“…If you ever survive this war tell everyone how we went. Tell everyone how you said good-bye to me and remember one thing. Wherever you may be always wear a nice clean shirt and be clean. If someone throws a rock at you then throw them back bread.”
These are the words that Holocaust survivor Maurice Markheim will never forget. They comprise the indelible message that is etched into his memory as the last conversation he had with his mother.
When we viewed this piece, we were struck by these poignant and heartfelt words of love and kindness as well as the way in which Evan Hong, an eighth grader at Mariners Christian School in Costa Mesa, California, memorialized them by creating a wire silhouette as an art project her school submitted for Chapman University’s 21st Annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest.
Last year, thousands of middle and high school students from across the United States and seven other countries, watched survivor video testimonies and responded to the contest prompt through prose, poetry, art, or film. This year’s contest, now in its 22nd year, challenges students to reflect upon and interpret the theme, “Sharing Strength: Sustaining Humanity.”
To prepare students to participate in the contest, many teachers turn to Echoes & Reflections, a valued partner in the contest, for professional development and to help them provide historical context to the testimonies that students watch. This year, Chapman University will team up with Echoes & Reflections to offer a contest-specific professional development program to highlight key resources that align with the contest, as well as effective strategies to further student engagement with the testimonies they view.
In our respective roles as the Associate Director and Education Consultant for the Rodgers Center at Chapman University, we have seen the contest grow tremendously over the years. What we think continues to be particularly appealing and, perhaps why many teachers participate year after year, is the contest’s way of combining study of the Holocaust with the hands-on participation in the arts, offering students a platform and a voice to process and express their thoughts and reactions and to make their own, individual meaning.
In fact, this contest might offer even greater benefits to those participating. Authors Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen, write in their Brookings Institute blog, New Evidence of the Benefits of Arts Education, that participation in the arts challenge us with different points of view, compel students to empathize with “others,” and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition.1
For example, Noa Nerwich, a middle school student from King David Linksfield School in South Africa, drafted the following poem based on the testimony of Holocaust survivor Ruth Halbreich. It examines how a simple, everyday object, a “Maroon Hankie,” became a meaningful, everlasting and valued connection to her father.
Cleanly pressed and folded it was placed into my hand
A last token of a soon to be memory
I received a maroon hankie
I didn’t know the value of objects, until had one
I didn’t know the value of people, until I had none.
But my one object carried all the worth in the world
A maroon hankie
I don’t know what happened to him
All I know is the walls were rising
And there were bombs, more people dying
And Warsaw was in flames: Red, licking flames
Like the colour of my maroon hankie
We watched the window, havoc unleashed on our home
Yet we were the opportune, we were on the right side of the window pane
The side where we still wore silky dresses made by the sisters.
The same silk of my maroon hankie.
I was lucky
Not because I was saved
But because I learned the true meaning of love
His love was sewn into my heart
The same way I held the hankie so tight at night
That its fibers have sewn into the fibers of my skin
Because of my father’s honour I survived
Because of his love for us he died
He sacrificed it all so we could breathe the air of freedom
To the man who gave to me
The thing that has carried all of my tears
A maroon hankie
His maroon hankie
This year as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps we were reminded that today’s students are the last generation to hear directly from the survivors. As we look to the future, one of the lasting artifacts we have are the survivors’ precious video testimonies, a permanent record that captures their stories, warnings, and memories. The testimonies also stand as the fulfillment of a promise that the eyewitnesses made to each other during the Holocaust, in which they vowed if they survived to tell the story, to let the world know what happened and to do their utmost to assure that these events would never be forgotten. Students who participate in the contest have now become their “messengers of memory,” the ones entrusted with perpetuating this vow for generations to come and, as a recent survey has shown, their exposure to Holocaust survivor testimony can support them in building a better future.
This year’s contest information is now available and educators are invited to participate.
For more information: Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest
Contact: Jessica MyLymuk at email@example.com, (714) 532-6003
Note: Last year, Chapman University had to cancel its 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest awards ceremony, which was scheduled on March 13, 2020, due to the Coronavirus. A virtual program is posted on the contest website and can be watched here.
About the authors:
Jessica MyLymuk is the Associate Director at the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University and oversees the planning and implementation for the Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest.
Sherry Bard is an Education Consultant for the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and a Senior Training Specialist for the Echoes & Reflections program.
As we enter Genocide Awareness month in April, we offer our community an inside perspective on how to approach the important, yet challenging subject of the Holocaust in the classroom. Seasoned Echoes & Reflections teacher Lori Fulton, English 11 & Technical Reading and Writing instructor at Mattawan High School in Mattawan, MI, lends her perspective and approach to inspire students with these lessons from history to prevent future acts of hate.
