This semester I created a new midterm assignment for my students: The Most Important Thing. The assignment asked them to explore the most important thing they had learned so far in the course. They could do it in essay form, but I encouraged students to consider also an artistic form — poetry, collage, a movie, etc.
Dayna Samuels, a student in my Holocaust course, wrote this in response to the prompt. I post it here, with permission, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The most important thing is that she lived.
The most important thing is that she had a childhood
that she had a favorite color and a favorite song and favorite outfit,
and she had a favorite time of year
because of the length of the day and the way the trees look
and the hue of the sunset.
The most important thing is that she had an opinion about strawberries:
yes or no, sour or sweet, cream or sugar or au natural, best month of the season.
The most important thing is that she never ate them again.
The most important thing is that she once (maybe more) wore a pair of shoes that were too tight
and pinched her toes
but she wore them anyways because she liked the way they looked
or her mother bought them for her.
And she passed these shoes onto her daughter
and they pinched her toes,
but the pinching was Mother’s voice in her head.
guiding her wherever she went.
The most important thing is that they were taken from them.
The most important thing is that she had parents
and siblings and a dog
and she whispered prayers for them,
and she hugged them tight when she was scared
or when she cried.
The most important thing is that everything she ever held dear,
every piece of them,
was taken and burned and the ashes flew into the air
the last ‘membrance leaving her like breath.
The most important thing is that she had a favorite tree:
it was outside her bedroom window
or in her front yard
or in the old schoolyard
or outside her synagogue,
and it had leaves that looked just so that they caught her eye
if only for a minute
or maybe an hour.
The most important thing is that it burned to the ground.
The most important thing is that she had a best friend
who giggled with her and did homework and exchanged books.
They were just about inseparable
and their mothers snickered as they ran off.
And then they grew up and got married
and still every day they went to one’s home or the other
drinking tea and kibbutzing.
The most important thing is that, one day,
it was the last time she saw that friend.
The most important thing is that generations of recipes lived in her mind,
every dish on the seder table,
all the cures for every illness,
and the best kugel in town.
Her favorite memories were of her grandmother in the kitchen,
the old woman’s wise hands around hers,
guiding the gentle rock of the knife.
The most important thing is that those memories,
those pieces of family history are lost forever.
The most important thing is her handwriting was mesmerizing.
Her hand floated over the page
like a cloud on a strong wind over the land below.
Her daughter stole old shopping lists and notes
just to trace the loops and connected letters,
learning to read by the irregularities of every line.
Sometimes she couldn’t even read it herself.
The most important thing is that all those notes and lists and letters
and scraps of scratch
won’t ever be read again.
The most important thing is that she celebrated Shabbat.
In her childhood, father sang heartily instead of his usual weekday humming,
and she saw the future she dreamed of in mother’s face as she blessed the candles,
and hoped every week that she would bring home a cinnamon challah from the baker.
And then it was her turn to be mother,
and her children asked for cinnamon challah
and the candles burned blush into her cheeks as she blessed them.
The most important thing is that,
as time went on,
the days began to blur together and Shabbat ceased to exist in her world.
The most important thing
was her dynamic life,
every moment she lived
and every breath she took.
The most important thing is that people loved her
and she loved
and the touch of her hand brought comfort
and the sound of her laughter brought smiles.
The most important thing is that she died,
this is the only photo of her,
the sound of her name hasn’t been heard in Gd knows how many years,
that her memory nearly died with my grandmother last year,
that every true memory of her life was smoked out in the embers of her body
that we don’t actually know what happened,
that every choice was taken from her.
The most important thing is that
— Dayna Samuels