Jack Arbeiter (son of Izzy Arbeiter), Heaven Rowell, Sean Gabriel Biteranta, Eliana Goldenholz, Chris Bingham, and Rex Chen.

2024 Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest winners remind us ‘Every survivor brought with them their own piece of the truth’

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2024 Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest winners remind us ‘Every survivor brought with them their own piece of the truth’

Jack Arbeiter (son of Izzy Arbeiter), Heaven Rowell, Sean Gabriel Biteranta, Eliana Goldenholz, Chris Bingham, and Rex Chen.

Several local students were honored on May 5 at the State Room high above Boston for their winning essays in the 18th Annual Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest.

The contest is sponsored by the family of Holocaust survivor Israel Arbeiter of Newton, who died in 2021 at age 96, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston.

The six winners received framed certificates from Arbeiter’s son Jack and will be going to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. They are Chris Bingham, an eighth-grader at the Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin; Sean Gabriel Biteranta, a junior at Stoughton High School; Rex Chen, an eighth-grader at Hingham Middle School; Eliana Goldenholz, a sophomore at the Maimonides School in Brookline; Nathan Pichardo, an eighth-grader at Tenney Grammar School in Methuen; and Heaven Rowell, a senior at Stoughton High School.

“The essay contest has consistently brought in over a hundred submissions,” said Dan Osborn, director of educational initiatives for JCRC Boston. “We passed on 20 essays [between 400-800 words] to a committee of readers, from which the six award recipients were selected.”

Izzy Arbeiter’s parents and younger brother were killed at Treblinka. He and his two remaining brothers labored at other camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Arbeiter founded the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston, cofounded the New England Holocaust Memorial, and worked tirelessly to advance awareness about the Holocaust.

The winning essays were personal, poignant, and seemingly far beyond the writers’ years.

Each student approached the subject in different ways, but one common theme was the importance of preserving and retelling survivors’ stories.

“The testimonies and the stories can help us learn from the past,” Bingham wrote in his essay.

“We can listen by speaking out to others about the stories and spreading awareness. And we can try to prevent it from happening again.”

He cited the late North Shore educator Sonia Weitz. “She used her writings and her poems to help spread awareness about the Holocaust and the brutal punishments that they used on prisoners,” he wrote in his essay, “like the gas chambers and being beaten and starved, and the brutal reality that she, along with many others, would never see their loved ones ever again.”

For Biteranta, having personal stories retold has linked humanity across the centuries. “If you were to have only one takeaway from my writing, I hope it is the importance of listening and preserving stories of survival, even if the only thing that survived was the story itself,” he wrote.

“Focusing on these stories creates a shared bond of suffering with those who faced challenging obstacles in their lives,” Chen wrote in his essay. “Furthermore, testimonies empower. They are powerful catalysts for today’s confrontation of prejudice and oppression.”

In her submission, Goldenholz wrote “With these precious stories, we have a better understanding of the truth. Truth can be thought of as a jigsaw puzzle, one that cannot be solved without key pieces. Every survivor brought with them their own piece of the truth.”

“These stories happened to real people, which makes them extra special,” Pichardo wrote in his essay. “They can inspire us and make a difference in our lives.”

The students see something of themselves in the victims. Biteranta said that as an immigrant Filipino, he had certainly experienced discrimination. “While I may not exactly be able to relate, I was able to put myself in their shoes and feel what they felt.”

Chen’s mother, a teacher, and his father, who works in a restaurant, immigrated to the U.S. in the early 2000s. “My parents had to overcome physical and mental obstacles,” he said. “They carry their own stories of hope and survival.”

“I realize that I am a witness as well,” wrote Goldenholz in her essay. “I need to continue the chain of preserving the truth.”

Rowell sympathized with the survivors while admiring their strength, as well as that of the Jewish community. She said this came “from a place of understanding.”

Hers was the only Black family on their street. People would watch her and her mother in stores, and in fifth grade, she was called the “n-word.”

While there were no deportation trains, ghettos, or death camps in Stoughton, that feeling of being targeted, looked down upon, viewed with suspicion, and made to feel different is a universal pain and terror that should never be experienced by a fifth-grader, let alone anyone.

What did Rowell do? She educated herself.

“As I grew up, all of these small or relatively large things started to make more sense when I learned about the African-American slave trade and its effect on modern American society,” she said. “It was a revelation of how the present day still screams from the past.”

In her essay, a poem titled “Firefly,” she personified a camp inmate:

My spirit has broken, yet my body still moves
Because if I believe in anything, I believe in the truth
… So I work and work in hopes to survive
I will never leave my hope behind
… They can take a man and break his soul
But his life and his journey shall always be told

Despite their youth, these writers have a lot to teach us. From their own struggles and experiences, they know that the key is keeping the stories alive, and the solution is empathy.

“The Holocaust didn’t end because Hitler just decided to stop the murder of Jewry, but because of how many brave souls felt for the victims and joined the cause to end it,” ​Biteranta wrote. “In other words, what really terminated the Holocaust was empathy.” Θ

One Response

  1. Kudos to these young essay writers for their work in honoring the history and victims of the Holocaust. This is especially important now that antisemitism is wildly rampant amongst GenZ and Millennials who are Holocaust deniers, and protest to join a “cause” that doesn’t have anything to do with them. October 7th was the worst massacre on Jews since the Holocaust, and these younger pre-teens are smarter than college students who no longer care about history. Well written story.

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