Why do you feel it is necessary to teach about the Holocaust?
Teaching students about the Holocaust should be the responsibility of instructors in all secondary schools. As a high school English teacher, I am amazed at how little my students know about this subject. Sure, they know a little about Hitler and gas chambers, but they have no idea how the Versailles Treaty connects to the Nazis, most of my juniors assume all the death camps were in Germany, and none are aware of the 10 Stages leading to genocide.
More importantly, the Holocaust requires studying to prevent genocide from happening again. We are raising a generation of students who will one day rule the world. They are subjected to the constant noise of social media, which unfortunately at times, is accompanied by hate speech. They all have a sort of cyber-courage that makes them vulnerable to saying things online they would never say to anyone in person. As a result, there is almost a sense of acceptance of anything online. With that potentially comes the notion of denying the Holocaust, something that must be addressed as wrong and dangerous.
We live in a world where words breed hate, not just on the internet but from the mouths of our politicians. We see vandals desecrating Jewish cemeteries and tagging buildings with swastikas, as well as Americans in parades wearing Nazi-like uniforms; we hear of news of a person going into a synagogue and killing innocent worshippers. Our students see and hear all of this and need to know that hate didn't end or begin with the events of World War II.
Why should I teach the Holocaust? If I don't, who will? Who will provide students with the resources, the knowledge, and the ability to help them make up their own minds about that horrific time in world history? It is my duty and my desire to help students realize genocide can happen again and, as the next generation of Americans, they must do everything in their power to stop it.
What are some recommended strategies for teaching such a sensitive theme? How do you approach this important yet complex topic with your students?
We must approach the subject of the Holocaust with students in a sensitive manner to help them understand, remember, and hopefully eliminate future genocides. This means sharing the stories of those who faced life-and-death situations simply because of who they were. We cannot replicate their experiences through simulations, but we can learn from the experiences of others.
I start by introducing the idea of antisemitism. From there, we study pre-war Jewry, the Treaty of Versailles, then how Hitler rose to power, steps leading to genocide, the Final Solution, resistance, liberation, and what happened to European Jews following WWII.
Furthermore, personal stories are essential ingredients in the teaching of the Holocaust. The testimonies on the Echoes & Reflection's website and USC Shoah Foundations’ IWitness powerfully say what I cannot say.
Holocaust Films, as well as literature, are also great tools to reel in my students. Most of them are visual learners, so having new resources available to meet their learning styles is important to teach this complex subject.
I have traditionally shown Schindler’s List when teaching about the Holocaust. I cannot think of a better movie for my juniors to really set the stage for deeper learning and truly connecting to the story of Schindler and the Jews he saved. We discuss many questions that arise from the film: Who else is considered “Righteous Among the Nations” in the eyes of Yad Vashem--and what does that mean? What would have happened if Schindler's ultimate objective to save Jews was discovered? What happened to the survivors after liberation? Would I have the courage to save someone if it meant my possible death?
Finally, I take my juniors to the Holocaust Memorial Center and Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. For some of them, they have never been much farther than the next town over. A docent takes us through the museum to study the artifacts, as well as (again) the stories of individuals. This comes to the penultimate point of the unit where a survivor speaks to my students about his or her experience. This is life-changing for my students. Many are in tears by the end of the survivor's story.
If students are emotionally drawn into this experience, I feel I've done my job. They have seen a bigger picture of the Holocaust and genocide than they have ever seen before. History has come alive for them, but more importantly, they have come full circle in their learning experience. Most of my students will say the unit is the one they will never forget and graduates who return to visit express similar sentiments.
What specific resources would you especially like to highlight that support you in teaching about the Holocaust?
After spending several weeks last summer in Jerusalem as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem, I have gained deeper insight into resources that can support classroom instruction on the Holocaust. These include:
- Echoes & Reflections’ new timeline helps show the events leading up to when the Nazis came to power, as well as what happened as a result of it.
- Echoes & Reflections’ companion resource for Schindler's List, which includes survivor testimony, new handouts on historical context, and a series of discussion questions and writing prompts add to the unit and unpacking the film.
- The ADL Global 100 of Anti-Semitism. Students are shocked by the percentages of people with antisemitic attitudes in countries around the world. They simply cannot fathom the numbers. It also brings to light that hate still exists around the world.
Nothing, however, is more important than the testimonies of survivors as far as I'm concerned. Their recollections bring a perspective nothing else can-- not books, not films, not internet sources. The pathos of survivors’ experiences motivates my students to keep learning. Overall, the resources available from Echoes & Reflections and their Partners help enhance my unit on the Holocaust and genocide, making it relevant and inspiring to my high school juniors.
