BY BOB MICHAELS
The 2017 B’nai B’rith Capital Area Holocaust Essay Contest is underway. This free and non-commercial contest is supported by high school and middle school administrators and teachers, and involves students in 12 contiguous area counties. The contest is based upon the premise that today’s students will become tomorrow’s leaders and voters and that they should be made aware of the Holocaust of World War II, and of the need for them to oppose ongoing and future crimes against humanity and to reject cruel or hateful beliefs, policies, and candidates.
The contest has been offered annually for more than two decades, and has reached thousands of students, who have become our legacy: today’s leaders and voters. I have had the honor of being chairman of the contest for most of the past decade. I followed Phil Rubins who founded it.
Lessons Still Relevant
However this year is unique and disturbing, as it is the first to follow a rancorous national election that has many in the United States now concerned about Orwellian threats to our melting-pot democracy.
This year’s topic is: Your generation may be the last to overlap the lifetimes of direct Holocaust survivors. How can we preserve the memory of the Holocaust to assure that future generations will understand its significance and benefit from its lessons?
To many people, the lessons of the Holocaust of WW II seem relevant to our own country, in our own time. This is due in large part to statements made at high levels, inciting violence and fomenting civil unrest during the campaign, and to subsequent executive orders and government actions targeting specific ethnic groups. Examples of these actions have included issuing ‘alt facts’ and reporting ‘fake news,’ attacking science and the media (“enemy of the people”), and making proposals that would separate young children from their asylum-seeking and/or non-citizen parents.
Checks And Balances
We hope that we will benefit from having more robust institutional checks and balances than those that unsuccessfully defended Jews and other groups in pre-Holocaust Germany. Our institutions—so far—have prevented conditions here from progressing toward fascism. Yet, the similarities emerging so quickly suggest potential comparisons with WW II fascism, and make the case for vigilance compelling.
The essay contest provides a learning experience for students that we hope will prepare them to identify, and as adults, react to pernicious trends locally and globally.
The e-mail and postmark deadline for essay contest submittals was April 27. Essays are coded and submitted blind to Dr. Bill Pearlman, who in recent years has coordinated efforts of the judging panel: Peter Bent, Evelyn Loeb Garfinkel, Patricia Luria, Sally Magid, Jessica Many, Randy Simon, and Deborah Wein. Pearlman will assign a group of essays to each member of the judging panel, which will select three high school and three middle school winners.
Cash prizes will be awarded to the six winning students, who will be invited to read their essays at an award ceremony Wednesday, June 7, at the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, one of the sponsors the contest. The program begins at 7 p.m. Other sponsors include the Sternlicht Holocaust Memorial Fund, Schenectady B’nai B’rith Unit 879, Albany B’nai B’rith Gideon Lodge, the Brotherhood of Temple Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, and individual donors. The contest also receives funds for a college intern, and for the past two years it has been Danielle Haft of the University at Albany.
New York State Assembly member Phil Steck (Assembly District 110), who has been a contest ally, is scheduled to speak at the award ceremony. The event will be videotaped, and DVDs distributed to students, teachers, and parents, and to cable access public television stations for broadcast.
Details about the contest may be found at www.bbhec.org.