Tag Archives: Useable Past

Reflecting on History

By Elizabeth Perry

I have been working on the survivor testimony transcripts for most of my time at MCHE, but last week I participated in something a little different. The MCHE hosts their yearly White Rose Student Essay Contest, which is open to students in 8th-12th grade in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. I got to help judge several of the essays for the contest at the 8th and 9th grade level. The specific topic of the essay changes each year, and this year the essay prompt asked students to describe the Nazis’ work at Auschwitz in preparation for the Jewish deportations from Hungary. The MCHE provides multiple sources for students to use for their essay, including survivor testimonies. The students are also required to relate the experience of a Jewish Hungarian individual or family to their research, as well as discuss how they can demonstrate what they have learned about the Holocaust.

I was impressed with the essays I got to read – successfully meeting the prompt requires a variety of historical research skills, including summarizing information comprehensively, citing sources, relating different sources to each other, and interpreting historical information. The prompt also asked the students to define an action they could take to demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Holocaust, a task that (I hope) makes them aware of how their actions can influence the world around them. The MCHE not only provides resources for Holocaust study, but also encourages discussions about the Holocaust and provides opportunities for students to learn how to use and talk about these resources.

This experience made me think about how we approach studying the Holocaust – often from either an historical or literary standpoint. The essay prompt asked for a little of both, requiring students to give historical context as well as reflect on its meanings. The first time I learned about the Holocaust, I learned about it from a literary perspective – probably like many other middle school students, I read Night by Elie Wiesel in my language arts class. About seven years later in college, I re-read Night for another class, and I was shocked at how little I remembered from such a striking book. Thinking back on it, I think that I did not have the proper historical context to understand the content of the book properly enough for the information to stick. As far as I remember, we had not yet talked about the Holocaust in my history classes, so Night was my introduction. I wish I had known more about the historical context, so maybe the book would have meant more to me at the time. I think the MCHE essay brings these together well, asking for students to research historical context as well as to reflect on the meaning of what they find.