Julia Kolchinsky was mostly thinking about the money when she submitted an essay to the Holocaust Remembrance Project, a 10-year-old national essay contest for high school students.
The 2005 Thomas Wootton High School graduate had been accepted to Georgetown University and the University of Maryland but didn’t have quite the money she needed to attend either.
She had found the contest in an on-line scholarship database, bookmarked it, and then forgot about it until two days before the contest deadline.
“In all honesty I needed the money,” Kolchinsky said.
But she got much more than that.
“I could walk away from this not getting anything and I would be so blessed regardless. This experience has been amazing,” she said.
KOLCHINSKY AND nine other winners were recognized July 28 at an awards dinner at the J.W. Marriott in Washington, D.C., attended by more than 300 people, including Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, veteran journalist Daniel Schorr, the keynote speaker, and more than 10 Holocaust survivors.
Master of ceremonies William S. Sessions, a Holland and Knight partner and former director of the FBI, introduced the survivors individually. The group received a prolonged, standing ovation.
The Holocaust Remembrance Project began in 1994 in Florida in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the passage of a state law there that required Holocaust education in schools. It is sponsored by the Holland and Knight Charitable Foundation, an arm of the Florida-based national law firm.
The contest asks high school students to write a 1200-word, research-based essay on the Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance issues.
In its first year, the then-statewide contest drew just 98 entries. The next year, 217, and the third year, 429.
In 2001, the contest went national and received 2,050 essays. This year, organizers got 3,000 responses, from all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and numerous U.S. military bases abroad. They expect more than 5,000 next year.
Holland and Knight attorneys volunteer to evaluate the essays.
“As a Jew, who all four parents and great grandparents emigrated here to escape both the pogroms and later persecution against the Jews [the project means] a great deal to me,” said Bonni Kaufman, a Potomac resident and attorney at Holland and Knight. “I remember growing up sitting in temple with survivors and looking at the numbers on their arms.”
Kaufman joined the firm just seven months ago and said she has been extremely impressed with the level of community involvement.
“They just really care about it, and they’re not doing it for press or for making the firm look good,” Kaufman said. She joked, “which is unusual in lawyers.”
“The essays are amazing. They’re absolutely amazing,” said Bethesda resident Janis Schiff, a co-chair of this year’s dinner and a judge for several years. “It’s really been a pleasure to read them.”
FOR THE 10 contest winners, Thursday’s dinner capped off a week spent with six of the survivors, hearing their stories and visiting sites like the Holocaust Museum and U.S. Capitol.
“I can’t put it into words how amazing these people are. They give you something to strive for and something to live for,” Kolchinsky said. “One of them is 84 and he lives as if he’s just been born. They’ve had these experiences, they’ve had their families ripped away, they’ve been spat on, treated as if they were animals and dirt, and yet they have no grudges. They’re not cynical. They embrace … every instant of their lives and it’s just so awe-inspiring.”
Those words are especially resonant given Kolchinsky’s background. Born in the Ukraine, her parents emigrated to the United States when she was 6 to escape anti-Semitism there.
“They came for me. They had great careers back there, great friends,” Kolchinsky said. “They did it for me, so that I could have an education free from being called a Judee, which is the name for Jews. … Even today it’s strongly, strongly anti-Semitic.”
Kolchinsky was extremely close to her great-grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who Kolchinsky visited every Sunday for years before her death three years ago.
“She was just an inspirational person. She developed … delusions, in her old age and she thought that a Nazi had come back to life and was trying to kill her. So the Holocaust continued to haunt her for the rest of her life,” Kolchinsky said.
Her great-grandfather, a Ukrainian soldier, died in the war. Her grandfather survived the Holocaust and was present at the July 28 dinner.
During high school, Kolchinsky taught lessons to seventh-graders at Robert Frost Middle School, including a week-long unit on the Holocaust.
In spite of all that experience with the Holocaust, the week with the survivors left Kolchinsky — an aspiring writer and former editor of the Wootton literary magazine — grasping for words.
For young people, it is easy for the Holocaust to remain purely academic, a subject they hear about in school but have no real access to, said Tom Holcombe, director of the project. The week spent with survivors provides a human face and connection to the stories of the Holocaust for the students — a connection that is critically important as the time nears when no living survivors will remain.
For Kolchinsky, the week hinged on a moment when she was listening to Alice Masters, a Czech-born survivor who escaped her country on one of the last Kindertransport refugee trains to England.
Masters read from a letter she had received from her mother, heartbroken to be separated from her daughter, over the empty seat at the Passover table.
“I hadn’t been able to cry over my great-grandmother in the two years that she’s passed away,” Kolchinsky said. “And when she said that I just realized just how big a part of my life my great-grandmother was and how there is that missing piece. And I let myself cry. And I sang over and over in my head the Russian songs that I used to play for her every Sunday. And I just cried. It made me see just how important every instant of life is, every breath, that we need to take advantage of it, not repress anything.”
IN LIGHT OF experiences like that one — part of a week during which participants say they make lifelong friendships — the awards dinner was perhaps only a celebratory afterthought.
But speaker after speaker at the event reminded the attendees that numerous acts of genocide have taken place since the Holocaust — in Congo and Cambodia and Rwanda — and that one is taking place right now, in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Congregation noted that he and 2004 keynote speaker Gen. Wesley Clark had both invoked the genocide in Darfur at the previous year’s event.
“To our grave shame, we have talked much but done little since,” he said.
In his keynote address, Schorr read from the script he wrote and voiced upon visiting Auschwitz in 1959, when the Nazi concentration camp was still little known abroad.
He then excoriated his own generation of journalists for half-hearted coverage of the Holocaust, and for giving more than 50 times as much coverage to Michael Jackson this year than to the death of an estimated 200,000 people in Sudan.
“Please do it better than we did,” Schorr said. “It’s not only a question of the memory of Holocaust but the world and America counts on the young journalists of today to try and see that’s today’s holocausts are noticed and something is done about it.”