Fair Game

By TOM JOHNSON

 

Thurston eighth grader wins distinguished Chapman University Holocaust essay contest

Laguna Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) announced last week that Izzie Tran, an eighth grader at Thurston Middle School, has won first place in the 25th Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest.

Tran’s winning entry was entitled “Mourning Silence,” a response to the testimony of Kurt Messerschmidt who described the aftermath of Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night” or the “Night of Broken Glass”) when some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps (History.com).

According to LBUSD’s Anakaren Ureno, their director of Communications and Engagement, this year’s theme, “Answering the Call of Memory: Choosing to Act,” encouraged participants to select and watch a full-length testimony of a Holocaust survivor or rescuer from specified sources, including the Chapman University Holocaust Art & Writing Contest and the USC Shoah Foundation. They identified a compelling memory from the testimony, noting the specific word, phrase, or sentence, that inspired them to act in memory of the Holocaust. This inspiration was to be explored creatively through art, poetry, prose, or film, embodying the participant’s response to the call of memory.

“I love reading these submissions and always look forward to guiding students through the process. They often surprise themselves with their ability to empathize with individuals who lived through unimaginable atrocities nearly a century ago,” said Thurston Middle School English Language Arts teacher Laura Silver. “Their enthusiasm for sharing these testimonies with each other, marveling at the resilience of those who endured, is heartwarming and inspiring. I appreciate LBUSD for allowing us to include the study of the Holocaust in the 8th grade ELA curriculum. This unit is all about creating empathetic citizens, which is one aspect of our district’s learner profile. That’s what I get to witness: students who show compassion and kindness and a desire to speak out against injustice,” she concluded.

The contest, now in its 25th year, attracts participants from various corners of the globe, including students from more than 250 middle schools and high schools. According to organizers, the writing topics change each year, although the primary goal remains constant: “offering students the opportunity to connect with the testimony of a Holocaust survivor and to experience being a witness to history.”

The event is co-sponsored by the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University and The 1939 Society, an Organization of Holocaust Survivors, Descendants and Friends.

Organizers added, “The recognition of Tran’s powerful writing underscores the value of cross-curriculum engagement and the importance of connecting classroom lessons with real-world history, like the Holocaust, to enhance learning and cultivate empathetic citizens. Stories of courage and humanity, like those of Miep Gies and Oskar Schindler, teach the vital lesson that every individual can make a significant contribution to shaping a just global future.”

“As the principal of Thurston Middle School, I am deeply privileged to engage daily with students who, like Izzie Tran, are passionate about making a positive impact in the world. Izzie truly embodies the spirit of our students: young, yet incredibly motivated to effect change,” said Joe Vidal. “Her achievement is a testament to the values we cherish and the hopeful future our students are building.”

Izzie was recognized at an award ceremony held on March 15 in Chapman University’s Memorial Hall. The event was attended by approximately 700 students, parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders and Holocaust survivors, who celebrated outstanding student achievements in prose, poetry, art and film, as well as the dedication of their teachers.

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of LBUSD

Isabelle Tran (right, at podium) shares her Holocaust award-winning essay on stage in Memorial Hall at Chapman University

First place student winners in the United States, their parents/guardians and teachers will be invited to participate in an expense-paid study trip June 24-28, 2024, to visit the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Japanese American National Museum and other sites in Los Angeles, as well as to meet with members of The 1939 Society.

Those of us at Stu News Laguna are honored to share Izzie Tran’s winning essay below and congratulate her on the accolades:

Mourning Silence

Isabelle Tran, Grade 8 Thurston Middle School

Laguna Beach Teacher: Laura Silver
Survivor Testimony: Kurt Messerschmidt

As the first rays of sunlight timidly peeked through the shroud of gloom blanketing Berlin, a young man, Kurt Messerschmidt, began his journey through Friedrichstrasse. The sun’s rays illuminated the shattered remnants of storefront windows, casting haunting reflections on the shards glimmering on the streets. The once bustling avenues now murmured tales of terror from the night before. The sinister smirks alighting the Sturmabteilung’s patrols’ faces were the only witnesses of the brutality of that night. The Nazis had fulfilled their threat.

Every push against his pedal was a drumbeat of defiance. He vowed to himself never to join the ranks of those submissively kneeling by their storefronts, praying for help, or to join those who hid, peering through their half-closed shutters at the desolation of their peers. He refused to let the Nazis see his despair.

He kept pedaling for several miles over broken glass, torn clothes, and the remnants of the hopes and dreams of Jewish families. His bike, wobbling from the splinters of glass grazing its tires.

Until he stopped. A crowd of civilians and sniggering Sturmabteilung members surrounded a tiny cigar shop. Kneeling at the storefront, on his quivering, bent knees, the gentle old owner stooped as he gingerly gathered glass with his quaking, gnarled hands. Like a mourner amidst a graveyard, he painstakingly collected each fragment so carefully that onlookers wondered if they were a hidden treasure, for he treated each one as though it were a tombstone, each marking the loss of innocence, trust, and justice.

Piece by piece. Shard by shard. Splinter by splinter.

The old man bloodied his hands. The only noise was the shuffling of his feet and his labored breathing. Yet, no one moved. No one blinked. No one wavered at this sickening sight. Until Kurt shoved his way forward. Casting aside his bike, he too knelt. He didn’t kneel in submission to the leering Sturmabteilung’s members; he knelt in defiance. Delicately, he plucked shards from the ground, refusing to wince even as fragments pierced his skin. They knelt like this, somberly mourning the loss of their nationalist pride, the disrespect of their religion, and the disregard for their fellowship as humans.

Now, the civilians there might say the silence suppressed them, preventing them from taking action, however, then, it was their “silence [that] did the harm.”

Silence penetrates society. By remaining silent, we conform. However, this only ostracizes ourselves from our true identities. By blending in, we stand out. Stand out as Frankensteins pieced together with our shattered morals, lost convictions, and the imposed ideals of society. The constant hope of everyone, myself included, to be part of the popular group has inundated society. I’m inspired to escape from the cage of society’s ideals. As students, everyone wants to be popular, but I’ve learned I don’t need to be popular amongst others – just fine with myself. While it’s easy to conform, you lose your true self, and like shattered glass, once broken, it’s impossible to piece together. 

To find out more about the Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest, go here.


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