Britt David Academy students tackle Holocaust through personal writing

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comApril 25, 2014 

Peg Schwing told her fifth-grade class she wanted them to make her cry.

And she said many of the students did -- as she read poems and essays they wrote about the Holocaust for a class project at Britt David Magnet Academy in Columbus.

"I told them good writing would elicit that kind of emotion," the language arts and social studies instructor said.

The project, called "What the Tree Saw," allowed writers to take the approach of what they would have observed as a tree at Auschwitz, a concentration and extermination camp built by Nazi Germany during World War II.

Schwing said the idea stemmed from an article in the Reader's Digest magazine about a year ago.

Forty-eight students took part in the project and Schwing does not believe any of them were Jewish.

Much of the work is now displayed on a wall outside her classroom.

It has become a popular gathering spot.

"There have been a lot of tears," Schwing said.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Monday is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But Schwing said that was not the reason for the project.

She said while teaching about WWII she noticed the history book had very little about the Holocaust.

"Really, it was just a few paragraphs," she said.

She had the students read a 1988 novel called "The Devil's Arithmetic" by American author Jane Yolen in which a girl describes the horror of what she sees in 1942 Poland.

"It's graphic," Schwing said.

She believed the fiction piece would grab the students more than a nonfiction piece filled with a lot of numbers.

"Sometimes, fiction is more powerful," Schwing said.

Grant Briscoe, a 11-year-old, said, "The book was disturbing, but not in a way that you didn't want to continue reading. It made you angry and sad at the same time."

He said he heard about the Holocaust before, but until he read about the millions who died, he didn't think it was such a big deal.

"Until we read this book and did this project, I never really understood what the Holocaust was all about," said 11-year-old Raga Yarlagadda. "I tried imagining what it would be like to have been in a camp."

Grant added: "I know I would have been so scared. So many were taken away from their families, tortured and killed."

Raga called the Holocaust inhumane.

"There are people who you are different from, who you disagree with, but nobody had the right to hurt someone else like that," she said.

Grant said many people were like the tree at the camp, just standing by and doing nothing.

"It is good to write about it," Raga said. "You can't forget about it because if you do, it could happen again."

Grant said he thought the assignment would be hard to write but said, "once I got started, I couldn't stop."

Schwing said a few of the students were invited to read their work at Temple Israel.

"They were thrilled at the honor," Schwing said.

In a portion of Autumn Massey's poem, she writes:

"Where are we? People asked.

Help! They cried,

Always crying,

The people dying.

Terror Thrives,

Hatred boiling,

Ending lives."

In a portion of his poem, Ashton Lucas writes:

"Standing solemnly,

Looking, staring

Seeing things it should never have to see,

Crimes against humanity,

The tree asks itself,

How could this be?

Wishing it were anywhere else,

As women, men and children are killed pointlessly."

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