Rosa International Middle School has always done well in National History Day competition.
Under the direction of Christy Marrella, the school has had groups qualify at the national level of the competition eight consecutive years. This year, Rosa will have six groups competing at the state level on May 7.
While there have been many accomplishments coming out of Rosa’s participation in NHD over the years, one of the 2016 groups has performed a project Marrella describes as unlike anything she’s seen before.
The team of eighth graders Naomi Abrams, Isabel Andino, Aditi Doiphode, Pallavi Goculdas and Jessica Lam completed an NHD project entitled “Hidden From History: The Forgotten Exodus of Iraqi Jews.” The project is the story of how thousands of Jews were forced to leave Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s.
During that time, many Jews were being hanged and tortured in Iraq after being accused of being Zionist. Many of these Jews were innocent, but ended up persecuted for a number of reasons, with anti-Semitic views stemming partially from Nazi-influenced beliefs. Eventually in 1950, Iraq and Israel came to an agreement where Jews were permitted to leave Iraq for Israel as long as they gave up citizenship. Many of them also had to give up possessions.
The group of Rosa students found the topic challenging. When they began reading research others did, they found it to be incomplete.
“A lot of the documents from the time were either burned or stolen during riots,” Doiphode said. “Not a lot of people have talked about it and not a lot of people have written about it.”
“It was kind of shocking not many people knew about it because it didn’t even happen 100 years ago,” Abrams said. “But World War II was going on at the same time and people didn’t realize what else was happening in the world.”
Rather than telling the story primarily through what they read in books, the group decided to tell the story themselves through someone very close to Abrams who had lived through the exodus.
“It’s my family history,” Abrams said. “My grandmother grew up in Iraq.”
“We interviewed Naomi’s grandmother and she referred us to people who knew a lot about this topic,” Lam said. “We branched off of that because they had a lot of experiences and stories.”
During the interview process, the group was captivated. The stories they heard were heart wrenching and very emotional. The group was able to build a more detailed story than other accounts they had read.
“It was so violent, and many Jews were arrested and tortured,” Doiphode said.
With the stories being so emotional, Marrella encouraged the girls to create a play for the NHD competition rather than doing a documentary. The group would write an original play depicting the story of the Jews’ exodus from Iraq as it was told from their interviews.
“Here’s this chance to tell a story and set forth a legacy,” Marrella said. “If you’re going to tell a story and you want it to live forward, the most appropriate way and perhaps the most emotional would be to do a performance.”
“People don’t know how emotional it was and how the Jews felt,” Goculdas said.
Abrams in particular enjoyed hearing stories from family and others close to her.
“They finally let me in and let me know all this information,” she said. “It was really amazing.”
Performing a short play was difficult for the group. Only Abrams had ever acted on stage before.
“We were really uncomfortable doing a performance because a lot of us had a big fear of being on stage,” Lam said. “We didn’t know how we could execute it well.”
Abrams admitted writing an original play and acting the scenes was much tougher to do than just reading a pre-written script.
“It was a lot harder to do some of the scenes,” she said. “It’s such a serious topic. You want to show the emotion, but you don’t want it to be over the top.”
On March 5, the group competed in a regional competition at Princeton University and gave their performance before a panel of judges. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
During one scene of the play, Abrams depicts a riot in 1941 in Fahud, Iraq, where more than 100 Jews were killed. Andino described it as an impactful moment for the audience.
“The fear that Naomi shows within that scene, that’s the fear you can see in the interviewers when they talk about this,” Andino said. “You can see the emotion within them.”
Even though the team was successful, the impact they had with the judges and those in attendance made the project worth it.
“Letting people know my family story is an opportunity that I never thought I’d have,” Abrams said.
Now, the group is focused on the NHD state competition that will take place on May 7 at William Paterson University. If the group scores high enough, it can advance to the national competition in June.
The group hopes it can perform well enough to advance to nationals. However, what’s most important for the girls is to tell the story of the Jewish exodus from Iraq to a wider audience.
“They’ve created a story that will last the test of time,” Marrella said. “I don’t need May 7 to know that they’re winners.”