The hard work of four enterprising Rosa International Middle School students was rewarded last month with a third-place finish in the National History Day’s competition. Their documentary on Swiss diplomat and Holocaust rescuer Carl Lutz was undertaken 100 percent virtually this past school year, with the students using time away from classes to complete their work.
The Rosa team of Madison Johnson, Erin Li, Kaiyan Ling and Amanda Yu took home the honor in the Junior Group Documentary category for their examination of the life and humanitarian efforts of one of the lesser-known heroes of the Holocaust.
These young women from Rosa joined more than half a million students globally who completed projects in one of five categories: documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website.
“My national history day program is the only one in Cherry Hill. It’s done outside of school but in conjunction with our curriculum. It was done all online after school,” said Christy Marrella, a humanities teacher at Rosa.
“This (project) in particular was out of these four young women’s passion to take a story and expand on it,” she added. “They read Lutz’s story and felt there was more to it.”
Marrella traced the genesis of the documentary to the start of last school year, when she engaged students in her humanities and English classes in conversations about how to improve the world. The Rosa four apparently took those discussions to heart.
“I probably started (the process) in the second week of October, and (the girls) started to do their research every day after school from October through December,” Marrella recalled. “They really went above and beyond.”
The girls didn’t just settle for riding the information highway to present a superficial record. Marrella said the team ended up interviewing anyone who knew anything about Lutz — even scoring time with the Swiss ambassador to the U.S. — off and on through the holiday season, from November through January. Their first submission was on Feb. 1 for the regional competition.
The 2021 contest theme was Communication in History: The Key to Understanding,
and the girls spent a lot of time, 1,000 hours in all, finishing a work intended to communicate the importance of Lutz to future generations.
“It’s a two fold answer,” Marrella explained on why her students would go to such great lengths. “One is, as a historian, I’m committed to pushing my students to take on the stories that have been hidden in history, because I want my students to leave a better world than they found it.
“Two, the girls were very passionate, and it’s a hat tip to Rosa for infusing its curriculum with Holocaust education” the teacher added.
Everyone involved discovered that a significant amount of existing research on Lutz was in German, so the girls had to learn basic German words and use Google translate for the rest.. What they uncovered was that Lutz knew and dealt with Adolf Hitler and was still willing to put his own life before all else to save a small portion of humanity.
After completing a project, students went on to compete in a series of contests beginning at the local level. The top students from all 50 states, D.C., U.S. territories, and international schools were invited to compete in the nationals.
The regionals took place at Rutgers-Camden, and after three-and-a-half weeks of suspense, the girls found out on March 5 they were picked to advance. They impressed judges once more during the state finals at William Paterson University and gained admission to the nationals from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Marrella herself led 12 teams to compete at the regionals. Six of those advanced to the states, with four reaching the nationals.
“To make it to the national contest is always a remarkable achievement,” said NHD
Executive Director Dr. Cathy Gorn in a release. “Given the added challenges this year due to the ongoing pandemic, I was heartened to see NHD students prove themselves once more and persevere despite adversity.”
More than 400 historians and education professionals served as judges for the
students’ work, with all judging conducted remotely online. More than 100 students from across the country were awarded cash prizes between $500 and $2,000 each for superior work in specific judging categories.
But that’s not the girls’ intention. They have set their sights on education, not remuneration.
“It’s not over for them. They would love to keep the project going,” Marrella revealed.
The girls are in regular contact with two documentarians who are working on a short film about Lutz, and drew the men’s attention because they had done more research and uncovered more information than the two had at their disposal. They are also in touch with an organization in Philadelphia that is working to memorialize Lutz and other Holocaust rescuers with a statue.
“These stories are coming out because there’s more accessible research now than at any time before,” Marrella explained. “I envision they will champion these stories so they can … work towards breaking Holocaust deniers. And to allay the fear it can happen again.”