On Friday, I attended an event called Memories Matter: Stories of the Holocaust. To my right sat Holocaust survivors. Behind me sat students ages 13-18. In front of me sat local and state officials. To my left, representatives of philanthropies. We came together to celebrate middle- and high-school student for using writing and art to reflect what they learned from Holocaust testimony. This was a room full of stories and storytellers.

When keynote speaker Esther Safran Foer made her presentation, you could feel the collective awe.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Foer now directs a synagogue in Washingon, D.C. One of her sons, Jonathan, wrote “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Her other son, Joshua, wrote “Moonwalking with Einstein.” I had heard of her sons, and read their work. Her short presentation at the awards ceremony had an incredibly powerful impact, however — much like testimony can.

I can’t do justice to her story, in which she recounted her quest to learn about the half sister she never knew. I can only tell you that no one could have done a better job introducing a day intended to celebrate story, memory, learning, testimony, and survival. The students who won prizes each received cash, and a study trip to Washington. They, like Esther Safran Foer, had the chance to read their work aloud in the auditorium on Friday. A poetry winner read his prize winning poem about how conflicted he felt facing a bright future watching the testimony of a woman who appeared about the face a bright future until the Holocaust robbed her of almost everything. She, now in her 80s, sat in the chair just in front of me and to my right. She nodded as she listened to the poetry, to the young man who said he prayed for her, and I noticed she remained dry-eyed, while I wept quietly behind her.

I can’t think of a better prize for such a contest than a study trip to Washington, D.C. where they will get to meet again with the remarkable Esther Safran Foer.

I was humbled to be in a room full of such powerful storytellers, teachers and learners, both young and old.

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