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Teens Win Oprah Essay Contest on Shoah

April 13, 2006 By:
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Phillip deGrouchy
A pair of 17-year-olds, one from Media, the other from Chestnut Hill, were among 50 winners nationwide of a Holocaust essay contest sponsored by talk show host Oprah Winfrey. The competition, which drew approximately 50,000 entrants, asked students to reflect on Elie Wiesel's seminal Holocaust memoir Night.

Strath Haven High School junior Phillip deGrouchy, who was raised in the Episcopal Church, said that the story of Wiesel's internment at Auschwitz and later Buchenwald - and the author's ultimately futile struggle to help his father survive the ordeal - resonates with readers, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

"The Holocaust is just such an extreme example of cruelty toward humans," said deGrouchy. "There are atrocities going on in Sudan and Rwanda. You can't compare them directly, but they are similar enough that parallels can be drawn."

Emily Walker, an 11th grader at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown, focused her essay solely on the Holocaust and its lessons about hate.

"You can't forget about bad things that happened, because history will repeat itself," said Walker, a Roman-Catholic. "I read this book when I was in seventh grade and it was something that stuck with me."

Both students will travel to Chicago for an April 24 taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show"; the episode is expected to air in May.

The contest was announced in January, when Winfrey selected a new translation of Night for her book club. That choice came on the heels of the controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces, James Frey's "memoir" about drug addiction that drew fire when it was disclosed that many details had been embellished or invented. Winfrey initially defended Frey, then took him to task on her show.

Many subsequently praised Winfrey's choice of Night, but some critics suggested that the work may not be the best defense of the idea of a memoir as a genre completely based in fact.

Ruth Franklin wrote in The New Republic that a comparison of the 1958 French memoir - on which the English translation of Night is based - with an earlier and much longer Yiddish version of Wiesel's story suggests that several of the characters in Night may have been composites, done to enhance their symbolic effect in the narrative.

Both deGrouchy and Walker said that Night should be considered above any criticism.

"Memoirs are probably the most pure and educational part of literature," said Walker.

Interestingly enough, deGrouchy may have added a twist to the debate by penning a fictional story about a father and son in the Darfur region of Sudan in response to the question: "How is Night relevant today?"

He originally wrote the story for a school assignment. That idea came from Elaine Colbertson, director of curriculum instruction for the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, who sits on the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council.

The child of Holocaust survivors, Colbertson spoke to classes at the school about her mother's story, and compared the intolerance she met to the current situation in Darfur, where international monitors estimate as many as 200,000 black Africans have been killed by government-sponsored Arab militias.

DeGrouchy said he is looking forward to meeting Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

He said that one of the most powerful aspects of the book is the narrator's struggle with faith, and he is interested in knowing how Wiesel went on to write books about the Bible and Judaism when he seemed to renounce God in Night.

Said the teen: "If I am able to ask Elie Wiesel one question, it would be: 'Do you still believe in God?'

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