“The history of the Holocaust is ungraspable,” said Marilyn J. Harran, Ph.D., Director, Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education, Stern Chair in Holocaust Education and Professor of Religious Studies and History at Chapman University in Orange. “None of us has the ability to envision the faces of 6 million murdered Jews, along with hundreds of thousands of others targeted for death by the Nazis and their collaborators. None of us can envision the faces of more than 1 million murdered Jewish children—but what we can connect to is one individual, one story, and with that story as our anchor, we can begin to engage the complex history of the Holocaust.”
Dr. Harran has dedicated her life to teaching about the Holocaust, engaging young minds to understand why it happened and encouraging people to stand up to anti-Semitism, bigotry and xenophobia. A primary vehicle for doing so is through the Holocaust Art and Writing Contest, in which students connect to one survivor and tell that survivor’s story through art, film, poetry or prose.
Twenty years ago, the idea for the contest originated with William Elperin, the president of The 1939 Club (now The 1939 Society), an organization of survivors that promotes Holocaust education and remembrance through partnerships with non-profits and prestigious universities. What ensued is a partnership between The 1939 Society and Chapman University that has grown from a small group of middle and high schools participating to 8,000 students from 234 schools in 26 states and 12 countries participating this year.
The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), the oldest Holocaust survivor museum in the country, is holding a retrospective exhibit called the “Messengers of Memory,” showing the winners of the contest through the years. A 20-year retrospective book is available for purchase at the museum. Many survivors, as well as the acting consul general of Israel and the consul generals of Poland and Germany, have attended the exhibit at LAMOTH. Containing artifacts donated by Holocaust survivors, the museum recreates the world that was in Europe—close-knit Jewish communities where people spoke Yiddish, focused on their children’s education and made every meal a celebration of family. Jews led a quiet life until 1933 when Hitler, who resented them for taking jobs away from Aryans, was elected chancellor.
A study trip with winners of the contest and their parents and teachers included a guided tour of the museum. Dr. Harran described the exhibit as “a great example of the collaboration between a university in Orange County and a museum in LA and our commitment to furthering each other’s educational efforts at a time when fewer and fewer people have even a limited knowledge of the Holocaust and when we are experiencing a significant rise in anti-Semitism.”
The contest has had the support of the Orange County Department of Education and the Catholic Diocese of Orange from the very beginning and then partnerships with Echoes and Reflections, Facing History and Ourselves and the David Labkovski Project. Such organizations enable the program to engage educators around the world. The USC Shoah Visual History Foundation has provided full-length survivor testimonies to the students, and they have responded creatively to the testimony.
According to Dr. Harran, “We sought to respond to the interests of both educators and students in diverse forms of creativity. We first went from essay to prose and poetry, then to art, and in the last few years to film, as students, even middle school students, become more proficient with film technology.”
She said that she hopes the contest and the entire program in Holocaust history have contributed to “Chapman’s growing reputation for excellence in many fields” and thinks that the Chapman administration’s support of the contest since its inception “says something very important about our ethos as a university.” Chapman was named by Forward College Guide as one of the three safest universities in the nation for Jewish students. For more than a decade it has held an annual interfaith service of remembrance for Kristallnacht in which Jewish, Christian and Moslem faith organizations participate.
Dr. Harran said, “I see that as another important way in which we affirm our shared humanity. Had more people in November 1938 stood up for the belief that what hurts and demeans one of us, hurts and demeans all of us, perhaps the Holocaust would have been prevented. As it was, far too many people chose silence. I take great pleasure in what we have achieved and will continue to achieve through the contest and our curriculum. There was a time when Orange County was known throughout the nation for the presence of a Holocaust denial organization. Orange County now has a very different identity, and I take great satisfaction in having played a small role in that transformation.”
She concluded, “It certainly is also a joy to see students and educators from around the nation and the world participate in the contest, from as far away as South Korea, South Africa, Poland and Israel. Not only is our 900-person auditorium full for the awards ceremony; we do a simultaneous broadcast to other participating countries, meaning that the contest is increasingly a ‘global’ event that I hope furthers understanding and a commitment among young people to become knowledgeable and effective ‘witnesses to the witnesses.’”
HONORING OUR SURVIVORS
On Rena Blatt, daughter of deceased survivor Thomas Blatt, said that her father devoted his entire life to educating students about his experiences at Sobibor, one of the death camps. “He was a great example of the will to live, resistance and being an upstander in the face of cruelty,” she said. “He believed that our lives have an impact on other people.”
Thomas Blatt made a scale model of Sobibor and wrote a book about it. Excavations at the camp were based on his revelations.
“My father enjoyed life,” Blatt said. “He looked frail, but he was tough. He was only one of 50 survivors of Sobibor, and he had a bullet in his chin when he died.”
ILENE SCHNEIDER IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE