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Showing posts with label Youth Writing Contest. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Youth Writing Contest. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Featured Jewish Partisan - Sonia Orbuch, Born May 24

“I didn’t even bend down my head, I wasn’t worried that I was going to get killed, If I was going to get killed I was going to get killed as a fighter, not because I am a Jew.”
— Sonia Orbuch, during JPEF interview.
Sarah Shainwald was 14 years old and ready to start high school when the bombs began falling on September 1st, marking the official start of World War II. The Soviets invaded Poland from the east and Lubomi was handed to the Russians under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland between the two powers.

For two years, with Lubomi under the Soviets, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.
When the Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but this group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.
Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sara began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.
Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned to guard duty and providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. The camp had several thousand members and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:
“During the daytime, the fights were terrible...you didn’t take off your shoes, you didn’t wash; you barely ate. You just worked very hard providing whatever comfort your could...I was frightened, horrified at the numbers of people we lost.”
To avoid possible torture and interrogation in the event of capture, Sonia carried two hand grenades on her person, “One for the enemy, and one for myself.”
In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.
As the war ended, Sonia focused her energy on getting to America. These days, Sonia lives in Northern California. But the past is never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia says. “I see them always before my eyes.”
Sonia defiantly proclaims. “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on.
Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia says. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”
She continues to share her experiences - most recently, she participated in our live Q&A Partisan Webcast. Over twenty schools tuned in to watch. She was also featured in several of the winning essays from our 2012 Youth Writing Contest - click here to read them. Pictured below is Sonia with last year's contest winner EJ Weiss:
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about the Sonia Orbuch, including seven videos of Sonia reflecting on her time as a partisan. You can also download our study guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman With The Russian Partisans.
Sonia has written about her experiences in the partisans in her book Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream, available on Amazon.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Educator Guest Blog: Jaclyn Guzman Zarrella - Partisans, Parallel History, and Teaching with the Youth Writing Contest

"Teaching a partisan unit is not teaching an 'instead of' history of the Holocaust ... it is learning about a parallel story. An incredible story of strength, courage, and - above all - humanity."

Jaclyn Guzman Zarrella, who recently received the 2012 Hellen Diller Award for excellence in Jewish Education, is a Bay Area educator whose students have been winners in JPEF’s Youth Writing Contest for two years in a row - in 2011 and 2012. Jaclyn shares insights about teaching the Holocaust through the Jewish partisans and Jewish resistance.

“Close your eyes, everyone. I want you to close your eyes and focus on the darkness. Drop away all your thoughts and focus on the quiet in the room and the blankness in front of your closed eyes. I am going to say some words and I want you to remember what you see when you hear these words. Again, I am going to repeat some words and you need to take a mental picture of the visual that pops up into your head.” The students are silent and from the low yet warm tone in my voice they know that this is a serious exercise and they do not try to deviate from the task.

I start the words. “Holocaust (pause), Holocaust (pause), Shoah (pause), 6 million (pause), Holocaust.” Even with an extended pause at the end of the words the students do not open their eyes yet. “I want you to open your eyes. On your worksheets you have a space to write a description of what you saw or to draw a picture. Feel free to take advantage of either medium and show me what you saw.” The students maintain their silence as they diligently get to work. There are no side conversations, no giggles, and no telepathic stares across the room to friends. After a few minutes some are eager to discuss, others sit back and prepare to listen instead. For some students, this topic is extremely delicate. I teach in a Jewish high school and this is not an unfamiliar story for many students: it is the history of their family.

“Alright, let’s see what you saw," I start, “but first, let’s see how similar the image may have been. Raise your hand if what you saw was in black and white or grayish in color.” Almost all hands went up. “And how many of you saw children in your mind?” Again, a large showing of hands from the students. “And lastly, raise your hand if in your mental picture the people you saw were wearing striped clothing with a yellow star?” Every single hand went up. At this point students were able to individually share what they saw in their mind. There were similarities in several aspects and differences throughout. But one similarity rang loud and clear: it was a concentration camp story. We discussed where they had previously learned about the Holocaust: museums, classes, parents, movies, and they agreed that they mostly/only knew the perspective from the camps and ghettos.

