Sunday, March 4, 2012

Memories Matter -- at Chapman University

On Friday, I attended the presentation of awards for Middle School and High School students at Chapman University's program: Memories Matter: Stories of the Holocaust. I'm embarrassed to admit that I was not familiar with Chapman University, and certainly had no idea that it had a thriving center focused on Holocaust Education, due in part to the presence of The "1939" Club, formed by a group of Holocaust Survivors.

Jointly sponsored by The Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University; The "1939" Club, an Organization of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants; The Samueli Foundation; and Dana and Yossie Hollander; in partnership with the Orange Country Department of Education; Catholic Schools, Diocese of Orange; and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.; Memories Matter was the 13th annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest, whose winners were announced Friday, March 2.

I was amazed to learn that this year's contest drew over 4000 entries, primarily from Catholic schools, but also a few Jewish schools, not just from Southern California but also from a Cesar Chavez Public Charter School: Parkside Campus, and Dunalastair School in Santiago, Chile. Four-thousand entries this year means, said William Elperin, President of The "1939" Club, that the competition has, conservatively, affected 500,000 people since its inception (counting all the classmates and families of all the students who have entered over the past 13 years).

I supposed I shouldn't have been surprised to see so few Jewish Middle and High Schools represented since Jewish schools maintain awareness of the Holocaust, and its lessons are very personal. And when you think about it, it's more meaningful for the message to affect non-Jews.

The students' essays, poems and artwork was based on interviews, or "testimonies," from individual Holocaust survivors who are part of the 1939 club, so they were more personal than generic. Adding a personal touch was a keynote address given by Esther Safran Foer, daughter of Holocaust survivors, and Director of the Sixth & I Street Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Ms. Safran Foer is also the mother of Jonathan Safran-Foer, author of "Everything is Illuminiated" (which was about traveling to the village his grandfather was from in search of the family that had hidden him during WWII, and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close;" Joshua Foer, memory champion and author of "Moonwalking with Einstein;" and Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic.

Ms. Safran Foer told the story of learning that her father, who had passed away when she was only 7 years old, had had another family prior to the Holocaust in which both his wife and daughter had perished. Learning that she had had a half-sister about whom she had never known led Ms. Safran Foer on the same journey that her son, Jonathan, had undertaken years earlier but with an added bit of knowledge: that the village in which her father had been hidden was not Trochtenbrod (where Jonathan had traveled) but another town (whose name I unfortunately missed). She undertook the journey, and with the help of a translator, found the descendants of the farmer who had hidden her father 70 years earlier, and learned her half-sister's name, which she entered into Yad Vashem's database. (I believe that the name of the farmer who had hidden her father was already recorded in Yad Vashem's Righteous Among Nations.

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