Bella Hartman and Samantha Wampold were upset about the anti-Semitism they witnessed in their community, and the Mercer Island High School (MIHS) seniors knew they had to address it head-on.
The duo reached out to Holocaust survivors and invited them to speak to freshmen and sophomore students on Feb. 24 and March 3 during the virtual Islander Hour.
“What we wanted to do was make this a chance for education and to let everyone hear about the Holocaust survivor stories,” Wampold said.
“We wanted to come up with an idea that would let students know why the Holocaust is relevant to today and why it should never be joked about,” said Hartman, adding that instead of showing graphic images of the Holocaust, they wanted to use their creativity to make the event more memorable through personal connections with the survivors.
Hartman and Wampold — who are both of Jewish faith — began their crusade to condemn anti-Semitism two years ago.
In February of 2019, two MIHS students were photographed making Nazi salutes off campus and the image was widely circulated on social media, according to a Reporter article. The school district said in a press release that they were “deeply disturbed and saddened by these images” and investigated the situation. The students in the photo said in a prepared statement that “We realize this mistake was offensive and never meant for that to happen.”
Sophomores at the time, Hartman and Wampold gathered some of their peers and asked their then-principal Vicki Puckett if they could hold an assembly to address the incident and to make peace within the student body.
“We thought taking that into students’ hands was the best way since there was so much going on with the parents and there was so much noise in the media,” said Hartman, adding that the assembly was successful. MIHS radio station KMIH 88.9 The Bridge also hosted a “Day of Unity” by airing positive music and including student, staff and community interviews focusing on what it means to be “an Islander,” the Reporter noted in another article.
Last fall, another anti-Semitic incident occurred, this time on MIHS’s Schoology, an internal, educational learning management system and social networking platform.
“A few students had posted some pictures relating to the Holocaust and denying the Holocaust,” Wampold said. The next day, she posted a few of the images on her Instagram and received 186 comments, some of which were personal attacks on Wampold, she said, adding that parents jumped in and came to her aid.
“They were saying like, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was going on. We should really do something about this,’” Wampold said.
Following the incident, Hartman met with current MIHS principal Walter Kelly to voice her concerns and discuss how to address the situation. Hartman said Kelly was very receptive and understanding and soon gathered with her and some fellow students. After some brainstorming, the students hatched the idea for the Holocaust survivors presentations.
Principal Kelly noted that Hartman and Wampold — along with their classmates Mikayla Geisner, Justin Weiss and Jacob Chansky — have accomplished what few adults have by stepping up and presenting the inspiring event along with their honored guests.
”They took their passion of creating a better and schoolwide understanding of the Holocaust to build student empathy and were able to create a schoolwide opportunity for students to speak directly with survivors of the Holocaust,” said Kelly, adding that he’s sincerely grateful and impressed with the students’ work.
Shannon Tapp, DECA adviser at MIHS, said she was pleased to work with Hartman and Wampold on their event, which they kept to a minimum of two classes this time out to allow for maximum interactivity between the students and speakers. The girls hope that students can continue the event next year and make it an all-district presentation that also focuses on all types of social injustice.
“They exhibited maturity and professionalism that exceeded my expectations. The level of detail they put into the project was extraordinary. I hope we can continue to build off this lesson next year,” Tapp said.
Hartman and Wampold connected with survivors around the country through their youth groups Stand With Us and BBYO, along with the Holocaust Center for Humanity and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. All of their contacts were enthusiastic about the girls’ event and the survivors were excited to share their stories.
That initial positive feedback and encouragement motivated the girls even more as all the pieces wedged together and the event neared fruition. Wampold noted that they had six speakers each day and that parents reached out and asked if they could attend the events as well.
“It was nice to have that support from the community, knowing that everyone else wanted to show up and hear their stories as much as we did,” she said.
Speakers included survivors Sami Steigmann, George Elbaum and Andy Sarkany and more. Steigmann used the quote “I am not what happened to me, I am what I chose to be” to explain that although he is affected every day by what happened to him, he doesn’t let it control and influence his life, Hartman said. Elbaum read a moving chapter from one of his books that depicted some of his war experiences. Sarkany asked listeners to remove “hate” from their vocabulary and try to love people.
Hartman said that she witnessed student attendees watching with rapt attention during the presentation. She feels that people were uplifted and could go about applying the lessons the speakers brought forth into their everyday lives.
“I just never thought I could feel this good about it. I definitely came out of it feeling that this is the highlight of my senior year,” Hartman said. “I feel like this is what I wanted, to leave a legacy on the school somehow. And I feel like this is the way I’m doing it, for sure.”
Wampold was deeply affected by Sarkany’s talk about striving to create a more inclusive community and get “hate” out of the way. She was moved to tears during that portion of the event and she could see that everybody hung tightly onto his words and stayed for his whole presentation.
At the end of her sophomore year, Wampold said she didn’t feel safe at MIHS after the salute incident.
“I mean, how do I come back to a place like this?” she asked. “Working with Bella and everyone else on this project and hearing how many people are open and just willing to listen has made me feel so much better. And I want any other kid who comes to the high school to feel as safe as I do now and for years to come.”