By Stacey Dresner
WORCESTER – Larry Cann says he noticed several years ago that the number of people – especially young people — attending the annual Yom Hashoah service in Worcester was beginning to decrease.
A member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., Cann suggested creating an essay challenge and award for local Jewish teens, writing on themes connected to the Holocaust.
That was 12 years ago and since then more than 500 teens have participated in the Pinkhus and Rhoda Gurevich Awards and Annual Yom Hashoah Essay and Art Challenge, which has become an important component of the community’s Yom Hashoah commemoration.
But last year’s challenge was Cann’s last. “It’s time for some new blood,” he said.
Cann and his wife Sherri moved from Holden to Haverhill six years ago, but he had still had been involved with the project; he and Sherri were the sponsors and judges.
The Jewish Federation will still be operating the program as they always have; but now the sponsors and judges will be the B’nai B’rith Post #600.
“Larry made a real impact on Holocaust education due to the hundreds of students who participated in the challenge over the years,” said Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation. “I think that he enabled the students to learn the lessons of the Holocaust in their own way, whether through essays or art projects. Just think of all of the students who learned about the Holocaust through Larry and the contest.”
Underneath the surface
Larry Cann says that even when he was in high school, he realized the importance of Holocaust education.
“Even as a high school student it made a big impression on me,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in history and the Holocaust was the most horrid thing that could have occurred during those years.” As an 18-year-old soldier in the United States Air Force Security Service, Cann was stationed in Germany and ended up making some young German friends.
“I went to Dachau three times,” he recalled. “On my first visit, the German students, who have to go to the Dachau site, were quite serious and by my last visit, they were lying on the grassy area and smoking cigarettes. From my experience, they generally were united in their hatred of their Nazi past, but viewing it more as ancient history. You know, in a way I understand it…They are against it, it was horrible, but it had very little to do with them.”
When Cann first proposed the Challenge, the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., already the sponsor of the annual Yom Hashoah service, agreed to also umbrella the Challenge.
But while Cann received support from then-Federation executive director Howard Borer and the Federation’s education committee, he recalls that few at that time felt strongly that such a program was needed.
“At the time when I was proposing this challenge, support was positive but unlike my own feelings, many weren’t sure anti-Semitism was enough of an issue in the U.S. to draw young people to engage in the topic,” Cann recalled. “From my undergraduate political science background and my Air Force Corp. experience in Germany, I felt pessimistically that anti-Semitism was always running underneath the surface, particularly in Europe, and might eventually make its way to the U.S., which I guess has happened.”
Thanks to the challenge – and his prescient concern about anti-Semitism growing in the U.S. – kids ages 12 to 18 have researched and written thought-worthy essays and created meaningful art projects dealing with the Holocaust through the Challenge.
Teens like Hannah Mainhart, who participated each year and who received awards for several art projects she created for the challenge.
Her last one, “Hands,” a mixed-media piece made her senior year in high school in 2014, depicted photos of hands encircled by barbed wire.
“Larry is really amazing,” Hannah said. “He definitely pushed people to do this, which is very important…Teens and young children should learn about tolerance, about having tolerance of others and their differences.”