Three Conway students have spent the last year giving it their all in preparation for the National History Day Competition in June at the University of Maryland.
All that hardwork paid off, too, with the group bringing home first place in the senior high group performance category. Turns out, it was only the second time in the Conway School District’s history to bring home a first place award from nationals.
When 17-year-old twins Ethan and Olivia Marotte and their younger brother, 14-year-old Simon had the opportunity to work together as a team for this year’s competition, they jumped on it, especially after hearing the 2019 theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History.”
Simon said it was his Conway Junior High School teacher Sherry Holder who first introduced them to their topic, “The Ritchie Boys.” He said Holder was about to board a plane and grabbed the first book she could find, “Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler,” by Bruce Henderson.
The sibling’s performance was based on that story about a group of Jewish men who fled Germany and enlisted in the U.S. Army as special military intelligence officers, trained as translators or interregators at Camp Ritchie, Maryland during World War II, put on the front lines and in turn, were fast-tracked for U.S. citizenship.
According to the book, the Ritchie Boys were able to elicit critical tactical information from German Prisoner of Wars, that contributed to U.S. battlefield victories and resulted in the saving of U.S. lives.
“She knew immediately this would translate into a really powerful group performance,” Simon said.
The trio researched the subject for months, reaching out to Henderson, who then got them in contact with one of the Ritchie Boys, 97-year-old Guy Stern, who they emailed back and forth with, putting together more and more information to include, the next semester working and re-working the script, taking every step incredibly serious and acting professionally the entire time
The information behind the story, Simon said, has only been public record for about a decade or so, previously classified because of its content, which was one of the big factors that drew him into the project.
“Thanks to Bruce Henderson, this has been brought into the light a little more,” he said.
Simon walked the Log Cabin Democrat through some of those email exchanges with Stern, which helped them develop scenes for the script.
“It was really gratifying to be able to ... this is the most primary source you can get,” he said, awestruck. “This person lived through this story.”
Simon recalled one of those conversations. He said Stern remembered in detail a moment as a student in school where he experienced the shift from regular curriculum in German classroom to Nazi propaganda.
History books open, his teacher stood at the front of the room. She then told students to cut out any part of their book that mentioned the Jewish people ... their heritage, their successes, anything that had to do with them, remove them from the pages.
“They were literally erasing history,” Simon said. “It’s terrible but it was really profound and that’s why we included that scene.”
Stern told the group how his time enlisted in the U.S. Army as a Ritchie Boy worked. He said as these POWs would step off the bus, he’d immediately make conversation, establishing rapport being from Germany and just start making conversation, asking questions that helped the allied powers, information the POWs didn’t even know was valuable, a subtle tactic that proved valuable in comparison to a typical interrogation room.
The group also used a scene from the book which gave a peek into the after effects of the concentration camps post-World War II. In it, a woman who had survived the camps, was walking on the street during the denazification when she spotted a member of the SS, a Schutzstaffel, from the camp she was imprisoned. Screaming and pointing, a Ritchie Boy bared witness to the woman’s meltdown. The man was later prosecuted and sentenced to death.
It was moments like this that impacted the group and the performance the most.
“It was very evident these scenes were going to be really powerful in a performance,” Simon said. “You have scenes like the ones I just described to you … reading those, you know, your jaw kinda drops.”
Not a newcomer, Olivia has participated in history day competitions before, but, she said, she usually focuses on woman’s rights, abolition and other socially aware project. This was a big change for the Conway student, one she is incredibly thankful for.
“All this information about World War II ... I’ve learned about World War II in school but this was very eye-opening and I think also, very relevant today,” she said. “We’re learning more than ever how valuable immigrants are to our country. This project just shines a spotlight on that.”
Olivia played the German school teacher, the yelling woman and served as the narrator.
She said putting herself in the shoes of the students who had to endure all types of ridicule, in a school where they were supposed to feel safe ... she can’t imagine what that was like.
Knowing there are people that still don’t believe the Holocaust happened, Olivia said, is hard to understand, even with the amount of propaganda they received in their home, in their country.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “I can’t believe people still don’t believe in it. That just seems like it’s born out of ignorance and fact.”
After winning district and state the group took the show to nationals.
Simon said despite getting nervous every time he walked out onto that stage, his main focus was to put on the costume, get into character and present the story in way that the judges would not only connect with it, but make them feel what happened and get their emotions going.
They first made it through the preliminaries. Then, performed it again, followed by the big awards ceremony later in the week, which Simon said was very long, which he mentioned only to point a finger at the fact they had to wait for about two hours to learn whether or not they won, on the edge of their seats the entire time.
“Hearing our names being called ... it was a great moment,” he said. “I was very excited to hear the outcome of our project.”
Looking back, winning was great, but getting to tell the story was better.
“I thought it was very important that we got to tell the story,” Simon said. “I was really happy that we got the e chance to do this.”
She said all three siblings felt a weight and conviction from the beginning to not only tell the story of the Ritchie Boys and what they did, but to tell it in a way that gave the group justice ... “just a little bit in terms of their invaluable impact toward history.”
“We work together really well,” Simon said. “That’s been kind of proven by this project.”