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Student Wins Chapman University’s Holocaust Writing Contest

By Chatom Arkin

Harbor Day is happy to announce that 8th grader, Dylan Brigulio, won this year’s Chapman Holocaust Art and Writing Contest with his poem entitled, “Yes, I’m Sure”, which responds to Engelina Billauer’s survivor testimony.

Harbor Day School students have participated in the Chapman Holocaust Art and Writing Contest since its inception. As a new teacher at this school 12 years ago, I had the contest handed to me by the incredible Mrs. Mary Ann Sniff. She and the History department had created an interdisciplinary unit of study of the Holocaust where the 7th grade history teachers taught about the world at that time, and the 7th Literature teachers taught a book bundle that included Night, Behind the Bedroom Wall, Milkweed, and I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree. After parallel study in both classes, the teachers took the students to The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles for a day of learning about the biases that exist in all of us. Finally, in conjunction with the Chapman contest, students watched an approved survivor’s testimony and responded to the school’s writing prompt for the year. 

In my first year, Mrs. Sniff helped teach me the importance of this subject matter as a necessity in the middle school curriculum. Coming from my experience as a high school teacher, I had concerns about the weight of the subject. I had taught the subject to 10th graders during my experience as a high school teacher, and even they struggled with the macabre, depressing content. However, I learned the power of directly teaching middle school students the need to build empathy and understand history while teaching this unit at Harbor Day School. We studied the experiences of multiple Holocaust survivors and victims, and HDS students demonstrated sincere compassion for the men and women they met in the literature and in survivor testimonies. Our students also displayed appropriate disdain for the combination of prejudice, propaganda, and bystanding that lead to this terrible historical moment. 

Fast forward 11 years, and I have since moved this curriculum from the 7th grade and put it into 8th grade. We spend the year working on representation in literature to show our students that literature has the power to shape our understanding of the world around us. Literature plays a crucial role in determining whose stories get told, whose perspectives matter, and whose experiences are perceived as valuable. Learning about the Holocaust has helped our students recognize various warning signs of prejudice and intolerance. It has also helped them learn about their place in history, and that last part, the actionable part of the unit, is done through the Chapman Contest because the contest asks each student to watch a survivor’s testimony and then respond both thematically and personally. This year, the prompt read: 

As you listen to the survivor’s testimony and reflect on the stories they tell, choose a specific word, phrase, or sentence that references a memory of love from before the Holocaust or an experience of love during the Holocaust that became a source of strength in the struggle to survive.

As the person now entrusted with this individual’s memory, through your creativity in art, poetry, prose, or film, explore this word, phrase, or sentence as central to the survivor’s story, your knowledge of the Holocaust, and your own understanding of what it means to live a life that is shaped by and shares love.

Harbor Day has participated in this contest almost every year since its beginning. The thousands of submissions come from all over the world, and schools often center large portions of their curriculum around this contest. We could not be more pleased to announce that eighth grade student Dylan Brigulio was not only a finalist in the 24th Annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest… BUT HE WON! Dylan wrote a poem titled “Yes, I’m Sure” in response to Billauer‘s testimony. We attached his poem below, but the poem basically focuses on a moment Engelina Billauer had where she was asked by an SS officer if she was “really Jewish”. During the testimony, Billauer relayed that she did not know if the officer was asking this to help her or not; regardless, she was not willing to shun her identity. She was proud of it and stood by it. Dylan put the poem in first person and wrote a heart-wrenching 30 lines that perfectly demonstrate not only Billauer’s moment of strength but also Dylan’s understanding of what it means to live a life shaped by love - love of self and love of identity. 

On Friday, Campbell Kelly and Julia D. (who had their work submitted for the contest), Dylan, Dylan’s family, and I went to Chapman for the contest’s celebration. Dylan had memorized his poem, and when he was acknowledged as the winner for middle school poetry, he was asked to read it in front of those in attendance and those watching the livestream. He performed his poem beautifully. At the reception after the ceremony, he and his classmates got to meet a Holocaust survivor, and this survivor asked for Dylan’s poem and an autograph. 

We teachers do this work for days like this. Days when our students' talents belie their age. Days when our students’ hearts open so wide that we know the future can’t be anything but wonderful. Days when we teachers know we chose the right profession. Thank you Dylan for one of those days. 

Dylan Brigulio’s poem

“Yes, I’m Sure”

The SS officer beckoned us up to the front of our Synagogue
He stared at us for a moment

“Are you sure that you’re one hundred percent Jewish?”


To them it meant the problem that needed to be solved
The cargo that needed to be transported
The prisoners that needed to be kept in check
The inferior race that needed to be destroyed

I’m not sure why they asked my sister and me that question
Perhaps we didn't look like the Jews the Nazis had propagandized
Perhaps they found family records that pointed otherwise
It didn't matter

“Yes, I’m sure”

At the time I didn't know what was in store for me, or my family
Though I did know that the Nazi’s had hurt my people
Had driven some of my people, people like my brother, to hurt themselves
And what I did know, is that I would never be a part of their regime

I knew where I belonged

To me it meant the family that I loved
The religion that I loved
The God that I loved
The community that I loved

So when I answered the SS officer
It was not about how much I hated the Nazis
And their tyranny 
And their inhumane ways
It was about how much I loved my people
And how I knew that I would persevere through whatever the nazis threw at me
With my people by my side

Harbor Day School

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Harbor Day School is a co-educational private independent K-8 school established in 1952.