Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity’s Writing/Art/Film Contest
What American would have imagined, just a few years ago, that a sharp rise in hate crimes and racist rhetoric would become so commonplace as the undercurrent of racism in America has risen to the surface in the current political landscape. Targeted groups, including American Jews, have been singled out in a resurgence of an “us vs. them” mentality. According to the Anti-Defamation League antisemitic incidents rose 86% in the past year. ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblat released a statement in April 2016, “There’s been a significant, sustained increase in anti-Semitic activity since the start of 2016 and what’s most concerning is the fact that the numbers have accelerated over the past five months.” Anyone familiar with the events leading up to the Holocaust cannot help but pause and reflect. This growing nationalism and intolerance among certain segments of the population in the United States has sharpened the focus of many humanitarian and civil rights based organizations. In this divisive climate the rise of antisemitism has served as a clarion call for the holocaust centers and museums around the country. The echo of history serves as a supplication to the world to enact change so that everyone is respected regardless of color, creed, gender or sexuality.
The intent of Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity is not only to act as a witness to the past, but to provide a means of engagement in a wider cause that promotes humanitarian values. In the words of director, Dee Simon, “Our Center teaches over 40,000 students a year to speak up for those who can not speak for themselves and to defend democracy by honoring all people." Like many other Jewish founded institutions, the Holocaust Center’s mission has become particularly relevant at this time in America. From its inception in 1989, it was understood that the key to holding the intent of “Never again” requires engaging the community at large and perhaps more importantly educating young people. The museum not only features historical information and artifacts of the Holocaust from local survivors, but loans “teaching trunks” full of curriculum and class sets of books free of charge to all teachers in the state of Washington. Speakers with first hand experience of the Holocaust are also available to classrooms and the on-site library and website are full of valuable resources. These important tools provide an important historical context in which to encourage tolerance and combat racism in today’s world.
A yearly Art/Film/Writing contest is an important part of this effort to engage young people and help them to make connections between the present and the past. The theme chosen this year was an especially relevant quote by Elie Wiesel, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
According to Ilana Cone Kennedy, Director of Education, “The topic this year was particularly timely considering our presidential election. (The topic was selected prior to the election.) Students were eager to express themselves and to consider ways in which each individual has opportunities to stand up for what they believe - sometimes in quiet ways and sometimes in loud and bold actions.” Kennedy believes that the relevance of the topic helped propel the participation among students. This year there were a record-breaking 912 entries from students of many backgrounds and nationalities representing 73 schools within Washington State.
This contest not only supports the mission of the Holocaust Center, but has had a significant impact on several of the participants. A former writing winner, Mohammed, was invited to speak and share his family’s own story of fleeing his home country at the Holocaust Center’s annual luncheon. Individuals in attendance offered him mentorships and he was able to secure a scholarship to Seattle University. He is currently continuing his education at Stanford. Aava, one of the first place writing winners donated her prize money to a humanitarian organization which supports the education of girls and recent graduate, Penny Rhines, a two time visual art winner is currently working on a novel about the Holocaust. She also served as one of the judges of this year’s art entries.
The Holocaust Center considers the Writing, Art and Film Contest to be one of the highlights of the year. In Kennedy’s words, “It is incredible to see the work that students are doing and how they are relating the difficult lessons of the Holocaust to their own lives and to the world today.” Perhaps its best said by 8th grader, Sarah Mercedes, in a statement attached to an art piece: “Many people feel silenced by society. It can be because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. But protest is one of the ways to be heard, to peel away what silences us. When we stand together and speak the truth we will become leaders, shining light in the darkness.” If these students’ strong voices are any indication, it is heartening that the future of our democracy will be in good hands.
(Full disclosure: Writer of this article served as juror for the art portion of the contest.)