Purposeful Telling: Memory to Action

Posted by Celina Martinez on November 5, 2018

“Humanity is a complex idea. On one level, it simply means being human. On another level, however, it means being humane. What is the difference? Justice.”

Katherine McPhie, Grade 10 University High School, Irvine, CA

Facing History congratulates Chapman University and the 1939 Society for their 20th Anniversary of the Annual Art & Writing Contest! We have been a long-term partner with Chapman University in bringing this history and rich learning experience to students world-wide. The Chapman Art and Writing Contest has been instrumental in bringing the voices of Holocaust survivors and rescuers to inspire the learning and artistic expression of countless Facing History students.

Night of the Broken Glass and Broken Hearts by Ashlyn Elggren, Grade 11The contest provides a platform for student voice and artistic expression in the categories of Art, Film, Prose, and Poetry. Facing History teachers have taken this opportunity to have their students bear witness to history in a way that is far more personal than history books. Each student views the testimony of a survivor or rescuer as part of the process. The middle and high school student then turns that inspiration and reflection into art. As a result, the students also come to understand the importance of bearing witness to those stories.

The image to the right is Night of the Broken Glass and Broken Hearts by Ashlyn Elggren, Grade 11.

As the decades after the Holocaust have passed, survivors came to believe that testifying about their experiences was their obligation not only to the past but to the future. Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel wrote that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

Eumee Lee, from Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, CA, says:

“One day the survivors won’t be able to tell it [their stories] themselves and since we have the privilege of learning and hearing that personal story from them, I think it is our personal duty to pass on that story to other people in our community.”

Listening to memory offers us the possibility to learn, find purpose and act. That is exactly how Chapman University, in collaboration with the 1939 Society, approach their annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest. They ask students to listen to the testimony of Holocaust survivors and learn from them, find a purpose in their witnessing of history, and articulate their own vision of how to make positive change in their communities and our world.

For some students, this contest is their first encounter with this history and with first hand accounts of the Holocaust. Miriam Scatterday, a high school Poetry winner said, “I was awakened suddenly out of my indifferent sleep, jolted to stunned awareness by stories of injustice.

Sometimes, it’s the struggle to articulate their thoughts and feelings that infuses the students’ art. One example is from a first place winner in the Poetry category. After listening to the survivor testimony of Ludmila Page, Emily van Oudenhove, winner in the Poetry category from Johannesburg, South Africa expressed herself in the following manner:

“...How can I write about her suffering?

By smoothing and slapping it into a rhyme?

Presenting it on beautiful paper, itching for a big gold star?

I cannot I will not attempt to put salve on wounds too deep

for me to comprehend, too wide for me to fathom…”

 The impact that the contest has had throughout the years on students around the world is immeasurable. Click here to see examples of past winners of the contest over the past 20 years. Below is an example of a student winner Hailey Shi in the Film category responding to the survivor testimony of Gerda Weismann:



2019 Prompt

Select and view one full-length survivor or rescuer testimony from any of the following:

  • The 1939 Society website at the1939society.org
  • Chapman University’s Holocaust Art and Writing Contest website featuring video testimonies from the collection of the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education at chapman.edu/contest-testimonies
  • USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/uscshoahfoundation (“Full-Length Testimonies” playlists only)


After you listen to the testimony of a survivor or rescuer, think about that individual's motivation in telling their story. What would you say their purpose is and what specific memory in that testimony brought you to this understanding?

Through your creativity, in art, prose, poetry or film, express this memory as the inspiration for your own purposeful action.

Entry Postmark Date: February 1, 2019

Digital Submission due date: February 4, 2019

Awards Ceremony: March 8, 2019

You can find information here about the contest and about criteria for each category.


Topics: Contests, Memory, Choosing to Participate, Survivor Testimony

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