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A challenge to students to fight indifference through documentary “In the Footsteps of Elie Wiesel”

Pictured from left: Sophomore Scott Stegall, Echo President Stephanie Ansaldo, English teacher Rhonda Hill, and Sophomore Griffin Drye

On Thursday, May 15, Stephanie Ansaldo, President of The Echo Foundation in Charlotte, NC, presented the documentary “In the Footsteps of Elie Wiesel” at Piedmont High School. All sophomores, Remembering the Holocaust students, and Transition to Adulthood students attended the assembly during second block.

This presentation was the culmination of English teacher Rhonda Hill’s five year relationship with the foundation. Hill has attended The Echo Foundation events to increase her knowledge of the Holocaust and to bring that knowledge to the classroom. Hill said, “Wiesel’s message about the tragedy in indifference and the power of understanding at the video’s premier in Charlotte motivated me to bring this powerful documentary to Piedmont High School. I want our students to be reminded that each of them can make a difference in our world.”

Before Ansaldo spoke, sophomores Scott Stegall and Griffin Drye provided brief introductions. Stegall explained that all students in English II read Night by Elie Wiesel. He also explained genocide did not end with the Holocaust and how The Echo Foundation works through education to fight indifference. Drye then introduced Ansaldo.

Ansaldo then shared personal experiences about Elie Wiesel and trip with students.  One of Ansaldo’s first statements was a quote from Elie Wiesel: “Anyone who listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” She explained with that witness there is a responsibility. Her challenge is when humans know of injustice, whether, locally, nationally, or internationally, they should strive to find a solution or remedy. The problem occurs when people are indifferent to the injustice.

Students then viewed the documentary which followed the summer 2007 journey of Ansaldo and 12 area high school students as they traced Elie Wiesel’s footsteps. They visited Sighet, Romania (Wiesel’s birthplace), Krakow, Poland (the seat of German-occupied Poland), Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland (camp from which Wiesel was liberated), Paris, France (where Wiesel was sheltered after the war), and Berlin, Germany (the center of Hitler’s Third Reich). The documentary focused on the student’s experiences as they tried to understand the emotions and hardships that Wiesel and other persecuted Jews experienced during the Holocaust.

After the documentary, Ansaldo took questions from the audience. One student asked how Ansaldo felt during the trip. She discussed the “enormous weight on [her] shoulders.” The trip was the result of Wiesel’s personal commitment to Ansaldo’s foundation in the form of seed money. She felt a great sense of responsibility as well as excitement and honor.

In response to another question, Ansaldo explained that students on the trip wrote in journals throughout the trip. The assignments focused on identity and the responsibility to honor those who came before us and to honor where we’re from. Students also had assignments to free write, so they could explore the emotions they felt during the trip.

Another student asked if the trip decreased or increased Ansaldo’s faith. In response, she referred to Wiesel’s experience when he was liberated from Auschwitz. He said that the first thing prisoners did was to turn to God by saying Kaddish, a Jewish prayer. However, Ansaldo says Wiesel feels his faith is a “wounded faith.”

Finally, a student asked how the trip changed Ansaldo’s life. She described a trip to New York City to show the film to a school with immigrants. She said one of the students asked how Ansaldo knew she could make a film. It was at that point Ansaldo said she realized you can do things you never thought you could do, especially if you have love or commitment.

After the presentation, each English II student responded to two questions:
1. Which part of the film was most powerful and why?
2. What are the consequences of indifference?

Many students responded that the most powerful portion of the film was the Fallen Leaves exhibit in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. Sophomore Arieonna Randolph-Stewart said, “Even though it was metal art, the students still tried to be gentle, trying not to cause anymore pain and grief to the faces. It was clear the faces were hurting.” The Fallen Leaves exhibit includes metal plates in the form of faces. As museum patrons move from one portion of the museum to another, they have to walk on the faces. The artist, Menashe Kadishman, wants the exhibit to “evoke painful recollections of the innocent victims of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

Sophomore John Price said, “The part of the film that I found the most powerful was the part where one of the female student ambassadors played the violin outside the main gate of Auschwitz. The reason this part was so powerful to me is because of the way the violin alluded to the book Night. Not only did Elie Wiesel himself play the violin while captive, but so did many of the other Jews that were trapped inside the wretched death camp. The violin was played while in the camp to show that no matter what the Jews could still show hope and love through music. To me it also strikes me as a symbol of everlasting faith, that no matter how harsh they were treated, they still found a way to thank and glorify God.”

In terms of the consequences of indifference, sophomore Jessie Stegall said, “Many of the lost lives could have made great contributions to the human race. But people didn't pay attention; they shut it away in their minds and went about their daily lives, but no one was there when they were taken.”

Sophomore Chris Gorczynski said, “People’s indifference has and always will be a problem with humanity. It is even going on right now with genocide is third world countries. All these people that are being killed everyday for their religion, color of their skin, beliefs, culture . . . Hopefully one day somebody stands up in the defense of the defenseless. This needs to stop. We all need to come together and make a difference for the future.

For more information about The Echo Foundation, go to echofoundation.org. Ansaldo also encourages students to volunteer for the foundation. It is in need of people to update the site’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and to enter data.

Written by: Stacy Vickers, English Teacher
Posted: May 20, 2014 by Donna Helms

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