In my senior year of college, I took a course on resistance in the Holocaust. This was a graduate level course and I was only able to get in due to low enrollment from graduate students, and by arguing my way in with the professor. It was a difficult class and it inspired in me a personal passion for learning about the resistance movement during the war. How could I not know about this? I was a Jewish Studies minor and I only discovered this history in my senior year?! I knew I was going to be a teacher and it was very important to me to integrate this important movement into any Holocaust unit in the future. The partisan story felt overlooked for a history so intense with emotion, especially for the teenage mind.

After the mental picture exercise I give a full introduction into the partisan movement. As a Jewish school, the students are most definitely aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. Many of them have visited the US Holocaust Museum in DC and even Yad Vashem in Israel. They have gone to Jewish day schools that had specific units for the Holocaust. Teaching a partisan unit is not teaching an “instead of” history of the Holocaust, I tell them, it is learning about a parallel story. An incredible story of strength, courage, and - above all - humanity. At this point, the students are rapt with attention. They themselves did not know that there was something they actually didn’t know about the Holocaust. They are curious. As a history teacher it is important to seize the moments when your students are curious, because that’s when there is serious potential for self-directed learning.

I schedule this unit to coincide with Yom HaShoah and the end of the JPEF Writing Contest (the essay is my assessment for the unit), which is generally toward the tail end of the year. By this time in our writing curriculum they have advanced in their persuasive writing and it is time to introduce formalized research writing. Fully seizing the opportunity of their curiosity, the students are required to ask questions about the partisans and research the answers. To help fuel these questions, we start out with some basics on the partisans. It is at this point that JPEF’s website is invaluable. We start with the Introduction to the Partisans film. While the students watch the film they record various questions they have and lines that stick out to them. Their homework is to answer their questions using the JPEF website, as well as several other websites including www.yadvashem.org, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org, and www.ushmm.org.

While the students research the facts and figures outside the classroom, my unit lessons involve something much deeper: emotion. Teens can be desensitized to the level of violence, pain, and sorrow that was felt during this time period. They can find it difficult to empathize with the stories that they read on the website. It can feel so far removed. To try to bridge this gap, we look at what it means to be dehumanized. How the scars of tragedy and war are not only physical, but also emotional. And we look at how, in the darkest of times, people can band together in unity and maintain hope. In order to explore these highly emotional topics I utilize a safe simulation of emotional scarring, song analysis of partisan lyrics and music, and of course, the movie Defiance. The students take all of the informal and formal education regarding the experience of the partisans and all of it evolves to a personal essay reflecting on what they learned.

Each year I use the JPEF writing contest to dictate the focus of this unit. I was so pleased this year that the focus was on women. It brought out a whole new set of challenges in the story and the girls in my classes were particularly interested in the new role models they had in front of them. Then, one of the largest surprises this year happened as I was walking down the hall. One of our Hebrew teachers, Mrs. Raz, noticed the JPEF shirt I was wearing on the day I started my unit. She commented that she liked the shirt and I told her about the unit I was beginning in my class. She smiled and said “It is very good that you are teaching them about the partisans. My mother was a partisan.” I was shocked! I have known her for 5 years and she never told me this! So I asked Mrs. Raz to come to class and tell us about her mother’s experience. Mrs. Raz shared the story that she pieced together from memories of her mother’s tales and a book that her eldest brother wrote about his experiences in the partisans when he was 5 years old. The students were enthralled with her story as the history they were learning was so deeply connected to one of their favorite teachers.

I do not see this same level of interest in students during the French Revolution unit, the Renaissance, or the Asian Empires. This unit is special. This contest is special. And they know it is special. I can see it in their eyes when I say one particular sentence when explaining them the rules of the writing contest: “Your essay will be reviewed by a panel that includes partisans.” There it is. The connection that they crave in learning. The students understand that they are the last generation to interact with and hear stories from individuals who experienced the war, who felt the emotions, who, as survivors, are the ultimate revenge. This unit is successful because the students feel it. They don’t just memorize it for a test and forget about it next week. When they close their eyes they can see the history through the eyes and heart of another. That’s what it takes to have history mean something. History is not meant to be a timeline; an endless list of names, dates, and events. History has to have a soul.


