complexity of the politics and historical context that lead to the Holocaust. Knowing the psychological justification and moral degeneration behind the evil is critical to awareness and prevention in the present. As long as the history and lessons about the Holocaust are delivered in a clear but sensitive manner to teens, and properly reflected upon with teachers and parents, adolescents will understand and remember the relevance of the tragedy throughout their lives, and continue to teach its lessons.

Evidence is essential to vindicate any historical event, and therefore, the physical aspects must be accounted for. When a catastrophe like genocide occurs, and there is someone to be held responsible, it is the natural inclination of most people, especially those who had ties to the culpable group/oppressor, to deny it ever happened. Because the Holocaust was kept so secret and done so efficiently to the degree that the Nazis had perfected it, people had difficulty comprehending the reality. It is only natural to use denial as a way to evade cognitive dissonance, especially as a German citizen in 1945. Unfortunately, these emotional responses, while understandable, are dangerous long term. People who continue to deny history are only responding to information that aligns with their ideology and hatred, but this small percentage of people cannot reflect our nation or the rest of the world. Most people who see physical evidence and survivor testimony do accept these facts. In the defining case of Mermelstein vs. the IHR (Institute for Historical Review), Patrick Sauerwrote in his article, “Mel Mermelstein Survived Auschwitz, Then Sued Holocaust Deniers in Court,” that it was recognized by a United States judge that the Holocaust did occur, as if we needed that confirmation. The mere existence of these Holocaust deniers demands that we keep museums and memorials open and well known. The life work of Mermelstein as a Holocaust survivor was to document the Holocaust. Having visited different extermination camps on forty separate occasions and opening a Holocaust museum (according to Sauer), Mermelstein had the evidence, the artifacts, and the documents, but these only matter once people are allowed to properly open their minds to what is clearly directly in front of their faces. The evidence for the Holocaust is plentiful and available, for now. Data naturally decays, events become fuzzy and eventually irrelevant the older and the seemingly less relatable they become to newer generations, but hard evidence is no legend. The more documentation, the less hearsay and vague stories, the more likely people are to understand primarily its existence and secondly its relevance.

Witness and survivor testimonies are critical to human experience, because numbers don’t penetrate our hearts, people do. Thus, the most important part of keeping the Holocaust relevant is connecting to youth, the new generation, through eyewitness testimony. “The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future,”  writes Elie Wiesel in the preface of Night. Weisel expresses the reality that the past will repeat itself if the next generation does not remember their history. Disengagement and disconnection blinds young people from the truths of the Holocaust. The statisticsarefrightening, but abstract. Eyewitness testimony transforms how anyone sees an issue; it makes something rather complex and inconceivable in young minds solid and alive. Elly Orrin, describing the terror, said the constant fear that she felt “grabs (one) by the throat.” She felt threatened for her very being, as the “Boots of Terror” were heard at every turn. She was petrified that the SS would trap her and her family in a Razia. Her words touched me deeper than any statistics ever could, and built a bridge into the past.

Eyewitness testimony connects with the human psyche on a visceral level. Without evidence and education, the Holocaust can drift into obsoleteness. Education is critical to memory. Emphasis on the moral ramifications and social/political context is especially important, because it trains youth to recognize parallels in current events. Physical evidence is the foundation upon which we establish the truth. Lastly, survivor testimony connects us to the tragedy in a genuine and heartbreaking way. It is what truly makes Holocaust history relevant and what reveals its importance. The Holocaust has shown us the deep evil we are capable of, and that we cannot risk ignorance, which increases the likelihood of repeating the suffering and chaos. “History, despite its wrenching pains, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be faced again,” as Maya Angelou beautifully stated. If we face the shameful realities of our past, and accept our terrifying capabilities in the present, we can resist evil and create a hopeful future.

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