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March 22, 2011 > Students win at Holocaust Art and Writing Contest

Students win at Holocaust Art and Writing Contest

By Aishwarya Thakur
Photos By Katherine Geers

Chapman University and The "1939" Club, one of the largest Holocaust survivor organizations in the U.S., brought together nearly 30 finalists and approximately 60 survivors for its Holocaust Art and Writing Contest. Held on March 4 in Orange County, California, high school and middle school students demonstrated their skills in prose, poetry and art while connecting with survivors who were present. The theme for 2011 was "Spaces of Memory."

Participants watched a survivor's testimony and created an artwork connecting an event in their life with that survivor. Testimonies were available through the Shoah Foundation and The "1939" Club. Each school that participated sent three student entries which were narrowed to 30 finalists, including middle and high school students. Five finalists from each division-prose, poetry, art-were present at the awards ceremony.

Mission San Jose High School (MSJHS) has participated in the contest for the past two years, the only northern California school to do so. Sophomore English Teachers Katherine Geers and Jennifer Moore were invited to participate by Dr. Marilyn J. Harran at Chapman University, the Director of the Rodgers Center, while attending the Belfer II National Conference for Educators. Sophomore English curriculum involves reading memoirs and learning about the Holocaust and its effects on humanity. The Holocaust Art and Writing Contest was a good fit with the curriculum and gave meaning to student readings and studies.

Last year MSJHS had one finalist in the art division. This year, the two top contest winners from the school, Sophomore Sonali Toppur won first place for poetry and Sophomore Sherry Xiao won second place for art. Both students and teachers Geers and Moore were flown to Orange County by Chapman University, to attend the awards ceremony. Furthermore, Toppur won $500 and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington D.C. to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Xiao was awarded $250.

The finalists enjoyed the opportunity to meet the survivors upon whom they based their work and to see their pieces appreciated. Toppur said, "When I was reading my poem it was scary because there were so many people but all the survivors were sitting in the first three rows and they were so happy. They were smiling and waving to me!"

Toppur wrote her poem about how the survivor, whose testimony she watched, hid under the large leaves of a beetroot plant to escape Nazi soldiers. Xiao, whose artwork represented the fractured yet strong relationship she has with her father, who lives in China, connected her artwork with the love "her survivor" had for her father who placed his daughter in an orphanage to save her. Xiao said, "It was a meaningful experience and we were able to see the survivors, face-to-face. It gave a new dimension to the stuff we learned about and it motivates you to do something more and take action to enrich the community."

Both finalists are students of Geers who was immensely proud of their accomplishments and gratified by the experience. She said, "I think the point is to make that connection with a person who has experienced so much and bridge the gap between past experiences and common humanity."

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