Marc Briefer, a 15-year-old ninth-grader from North Wales, is very clear that he didn’t originally set out to write a musical composition for six performers. “Originally, it was only for five performers — but I added in a trumpet.”
Briefer, who has been writing music since 2011, was talking about his piece, The Hope for Children Through the Camp to Israel, which won first prize for 9th/10th grade music at the 2013 Mordechai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition.
The competition, according to its literature, “is an annual event designed to encourage all Philadelphia-area middle school and high school students to learn about and reflect upon the history of the Holocaust.”
The Pennbrook Middle School student was at the competition’s awards ceremony, held at Moore College of Art and Design on June 3, to perform his winning composition. When asked where he got the inspiration to write a work about the youngest victims, Briefer was quick to give credit to his rabbi, David Gerber at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. “He gave me a couple of poems written by Holocaust survivors, and it inspired me to write about the children,” the young composer says.
The competition, which is named after the leader of Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (“Jewish Combat Organization” in English), also known as ZOB, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from January to May 1943, is now in its 40th year. It was founded by Samuel Pelta, the late father of the current event chair, Maureen Pelta.
Pelta, the 50-something art history professor and chair of the liberal arts department at Moore, says that her father first became interested in creating the competition during time spent at the Jewish Community Relations Council — one of just a few places that gathered the survivor community together in the 1950s and ’60s — with a small group of other Holocaust survivors (Samuel Pelta survived the Lodz Ghetto, Buchenwald, Sonnenberg and a five-week death march before being liberated by American soldiers in 1945).
“My father felt that a competition offered students the opportunity to learn something that wasn’t taught in schools at the time,” she explains. “He felt it would help them reach a deeper understanding of issues and lessons” related to the Holocaust. “This was before Schindler’s List,” she points out by way of further delineating the enormous changes in Holocaust education since the competition first started.
At the ceremony, which is sponsored by the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the impact of learning about the Holocaust could be seen everywhere. Students’ entries in poetry, prose, video, dance, music and visual arts covered almost every available space in Moore’s atrium. And in a sign of the positive impact of Holocaust education, and of the competition itself, a majority of the entries were from non-Jews.
One of those was Autumn McClasky, an 18-year-old senior at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia. McClasky, who won first prize for 11th/12th grade 2D visual art for her work, “Hoffnung” (“Hope”), says that she has always been interested in the Holocaust. “I wanted to learn about how some people survived, and how people can be judged just on their race and religion.”
Her creation, which graced the cover of the awards program, is an assured work showing a Jewish boy in a concentration camp and a German boy in his father’s office, in the same pose, but in starkly different circumstances. When asked if she felt like she would win when she saw the finished product, she laughed and said, “No, not at all! I finished it at the last minute.”