Book from concentration camp inspires award-winning essay

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Eighth-grader Mary Rolfstad is the first Catholic school student to place in the annual Ida Kramer Children and the Holocaust Essay contest.
Mary, who attends John F. Kennedy Catholic School and is a member of Sacred Heart Cathedral, both in Davenport, focused her third-place essay on the book “Hiding Edith” by Kathy Kacer. She purchased the book a few years ago while touring the Dachau concentration camp in Germany with her family. “I grew up learning about how important it is that we remember (the Holocaust) so it doesn’t repeat itself. It fascinates me how interesting and amazing the people were who survived the horror of this.”

The Quad Cities Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance) Committee sponsors the essay contest and a visual arts contest. Winners are honored each year at the Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Service. This year’s event will be held May 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel in Davenport. The event is free and open to the public. Mary became aware of the contest while attending last year’s service with her family. “I thought it was a cool tradition and I really wanted to be a part of it.”

Although she doesn’t have a direct connection to the Holocaust, teachers, family members and Jewish friends have helped to shape her desire to learn more about the people who were affected by it. Mary previously attended All Saints Catholic School in Davenport, and noted that elementary teacher Eileen O’Brien’s unit on the Holocaust made an impact.

Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities, said most of the essay contest entries come from non-Jewish youths, since the Quad-City area does not have a large Jewish population. Generally the winners are from public schools or are homeschooled. He said it is important that all children have an understanding of the Holocaust, regardless of their roots, “because they are our future leaders and they will be tasked to help prevent future Holo­causts and genocides.”

Mary’s essay focused on the story of a Jewish girl named Edith Schwalb and the people who took her in and helped her to survive. “Many parents, fearing for their families’ safety, made heartbreaking decisions, such as moving their children to convents or boarding schools in the country that would hide them from the Nazis,” Mary wrote. “The kids that survived, because they went into hiding, are called the ‘Hidden Children.’” At one point, Edith posed as a Catholic orphan living in a boarding school, Mary wrote.

She concluded the essay by considering the impact Edith’s story had on her. “Edith showed courage, bravery, and an unwavering desire to survive. Fear must have been gripping her soul, and yet, with so much sadness in her heart, she lived on and gave back to others. We can’t change the horrendous actions that altered billions of lives, but we can make sure it never happens again.”

The annual essay contest is open to students in grades seven through 12. Mary hopes other youths will consider entering next year. “It’s a really interesting way to learn about peoples’ stories and connect with survivors.”

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