Jaclyn Guzman Zarrella has been an instructor at Kehillah Jewish High School since 2008 where she integrates Jewish history and values into her history classes. She was pivotal in the creation of Kehillah’s History of Zionism and Israel class. Jaclyn holds a BA in American History with a minor in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also holds a Master of Arts in Education with single-subject credentials in Social Studies and English, also obtained at UC Santa Cruz. Jaclyn credits her amazing professors, especially Bruce Thompson, with fostering her interest in Jewish History. Mrs. Zarrella was the 2012 recipient of the Helen Diller Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in the Day School category. Jaclyn currently lives in Fremont, CA with her husband and adorable cat.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Youth Writing Contest Profile: Micaela Shulman and her teacher, Rabbi Sanford Akselrad

To continue our JPEF Youth Writing Contest winner profile series, this week we spotlight 3rd place lower division winner Micaela Shulman and her teacher, Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Congregation Ner Tamid in Nevada. (To see last week’s post, click here.)

Micaela’s essay contemplates our capacity and will for survival, also touching upon themes of camaraderie and gender integration. “War cannot belong to one gender,” she writes, positing that part of the reason for the partisans’ ultimate success in surviving was their willingness to fight and live alongside women. In her essay, Micaela attempts to straddle the divide between individualism and humankind’s more collectivist impulses, such as love:

"The story of the women partisans was a different one compared to others I've been taught before. Somehow, the lessons in school failed to convey the bleak humanity reflected in the video that served as an inspiration for the contest. It has taught me that one is really alone in the world, and that it's up to them to save themselves and the people they love. It's this dichotomy of love and independence that helped me to better understand life."

A gifted writer like Micaela could have found no better mentor than Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, the accomplished leader of Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada for almost two and a half decades. Since he took up the position, the temple has grown from just over 60 families to be the largest Reform congregation in Nevada. For him, the Youth Writing Contest is an excellent tool for connecting students to the history of the Holocaust:

"Entering JPEF's Youth Writing Contest allows students to connect with greater depth and understanding to the reality of the Holocaust. It shows them that there were Jews that fought back against the Nazis and other aggressors. Too often we focus only upon the Jews as victims and become mired in the question ‘why didn't they fight back?’ - a complex question that requires a great deal of consideration. Learning about the Jewish partisans provides teens with a different insight and the Youth Writing Contest allows them to celebrate these remarkable Jewish heroes."

Thanks again to Micaela, Rabbi Akselrad, and Congregation Ner Tamid for participating, and we look forward to reading their students’ essays next year!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Youth Writing Contest Profile: Josh Gale and his teacher, Robin Stanton

Last week, we posted the reflections and photos of this year's upper division contest winner Leah LeVine and her teacher Jaclyn Guzman (which you can read here). This week, we feature second place winner Josh Gale and his English teacher, Robin Stanton of Solomon Schechter High School in Glen Cove, NY.

From the outset, Josh had a solid idea of what he wanted to write about: Solomon Schechter’s annual trip to Poland – an opportunity for upper-class students to immerse themselves in the history of the Holocaust by visiting museums and monuments such as Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto – provided him with the visceral and emotional experience he would use a year later to craft his winning essay.

“Entering JPEF's Youth Writing Contest was very important to me. After having visited Poland last year, I knew that I could use my experience to write an inspirational essay about the female partisans. The essay I wrote has inspired me to use what I know about the Holocaust and partisans to teach people about creating a better tomorrow.”

His teacher Robin is no stranger to JPEF’s Youth Writing Contest – her class at Solomon Schechter produced two upper-division winners in 2010, and has participated every year since. Thanks again to Josh, Robin, and Solomon Schechter High School for participating, and we look forward to reading next year’s student essays!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Youth Writing Contest Profile: Leah LeVine and her teacher, Jaclyn Guzman

This year, hundreds of students from around the world entered our 3rd annual Youth Writing Contest , competing for the honor and a chance to win a Kindle Fire. Starting this week, we will post the reflections (and, if available, photographs) of this year's contest winners. Here, we feature first place Upper Division winner Leah LeVine and her history teacher, Jaclyn Guzman of Kehillah High School in Palo Alto, CA.

Echoing Sonia Orbuch’s memorable statement about dying as a fighter and not as a Jew in the opening of her winning essay, Leah was inspired by “the ideal that one should be willing to fight for one's identity rather than suffer persecution because of it.” She stated “I will embrace this philosophy as I continue my growth as a Jewish woman.” Leah’s essay touched on subjects of gender identity, power of will, and the importance of taking action rather than embracing passivity and apathy.

