Telling History Forward

Posted by Guest Blogger on January 21, 2016

This is the time of year many Facing History teachers introduce their students to a study of the Holocaust - humanizing an event that can otherwise seem overwhelming. Many teachers use art or writing as part of the way students both process and share their learning, and the Chapman University Holocaust Art and Writing Contest is one way to do that with the added benefit of an authentic, external audience.

Hear one teacher describe her experience.

I introduced the Chapman University Holocaust Art & Writing Contest to my AP World History class recently. My students, juniors and seniors in high school, are very focused on GPA, transcripts, and college applications. I can almost see them calculate point value with every assignment I present. This time, it was different. I began with the story of my mother-in-law, who is a Holocaust survivor from Poland. During the war she spent over a year in hiding in the basement of a Catholic school after losing her family. She was discovered just after the end of the war by a cousin who was in the American Army in a displaced persons camp in Austria. As I shared these personal details, I could see a range of emotions on my students’ faces as they began to sit up and pay attention. They asked questions and I could see a shift in their thinking as they started to see the contest not just as just another assignment, but as something intrinsically significant on levels beyond competition or the garnering of points.

Next, I explained how the contest works, beginning with the required viewing of a full-length Holocaust video testimony, followed by how to respond to the contest prompt and create a response. I emphasized that as they listen to the testimony, they should think about how to ‘own’ the words of the survivor and that we have an obligation to do more than just hear history. I wanted to challenge my students to consider what it means to connect with another human being through personal narratives. As a history teacher, I feel it is the duty and the honor of an empathetic person to be a carrier of history, not just a recipient. My ultimate goal is for my students to acknowledge the value of others, and it begins by hearing their stories. Each of us has a story; each story is valuable in what it can teach us about others, the world, and ourselves.

2257Every year that I have participated in the Chapman contest, I am moved by the intensity of the responses from some of my students. Not all are capable of a powerful level of empathy due to maturity, but there are always a few who make a real connection with the survivor, the story, or the imagery of the testimonial that beautifully reaffirms a faith in humanity.

The contest allows for a conversation to take place about the Holocaust that can be honest, personal, and meaningful for young people. It is a complex subject, but these narratives get to the heart. The following are sample dialogues between my students and me.

What is it I’m supposed to get out of watching this interview? It’s HOW long? That will take forever!"

Yes, I reply to the young student, it might take a few hours of your immortal life to become a part of something greater than yourself. Yes, there are things greater than yourself in the world. There are stories you have never heard because some adults think you are too young to hear them; but there are children who lived those stories who were too young to have lived them. You owe it to them to at least listen.

Mrs. Richonne, how come you didn’t tell me this would make me cry? He was only six years old! She was only eight years old! I was playing with toys and complaining about my little brother being so stupid when I was six years old!"

Yes, I reply to the young student, they were just children when they learned that evil does exist in the world. Because they were children, their stories are told from naïve eyes that had yet to learn about the darkness that adults can create. When you listen to their stories, go back in time – back beyond the wrinkled faces and bent backs and slow speech – to the time when eyes were wide and saw the world as it was presented to them. Know that these children refused to let go of what they learned and want to share it with you so you will recognize evil and do something to stop it.

I’m not sure I can ever understand how they kept going. I’m sure I would have just died. No, like, literally, died. It is amazing they are still alive after all that! How can a person go through all that and not be crazy, or just die?"

1744Now you start to see why this contest is so important. It’s not the contest, the competition, or the winning. It is the learning. And not just about an event in the textbook called ‘The Holocaust’. Learn from them. Know that if you face troubles in your life, you have the capacity to go on – to not go crazy or just die. Good men and women have strong souls that cannot be shattered. You are a good person. You can survive and should make sure that your story is told before your light fades. These people are important because they are people, as are you. We are all important.

She was so brave, hiding for so long. I wonder if I could be so brave? What happened to the Nazis who did this? What happened to the guards at the camps? How could they do such things? What is wrong with people?"

Many questions, some with no answers, I reply to the young student. What happened to the perpetrators? Some were caught and punished; some got away. I hope some repented and atoned, but it is only a hope. What is wrong with people? That is a great question that has no single answer. Studying this moment in time will, hopefully give you some insight into how to ask questions of not only yourself but of others. By listening to people, some who were able to forgive those who took away some of their sunlight, we might learn how to forgive as well. By listening to those who were not able to forgive, we might learn why it can be so difficult. I think you can be brave, I hope you never have to find out.

This man was so old. I never thought of old people having been young. They just seem to be always old. I think I’ll talk to my grandfather."

(I silently look to the skies and murmur, ‘I win!’.) Yes, young student, we all start out young. I know, it seems weird. And on the way to old we learn and play. We gather stories and weave our lives with others. This is your opportunity to join in the tapestry of someone you have never met. Make their story part of your existence – learn from it, make use of it, and share it with others. Just because one generation is leaving does not mean the value of that generation is leaving. We can learn it, use it, and send it forward to the next generation.

  • LEARN MORE about the Holocaust Art & Writing Contest.
  • REGISTER so you can submit your students' work by February 3rd.
  • EXPLORE additional resources on survivor testimony.


About the author:

Blue MosqueMy name is Judy F. Richonne. I have been teaching since 1999, starting in the Middle School and the moving to the High School. As a history teacher, I enjoy sharing the narrative of human actions with students and helping young learners to understand not only their past, but also how the past gives meaning to the present and the future. I currently teach at University High School in Irvine, California sharing with my students AP World History, AP United States History, and AP Psychology. As well as being very involved with Chapman's Holocaust Art & Writing Contest for the past six years, I am also a National History Day Coach and Judge and was honored to be recognized as the NHD Teacher of the Year for 2015.

Topics: Holocaust and Human Behavior

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