Thirty La Cañada High School middle-schoolers signed up this year for a homeroom that, instead of allowing them to catch their breath in the middle of a hectic school day, asked them to ponder and engage with some of the world’s most difficult subject matter.
The period was geared toward completing projects for Chapman University’s annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest, which, in partnership with the 1939 Society, invites middle school and high school students from around the world to create works of art in response to recorded oral testimonies from survivors.
Each school was permitted only three submissions into the competition, which in its 19th year asked participants to consider the theme, “Messenger of Memory.”
In LCHS 7/8’s first time taking part, each of its entries was recognized as one of four or five finalists in its respective category, from a field of thousands.
Such a successful showing is a rarity, teacher Leslie Baldwin was told when she and students Chloe Morgan, Sophia Ponce and Esme Salzman attended the awards ceremony March 9 at Chapman University. There, they heard from dignitaries and survivors, including one who thanked them for caring.
“I’ve got to say, it takes a special type of kid who chooses to watch Holocaust testimonials and do extra homework,” said Baldwin, who said the class produced 30 viable submissions, which had to be culled with an in-house contest judged blindly by administrators and teachers.
In the end, the LCHS 7/8 winners were Morgan’s animated movie, “La La,” which depicted the sweet tale of Roman Kent’s loyal dog; Ponce’s charcoal drawing, “Stronger Together,” about Renee Firestone’s first, cold, terrifying night at Auschwitz; and Salzman’s first poem, “June 27, 1942,” about the tranquil night before Gerda Weissmann Klein’s father was taken and sent to a death camp.
Their projects will be displayed at Open House on Thursday, April 5; a QR code for Morgan’s two-minute film will be displayed in the Information Resource Center on campus.
The girls said they signed up for Baldwin’s homeroom because they thought it would be interesting — and challenging.
They were right.
“When we first started watching the testimonials, after it I kind of felt sick,” Ponce said. “How can I live my regular life after listening to that?”
“It’s difficult to relate anything in our lives to the situations they went through,” Salzman said. “But you can still, especially with the testimonials, get the emotion that comes through.”
As Baldwin encouraged students to search for contrast and juxtaposition while reflecting on themes central to both the Holocaust and the world today, she found the class challenging, too.
“I was passing around snacks,” she said. “It was my weird way of trying to take care of them: ‘Here, have some cookies.’ But then part of me was like, ‘Is that too jarring?’ I said, ‘Raise your hand if it was too weird to eat cookies when they’re talking about surviving off potato peelings?’ I didn’t even know what was going to feel the most comforting to the students.
“But they were like, ‘Bring on the cookies.’”
Salzman said they’d studied the topic some as 7th-graders, when Morgan said they’d been assigned to read a chapter of Anne Frank’s diary and report on a particular aspect of the Holocaust, in her case, the Gestapo.
“This was more personal,” said Ponce, who wanted to learn more about the Holocaust “to learn to not do what people did before us.”
“I always thought it was interesting how a society could grow so much hate so quickly,” said Morgan, who purposefully and powerfully used bright colors and a childlike aesthetic to contrast the joy of puppies with the horrors of the period.
“I found Chloe’s particularly moving,” Baldwin said. “She connected this story of hers to love conquering hate ultimately.”
Ponce said she listened to several testimonials, but it was the vision of two sisters clinging to each other “for warmth and survival” the night they arrived together at a concentration camp that stuck with her most.
“And Sophia connected it with the divisiveness in our country right now,” Baldwin said. “That we really are stronger together.”
Salzman chose to ruminate on Weissmann Klein as a 15-year-old girl overhearing her parents discuss innocuous matters the night before their lives were forever upended
“Writing the poem, it was kind of a surreal experience,” Salzman said. “You’re watching these testimonials, but they’re all on the screen, so you’re getting the emotion, but then [at Chapman], when we saw some of the survivors, hearing their stories, that was really enlightening and powerful.”
June 27, 1942
Survivor Testimony: Gerda Weissmann Klein
Poem by Esme Salzman
For a glass of water,
I’m at a remembrance.
Their faces were not visible, but
I could still hear my parents in the dining room.
It was a funeral for the living,
the lives we led
and the memories we had.
Together, my mother and father,
recollecting their lives, before this all began,
their parents, what one generation had taught the next,
their children, pride of what small things we had accomplished before then,
their hopes, if life could continue like it had
they never mentioned what the morning would bring.
Most people think they will have time
to say goodbye, but they don’t.
It’s always a surprise
and it’s never at the right time.
did my parents know what to say? was it planned?
did they wish they had more time?
If only we did have more time.
I took my water and went back upstairs.