Student Essays on Modern Jewish History
When graduates of Moriah College are asked to reflect on their most meaningful experience in their study of Jewish history, one answer is predominant: Hans Kimmel. This 10th grade roots project is steeped in the pedagogical concerns of the College’s educational leaders and embodies aspects of its historical and organizational memory.
Conceived in 1975 by Holocaust survivor Sophie Caplan, the Dr. Hans Kimmel Essay Competition in Contemporary Jewish History was named after a Jewish communal firebrand, an Austrian refugee who transformed the democratic character of the Jewish community. It was her desire to perpetuate his memory that inspired Caplan to create a prize that privileged the study of modern Jewish history, an era that had been glossed over in a classroom full of second-generation Holocaust survivors. Empowered by educators to confront and document the past, the prize was standardized by Suzanne Rutland as a mainstay of Year 10 coursework, which continues to this day. From 1985 to 2016, the Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) sponsored the prize, and Caplan herself was present at award ceremonies. To this day, students are required to review the historical context of the prize and a biography of Kimmel as part of the initial research phase for the project.
Over time, the nature of this project has shifted. Rutland noted that the prize was often a source of “moving Holocaust memoirs,” in which students interviewed their ancestors and presented harrowing stories of survival. However, because of shifting demographics, it has become more diverse in presentation and representation each year. While prizes are still awarded, the meaning of the project today is invested more in students’ individual pursuit of history, taking custodianship over aspects of their heritage and empowering students to understand their roots. The project now accepts a variety of submissions, with last year’s cohort creating woven family trees, musical arrangements and mixed-media art among volumes of written and authenticated testimony. Since 2016, the school has likewise included a Moreshet Moriah option for students wishing to explore the organizational memory of the College, through key figures, as a focus.
These shifts have not come without their own challenges. In the past, prize-winning essays were only nominally collated and archived by the school, with the bulk of preservation being accomplished by the AJHS. However, in recognition of the immense historical value of the material, Moriah has recently begun to archive each student submission on site—no minor task given the intake of 150 projects (in various formats) every year.
Hans Kimmel is, in the author’s view, more than a project or a prize. The original intent, addressing personal or sensitive areas of modern Jewish history, has been preserved, even as the project has expanded to incorporate the many stories that make up the College, from those who resisted Apartheid to others who fled Islamic lands. Covering such a broad scope of communal history within the school setting conveys the potential of the roots project to serve as a confluence of different forms of memory, chronicling the collision of an educational institution with the brunt of familial and communal trauma.