The Holocaust may be a dark page from human history, but it's one that students across New York were able to learn from during a recent essay contest sponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center and the New York State Bar Association.
On Tuesday, the Jackson Center welcomed the winners of the ninth annual Young Reader Program essay contest, which this year focused on the award-winning book, "Hana's Suitcase," by Karen Levine. The book connects three characters, Hana Brady, a young Jewish girl who was murdered at Auschwitz; a Japanese curator determined to share her story; and Hana's brother in Canada, and was the subject of the statewide essay contest. Winners were invited to have dinner at the Jackson Center, which was followed by a recognition ceremony in the auditorium and an interview with Sophia, a Holocaust survivor.
This year's essay contest winner was Malacher Johnson, while Sophia Adams and Pahola Gonzalez were awarded honorable mentions. All three were given certificates recognizing their work, as well as signed copies of the book that was the basis for their essays.
Pictured are the three winners of the contest who were invited to the Jackson Center for dinner with Karen Levine, author of “Hana’s Suitcase,” and an awards ceremony, from left: Sophia, Malacher Johnson, Sophia Adams, Pahola Gonzalez, and Karen Levine.
P-J photo by Ryan Atkins
"For about 40 years the New York State Bar Association has had this education outreach program to help students and teachers learn about new ways to teach civics, and we got involved with the Jackson Center because they wanted to do an essay contest, having kids write about civil rights," said Eileen Gerrish, law, youth and citizenship program director. "We thought that this was a worthwhile use of our time and resources, so we started helping them out. The Jackson Center picks the book, then we write a theme and a rubric and decide what the rules are going to be. We then collect the essays and pick the winners, and the Jackson Center holds this wonderful event."
After nearly a decade of partnership, the essay contest has covered topics including civil rights in the South, the Holocaust and more. Books are carefully selected by a panel of educators chosen by the Jackson Center.
"The kids do an outstanding job writing, the teachers get excited about it, and then the wonderful thing is that the Jackson Center gets the kids here to meet the author," said Gerrish.
Levine was no stranger to the Jackson Center, either, having been invited to participate in this program previously.
"This is the second time that I've been here," said Levine. "The first time was six or seven years ago. I was thrilled to come then, and about a year ago Greg Peterson got in contact with me and asked if I would come back. I was really very pleased. The essays from the students were very impressive. There was a contest the last time I was here, and I think that's a great thing that the Jackson Center and the New York State Bar Association puts together. I had dinner with the winners, and that was just a treat to be with them. I really think that they got the message, and that's the wonderful thing about going to places like this."
The program will continue today when nearly 500 children from area schools come to the Jackson Center for a program hosted by Levine. Levine hopes, she said, that the children will bring the lessons of her story into their lives, just as the children who entered the essay contest did.
Following the presentation of awards, Sophia from the Holocaust Resource Center in Buffalo took to the stage in for an interview with Greg Peterson from the Jackson Center. She spoke in detail about her time as a young girl in Holland during World War II, watching the German soldiers slowly take over and eventually ship many of her relatives to concentration camps throughout Europe. Sophia herself spent time at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany.
"You didn't have to work, you just had to try to stay alive," said Sophia. "You had no past, you had no future - you were just living for that day."
Near the end of the interview, Peterson mentioned that there were three types of people that were necessary for atrocities such as the Holocaust to occur - victims, perpetrators and bystanders. Sophia, however, corrected him, saying that there was a fourth group that needed to be recognized, and that was the rescuers and the caregivers - those that fought back against the injustice.
"People interviewed the rescuers, and they thought that they would say that God told them to act, or something of that nature, but they didn't say that," said Sophia. "They shrugged their shoulders and said that they felt these people were worse off than they were and they had to help. The same interviewers came back over and over until they discovered why these rescuers put themselves in danger for strangers. Most of these people came from families who were the caregivers in their community. If the neighbors were sick, they brought them chicken soup. If the neighbors had to go somewhere, they took care of the children. If the neighbors needed advice, they were the person to talk to. We can't be bystanders anymore, we have to be caregivers. We have to bring the chicken soup where it is most needed. If we have to go to Rwanda to bring the chicken soup, we do it. If we have to go to Syria to bring the chicken soup, we do it. There's no excuse. As human beings we have to take care of our neighbors."
The Robert H. Jackson Center is located at 305 E. Fourth St. in Jamestown. For more information about the center and its upcoming programs, call 483-6646 or visit www.roberthjackson.org.