Chapman University had a wonderful prompt for their annual art and writing contest this year. “As you listen to the survivor’s or rescuer’s testimony, and as you reflect on the stories they tell, write down a specific word, phrase, or sentence that speaks to the inner strength of this individual and the role of connectedness in sustaining strength. As the person now entrusted with this individual’s memory, through your creativity in art, poetry, or prose, explore this word, phrase, or sentence as central to the survivor’s or rescuer’s story, your understanding of the Holocaust, and your own search for inner and shared strength during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Because of pacing issues, my students weren’t able to participate in this year’s contest, but I did use the prompt for my 10th-grade Holocaust unit and we participated in a joint LAUSD-Glendale Unified zoom session with survivor Joseph Alexander. Here are some of the entries from my 10th-grade World History students along with my comments on how they connected the Holocaust testimony to their lives and survival of COVID.
Another poem with the required connection and explanation to the student’s life follows below:
A fence separating sides, never looked so diminishing as now.
Fences everywhere left and right in my life. Everything closed off at one point.
Hungary fenced off to Czech Republic. Soon being fenced off of my own home.
Closed off from real life trapped in a world where no one seems to relate on the outside.
The ghetto stripping us of our rights, fenced from the light, closed to the conditions set for us.
Treated lower than others making us feel diminished. No hope, no sight, fenced to my real life.
One point I believed it would end, let out of the ghetto only to be trapped in carts for days.
No food, no space, no necessities, we are going to waste.
Our lives mean no more than a dime to them. I wonder why. What have I done to deserve this?
I am Jewish, what a crime.
A child, suffering a punishment cruel to man.
Ripped away from my parents, what if I never see them again I thought?
Off to the crematorium my mother went, reuniting with her only in dreams.
Fenced from my family now alone with my sister.
Stripped from my beauty, my clothes and hair stripped from me fenced from what was mine.
Yellow stripes from my head and back. I was called over before, for my looks.
Perfect Aryan they said. Blonde with blue eyes. Baffled when they figured I was Jewish.
A waste they said, frustrated I was let go.
Only to eventually be fenced from my sister once more.
Meeting her from a fence everyday.
Restricted from where I once was. Off to a side where I was going to live when my sister wasn’t.
Seeing her making sure she was okay was the only thing keeping me going.
One day she did not come. Worried I waited for days.
Concluding she was selected.
Fenced off from every part of what my life once was, I have no will.
Death looked me in the eyes wishing it would take me but I survived.
With the help of others I made it through.
Auschwitz to factories in kettle carts once more. No space, no room, no life.
Working until we were set free. Fenced from all free life no knowing what it would be like.
Not knowing when it was over. Confused but curious freedom in such a similar state.
Soon enough the fenced dropped.
Not being able to differentiate what was allowed and what wasn’t.
The fence disappeared. I reunited with my brother.
A long road ahead but eventually the sun will shine again.
Explanation: Renee Firestone is a Holocaust survivor who came from a well off happy family where she knew enough to associate herself as a Jew but not educated enough to be a master in the religion until later on in life where she learned more. She was taken to Auschwitz where she
was separated from her family and fenced off from the only person she had left, her sister who was then selected and she really had no one left in the camp. She was fenced off everything in her life and in some aspects through covid we were fenced off our ordinary life as well. Not that
our lives could ever be compared to theirs through covid because we have been fortunate to make it our health and make it this far without losing someone. The situations are not compatible at all but there are similar feelings throughout. In my quarantine experience,
although I was safe, my family and I still got covid a few months back. Through my whole covid positive experience, I was separated from my parents and I had to stay with my sister who also got covid and we all quarantined separately. My father was the only one who did not get covid despite being near my mom to help her while simultaneously helping my siblings and I. My siblings and I were fortunate to make it out well and have little to no symptoms but it was different for my mom. My mom was very ill and could not move for anything. She was so sick
that she almost had to go to the hospital because she would not breathe. I was very worried for my mom because it made me sad that she was that sick but fortunately, she got better but as she was getting better, her mother passed away from natural causes which was also very rough
for her. Throughout his whole time i felt isolated from those that i loved and i was isolated from the world. There were fences all around even though there was nothing there. Restrictions and quarantine life was still rough but nothing extreme. It is nothing compared to what Renee
Firestone endured. A little taste of what she had but 20x worse is what I think covid was for me. I relate to Renee though the feeling of being fenced off of your life and those who you love.
This student made strong connections with her survivor’s testimony and being separated from her father during COVID. They elaborate on the theme of separation with their family history. I appreciated their citing the image and identifying their original art. The composite of the image, quote, and original artwork add up to a powerful experience.
This well done example makes a connection to labor as a benefit. This student elaborates with the work they have done with their father and cites how meaningful work kept them sane and happy. This learning experience demonstrates that tenth grade students can study the past and improve their self-awareness. CASEL defines self-awareness as the abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose.