By Christopher Smith
The gravitas of 17 million deaths “is a lot to take in,” said Dalton Middle School eighth-grader Caitlin Tiede. So to cope with the details of the Holocaust as she learned about it in her language arts class, Caitlin turned to writing.
How did she even begin writing about the calculated genocide of Jews, Poles, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, homosexuals and anyone not fitting into the concept of the Aryan master race during 1940s Nazi Germany?
In letter form, Caitlin said.
“I wrote a letter from someone who had died in the Holocaust writing to his future self as if the Holocaust had never happened,” she said. “And how that young self would never know what he would become.”
Caitlin’s letter, titled “Dear What Could Have Been,” was selected as the statewide middle school division winner for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust Writing, Art and Music Contest last month. Caitlin and classmate Vanesa Vargas — who won third place — took part in the Holocaust Remembrance Day at the state Capitol Building on April 12.
“It’s a cold place, living in regret and wondering about what could have been,” Caitlin’s letter begins. “I hate myself. Or I’ve learned to hate myself. That’s what they teach you here. You are nothing! You are worthless! You’re disgusting and will never amount to anything!
“They’ve screamed these words into my ears so many times that I’ve begun to believe it ... after three slow months, as the color of the yellow star on my chest faded, so did my faith. I’ve given up. Nothing can save me now.”
The letter transports the fictional writer into a future he or she will never know.
“The sun is bright (here) and it warms my face, but it does not hurt me,” the letter reads. “I look down at my arms. Cuts and bruises no longer dominate my now smooth skin. My muscles have stopped screaming out in pain as they once did. I smile. Wow! I haven’t smiled in forever.”
Vanesa said she took a more analytical approach to her essay.
“I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust,” Vanesa said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to write what I felt about it. The problems we have now (terrorism, global warming, health care, etc.) are big but they are not that big compared to the issues of that time. I’m from Columbia originally so it was really the first time I was exposed to something like that.”
Vanesa’s essay focused on what good people can do in uncertain times.
“The government and authority scare us because they’re more powerful, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any better than us ... German citizens obeyed their leader (Adolf Hitler) and they truly believed he was right ... German citizens must have known something was wrong with (the Holocaust) but again authority has always made us believe they have the right to tell us what is right and what is wrong.”
That’s a good thing to remember, the students’ language arts teacher, Gretchen Abernathy, said.
“Teaching tolerance is usually my main reason for dealing with these tough topics,” she said. “Students get exposed to tolerance through literature. That’s a lesson that is timeless. The students have shown grown-up work, they’re very mature for their age.
“We have such a huge population and a variety of ethnic backgrounds (primarily Hispanic and Caucasian) so it’s good to see students show compassion. Thankfully we don’t seem to see many problems of intolerance here in the school.”
Caitlin said she’s seen bullying at the school.
“I’ve seen people who are different at this school that people don’t like,” she said. “They might seem quiet or strange or not normal, I guess. And they get left out or treated badly by other students. I personally try to be friendly with them.
“I’ve learned from the Holocaust how everyone is still human, regardless of race or religion or what you look like or sound like or act like. They are still a person and I’m a person and I can treat them like a person.”
That’s a value Abernathy said she hopes to teach all her students.
“Acceptance regardless of age, race, religion or sexual preference, which is something our students deal with every day,” she said. “We need tolerance of other nationalities. We learn from it not just through the Holocaust but through the Civil War and 9/11.”