For Jaclyn Guzman, this was the second year that she encouraged student involvement in the contest and motivated a winning essayist. Last year, Jaclyn taught first-place winner EJ Weiss – another student inspired by Sonia Orbuch’s story. Perhaps her insistence upon a compound, nuanced understanding of history and the importance of personal narratives influenced her her students’ success:

At Kehillah Jewish High School our philosophy is to approach history as a series of woven perspectives. No singular person has the “correct” view of history and everybody has a unique perspective on every situation. Who we are as individuals impacts how we view the world and how we will remember the major events in our past. I encourage our students to participate in the Youth Writing Contest in order to explore the various perspectives and experiences of the Holocaust. The majority of their education of the Holocaust has been the camp experience and the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation has wonderful resources that enable my students to look at the various acts of bravery Jews exhibited during the most horrific time period. Each year the contest provides a different angle to approach the same history: through the lens of a youth, a woman, etc. This pattern is a perfect fit for our curriculum that is geared toward hearing as many voices as possible in evaluating our collective past.

Thanks again to Jaclyn, Leah, and Kehillah High School for participating in the contest, and we look forward to reading their inspiring essays again next year!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

2012 Youth Writing Contest Winners Announced!

We are proud to announce the winners of the Third Annual Youth Writing Contest! From hundreds of entries from around the country - and around the world - three winners in two different age groups have been chosen by a judge panel that includes Jewish partisan William Stern.

This year's contest focused on Jewish partisan women. Students were asked to write about the lessons that can be learned from their experience to inspire people today to make the world a better place. The winning essays discussed topics ranging from bullying to Burma. The first-place winners, along with their teachers, will receive a Kindle Fire.

The winners are:

Lower Division (8th-9th Grades):

1st place:
Breanna, 8th grade, Billinghurst Middle School, NV
2nd place:
Yitzhak, 8th grade, Park East Day School, NY
3rd place:
Micaela, 9th grade, Congregation Ner Tamid, NV

Upper Division (10th-12th Grades):

1st place:
Leah, 10th grade, Kehillah Jewish High School, CA
2nd place:
Joshua, 11th grade, Solomon Schechter High School, NY
3rd place:
Samantha, 10th grade, Duchesne Academy, NE

The winning essays discussed the life lessons of these Jewish Partisans:

We want to take the opportunity to thank all of the students who participated in the contest, and all of the administrators, educators and mentors who encouraged their participation. We would also like to thank all the volunteer readers who helped us judge this contest.

These essays were deeply touching and inspiring to all of us here at JPEF: the staff, board members and partisans. We look forward to hosting the contest again next year.

For further information or questions about the contest, please contact outreach@jewishpartisans.org.

This writing contest was made possible by contributions from the Alper, Bedzow, Blaichman, Charatan, Felson, Holm, Kushner, Orbuch, and Wohl families.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writing Contest Extended, Essay Suggestions for Students from Women Activist Think Tank

JPEF's 2012 Youth Writing Contest has been extended until May 10th! Please visit our contest page for more information, including best practices for students and teacher tips with useful ideas for using the contest in the classroom.

Devon Day of Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, CA recently sent us some of their own suggestions to help students choose a focus for the contest. This year’s topic centers on how the stories and life lessons of women partisans can inspire people today to make the world a better place.

Devon teaches Film Analysis to 150 students and is incorporating the contest into her curriculum. She asked a think tank of women activists to help her brainstorm resources and examples her students could use as inspiration in connecting the experiences of women partisans to contemporary subjects. Here are some key contemporary issues that the think tank came up with:

  • Modern resistance movements, particularly people resisting and fighting back against genocide
  • Contemporary women’s struggles for rights and civil liberties
  • Overcoming traditional gender roles (particularly women in the military)
  • Resisting/surviving sexual harassment and assault
  • Standing up to bullies and bullying
  • Risking your safety to helping others in need

Specific examples of such stories include Sunitha Krishnan who saved 11,000 children and women in India’s sex trafficking market and Dolores Huerta who worked with Cesar Chavez to bring rights to farm laborers and their families, and has expanded her foundation to work for gay rights, women’s rights and other causes.

Resources that could help inspire essayists include:

The Youth Writing Contest is a fantastic way to connect teens to the pivotal role the partisans played in history. When learning about the stories of the partisans, educators should encourage students to identify the main ideas and lessons from what they have researched through JPEF’s films and study guides. Then, educators can have their students relate these ideas and lessons to one of the ideas listed above, or other relevant issues in their lives.

We look forward to reading all of the contest entries and wish your students good luck!