What do we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do? It’s a question with which I continuously grapple. It is impossible to deny that much of this history showcases the most devastating and bleakest views of humanity. Yet, despite this heart-breaking reality, as educators, we understand the critical importance of teaching our students the consequences of allowing antisemitism and other forms of bias and hate to pervade a society. From this realization, another equally vital question emerges: How do we best teach this history?
The horrors of the Holocaust are undeniable, and though they must be taught, it is imperative that students are able to understand the material in a way that inspires them to engage positively with their communities to ensure that the past does not repeat. Art can act as an excellent gateway for students to effectively connect to the lessons of this history. Art raises questions seldom addressed when dealing with a historical subject. Art elevates viewpoints to a whole different level, which traditional historical approaches alone cannot inspire. While there are many types of art mediums from the Holocaust, poetry in particular is an excellent way to engage students. Poetry highlights an individual’s voice. This allows the reader to more fully empathize with the author’s experience and inspires both personal reflection and a greater understanding of the subject matter. Essentially, Holocaust poems are the whispers and cries from a dark past that we must bring to light.
A poem I often recommend educators introduce into the classroom is Five, by Hanuš Hachenberg, a Jewish boy from Prague who wrote these words in 1943 when he was 13 years old.
This morning at seven so bright and so early
Five novels lay there, sewn up in a sack
Sewn up in a sack, like all of our lives
They lay there so silent, so silent, all five.
Five books that flung back the curtain of silence
Calling for freedom and not for the world
They’re somebody’s novels, somebody who loves them...
They call out now, they cried, they shed tears and they pleaded
That they hadn’t been finished, the pitiful five.
They declared to the world that the state trades in bodies,
And slowly they vanished and went out of sight
They kept their eyes open, they looked for the world
But nothing they found, they were silent, all five.
Hanuš wrote this poem and others, for Vedem (“We Lead”) - a clandestine magazine produced by Jewish teenage boys imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, amidst their crushing reality of ever-present death and disease, horrific overcrowding and hunger, living in constant fear of transports “to the east”, Hanuš and the boys of his dormitory performed an incredible act of resistance: they created. They secretly wrote stories, poems, jokes, and essays. They illustrated comics and drew fantasy drawings. They wrote bitterly about the inhumane prison they were forced to endure while trying to make sense of the hatred that had engulfed their lives. Mourning their lost childhoods, they still dared to hope that the world they knew would one day be restored. They cautiously dreamed of a brighter future. They remained determined to retain their human dignity in a world that had betrayed them, and their magazine was a means to that end.
Almost of all the young contributors to Vedem were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the 7,590 children deported eastward from Theresienstadt, a mere 142 survived to be liberated. Of Hanuš, all that remains behind to show that a person of such sensitivity and brilliance ever existed are his beautiful Vedem poems and writings and a few black and white sketches. Not one photograph of this young man survives. We know almost nothing of his early life, except that it probably wasn’t a very happy one — following his parents’ divorce Hanuš spent 5 lonely years in an orphanage. The few people who remember Hanuš can only tell us that he was a frail, thin child with very dark and expressive eyes. Even in death he left nothing tangible behind. We will never have the solace of putting a memorial rock on his tombstone, running our fingers lovingly over the name engraved on its surface, sanctifying it with our tears. Auschwitz is his grave, and his poem Five is his epitaph.
For me, Hanuš lives on in his poetry, and its power to move us. His maturity, sensitivity, and brilliance are almost palpable in each line that he writes. Reading the poems of Hanuš, I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of loss. And anger. And yet, his poetry offers us a conduit to connect students to his inner world, to give voice to his fear and despair, his anger, his hope, and his dread of being forgotten. It is a towering testimony to his humanity and individuality. The imagery in Five leaves us to face difficult and important questions to address with students:
- How could such grotesque hatred have led to these young innocent lives being cut short, like unfinished novels? How was this possible?
- What sack are the 5 books sewn into? Is it the closed sack of the impenetrable walls of Hanuš and his friends’ prison, Theresienstadt? Or are the novels engulfed by the indifference of the world, a world that would bury them out of sight, muffling their pleas and stifling their cries?
- And the most heartbreaking question of all: If only the five books had been completed, if only they had been allowed to reach their natural conclusion, what might have been contained in their chapters and pages? What could Hanuš and his friends have given the world? Furthermore, what could a million and a half murdered children have given the world?
