Marble Falls class gets Holocaust lesson from Nobel Peace Prize winner

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — While Marble Falls High School sophomore Siler O’Connor had learned about the Holocaust in history class, it took reading a book in his English II class this year to really open his eyes to what people, including youth his own age, endured in the German concentration camps.

“The textbooks talk about the German rise to power, and there’s really only a little bit about the concentration camps and what the Jewish people went through. You really don’t get much out of it,” O’Connor said. “This book gives a first-person account of living in the camps. You read from a person who was actually there about being tortured and beaten every day. It makes it much more real.”

But it was a letter from the book’s author that really helped make the Holocaust even more real to the students of Kimberlee Allen’s class. After she had her students read Elie Wiesel’s book, “The Night,” which recounted his years in the German concentration and extermination camps during World War II, she had the teenagers write letters to the author.

And the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner responded.

“I think reading the book has an impact on the students, but it’s even more when they get a letter from this man who lived through it, whose own family members died during the Holocaust,” Allen said.

This is actually the fourth year Allen has had her classes write to Wiesel, but the first for a Marble Falls High School class since it’s her first year teaching in the district. Allen, who read “The Night” as a sophomore, remembered the impact the book had on her. It was only natural that she would include it on the list of books for her students to read.

But it was four years ago, while teaching in Bay City, when she first gathered up letters written to Wiesel by each of her students, stuffed them in a large manilla envelope and sent them off to the author. Allen admitted she never expected the Nobel Peace Prize recipient to respond.

“The students were the ones who actually asked, ‘Can we write him?’ after reading his book,” she said. “I knew he was alive. So I used it as a writing exercise for the students to develop their self-expression. Each of them wrote a letter telling Mr. Wiesel how the book affected them or changed their lives.”

It’s the same lesson Allen gave to her Marble Falls students after reading “The Night” and reflecting on it a bit.

After some time had passed since sending off those initial letters in Bay City, Allen received a large manilla envelope. At first, she suspected it was a teacher’s organization soliciting her for something, but then the return address caught her attention.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He had written a letter back.”

During her next two years at Bay City, Allen continued the practice of having her students read the book and write letters to Wiesel. And each time, he wrote back. The same thing happened this year when she continued the tradition at Marble Falls.

She keeps each of his letters framed in her room. And while having those letters is nice, it’s Wiesel’s courtesy and his book’s impact on her students that mean the most.

“Because he was about their age when he went through (the Holocaust), they can really get an idea about what it was like and how terrible it was,” Allen said.

Student Savannah Stark agreed.

“When you read the book, it’s hard to get through at some points because it’s so vivid,” she said. “But to know it’s real and to know what he went through, well, it has so much more meaning to you. It puts you in his shoes.”

O’Connor said the book gives students a stronger appreciation for human life and dignity. But it also makes readers, especially teens, realize people suffering in other parts of the world, even today, are more than a news headline or a body count; they are humans who once had hopes and dreams.

“Our society today is so segregated and separated it’s almost as if we don’t care about somebody 300 miles away or who we don’t see,” O’Connor said. “I think reading it helps you realize the value of each of us.”

Stark also found the book gave her a new appreciation for all people, not just those she saw or with whom she regularly interacted.

“I think we’re at a point today where human life has been so degraded; we just don’t value others if we don’t know them,” she said. “After reading this book, that changes. Every life is important, no matter where they live.”

Allen hopes by reading the book, understanding the horrors the Jews and others endured at the hands of the Nazis, her students will be more willing to stand up for injustice and inequality.

“To not be silent,” she said in regard with what she wants her students to take away from Wiesel’s book, his legacy and his letter. “When you see injustice, don’t be silent, stand up for what is right.”

But there’s another lesson. One she hopes students also picked up on through the narrative. Even though Wiesel endured countless horrors (his mother, father and baby sister died in the camps), he never gave up.

“It just gives everything so much hope,” Allen said.

Go to www.eliewieselfoundation.org to learn more about Wiesel’s foundation dedicated to standing up to indifference, intolerance and injustice.

daniel@thepicayune.com