I think this is at the heart of what we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do. As we accept the challenge of teaching our students this painful history we can amplify it by the use of powerful mediums such as poetry; mediums that can inspire important and meaningful reflection. As educators, we want our students to be the ones to open the sealed sack, take out the forgotten books within, read their brief unfinished chapters, vow to remember the stories, and assure the voices behind them are still heard. By adding to our teaching the personal artistry of the poet, we not only honor the memory of Hanuš, his friends, and all victims of the Holocaust, but also inspire students to reflect on and create more healthy and humane futures.
About the Author: Liz Elsby is a Holocaust Educator and Museum Guide who has worked at Yad Vashem since 2006.
Looking for additional ways to teach about the Holocaust using art and poetry? Please explore the following resources from Echoes & Reflections and our Partners:
- Webinars: Creating Portraits as Testimony and Using Poetry to Teach the Holocaust
- Lesson Plans:
- IWitness Activity: Found Poetry from Holocaust Testimony
- Article: A Creative Response to the Holocaust, Genocide, and Injustice
- Video Toolboxes (Yad Vashem):
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: this toolbox video includes a discussion of “Written in the Sealed Railway Car” by Dan Pagis, found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on “The Final Solution”
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: “Testimony” by Dan Pagis: this poem is also found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on the “The Final Solution”
I knew spending a week studying the Holocaust would be an intense undertaking. What I didn’t realize is that spending a week bearing witness at the sites of these atrocities would also be heartbreaking. And while my experience on Echoes & Reflections Educational Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem was both of these things, it was also enlightening and empowering. We all left a piece of ourselves in Poland, but took away so much more.
Holocaust education has always been a passion of mine. Something about the resilience of the Jewish people, the ability to have seen so much hatred, but still stand strong inspires me. I have participated in numerous professional development programs on the subject. I have also been lucky enough to spend two summers as part of the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Conference with ADL, which allowed me to convene with other experienced Holocaust educators from around the country for a multi-day in-depth exploration of Echoes & Reflections materials. I have always left these experiences with a renewed mission and a stronger commitment to my students to educate them on the important lessons of the Holocaust, which often includes telling the stories that are difficult to hear. When I saw the opportunity to further my studies and my understanding of the Holocaust with a group of educators who are equally as passionate as I am, I jumped at the opportunity to visit Poland. I have always told my students that my voice cannot do justice to the stories of this time period. I was not there, I did not live it, and I never stood where the victims and survivors stood, so how could I truly understand? It was my hope that in taking part in this journey that I would be able to do just that—to give voice and do justice to those who lost their lives.
As our group came together, we discovered we were all on this trip for different reasons. Yet, we all had one thing in common: we were all there to bear witness. To say, “I have seen. I will not forget.” Every day was harder than the one before. Every day we would feel both depleted and fulfilled. Every night we would question whether we could see any more, feel any more. It is something special to allow yourself to be vulnerable with a group of strangers. But through this journey, we became something more. Sharing in this experience has changed all of us—it has left its mark on our hearts.
Our week in Poland was heavy and it would have been easy to be pulled into a spiral of depression. In our five days, we visited extermination camps, sites of mass graves, and heard the stories of death and destruction as we stood within the ghetto walls. But throughout these visits, we also heard stories that filled us with hope. We heard stories of resistance—people who fought back in any way that they could. We heard stories of love, of friendship, of family. Through these stories, we began to see not the nameless faces of the victims, as the Nazis intended, but the individuals. One of the most powerful moments during the trip was when we each presented on a person that we were asked to research. When we arrived to a site that connected with our person, we shared about their life.
I was asked to research Mordechai Anielewicz. Mordechai was a leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and was instrumental in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and inspiring and leading the Jewish people to fight back against the Nazis. As I was researching and sharing his life, I was struck by how incredibly young he was during these events. I always talk to my students about how their voice matters and Anielwicz’s story further confirmed my belief that today’s youth have the power to inspire change. I viewed testimony where a survivor remembers being introduced to Anielewicz as “Mr.”, even though he was only about 20 years old. It didn’t matter to his people how young he was, what mattered was his passion and his belief in what he was asking of his people. I was also struck by Mordechai’s willingness to give his life for his cause. In his final letter, he writes “The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality.” As I stood at the site of the bunker where Mordechai took his final breaths, I was overwhelmed by his bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of evil. As we shared stories of bravery, resistance, and love , these victims have marked our hearts and we will never forget their names. We will remember them. We will be their voice.
I believe in “never again.” I believe if we show our students and teach them about the atrocities of the past, we can make a better future. This trip strengthened this belief and emphasized the importance of what we do every day as educators. Every voice matters. It is our job as educators to help our students find their own. It is our responsibility to ensure that our students have open eyes and open hearts, using the stories of the past to shape our future.
About the Author: Ashley Harbel is an English teacher at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH.
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