It's time to announce the winners of the 2023 Annual Essay Contest. It was a tough year with so many great essays across all of the topics. In the end, Noah Lennon-Heiden, Micah Hertz and Mia Rothschild were the winners chosen by the jury. We wish to thank everyone who took part, both in the national contest as well as the classroom contests. Congratulations once again to the winners of the 2023 Annual Essay Contest!
Winner: Grades 3-5
Can sugar heal the wounds of war? Of course, this is too simplistic; but perhaps we can say that transnational friendship and the happiness of children—wrapped in shiny tin foil—can give hope to people suffering from war’s destruction. A meaningful part of the Berlin Airlift story is “Operation Little Vittles” and the joy it gave to children.
“Operation Little Vittles” was an unexpected part of the Berlin Airlift which provided supplies to people cut off by the U.S.S.R.’s blockades. From 1948-1949, the US Air Force flew cargo planes full of milk, medicine, flour, coal, potatoes and meat to West Berlin airfields (“Operation Vittles”). Hundreds of pilots dropped off goods each day. Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, an American pilot, met a group of children excitedly watching the planes land at Tempelhof. In a conversation that began with “GutenTag. Wie geht’s?” Lt. Halverson was saddened by how much the children had suffered during the war. He gave the children the only thing he had in his pocket: two sticks of gum which he split in half. As Halverson later remembered, it was “the expression of surprise, joy, and sheer pleasure” and their willingness to share that inspired him to find a way to deliver more candy. Thus, “Operation Little Vittles” was born!
“Operation Little Vittles” dropped over 20 tons of chocolate and gum with small parachutes that floated to the ground to the waiting children of West Berlin. Children wrote letters to their “shokoladenonkel” and each day they looked to the heavens, hoping to catch a parachute. To a fifth grader like me, candy is a sweet treat but to the children of West Berlin, it meant, as one child explained years later, “someone in America cared” (67). Candy connected the children to a larger world and gave them hope.
Author: Noah Lennon-Heiden (Custer Baker Intermediate School, Franklin, IN)
Teacher: Sarah Records (Custer Baker Intermediate School, Franklin, IN)
Winner: Grades 6-8
Imagine you are waking up on an ordinary Sunday morning. Maybe you enjoy a cup of coffee before looking out your window. Then, you would be greeted by a fence of barbed wire spanning many miles. It did not matter if you had family or jobs on the other side, you could not go past this wall. Now, you may understand the terror and tragedy the citizens of West Berlin experienced when East Germany constructed the Berlin Wall. However disheartened the citizens of West Berlin may have been, JFK was able to give a ray of hope in the form of his concise speech. “Ich bin ein Berliner” was so impactful to the entire world, as it was able to give hope to the West German people and hold all supporters of democracy accountable for supporting West Berlin.
This renowned speech was crucial in boosting the morale of the West Berlin people. The city was inside East German territory and was an obvious target for East German invasion, leading the West Berlin community constantly terrified. “Ich bin ein Berliner” gives the West Berliners comfort by pointing out the obvious and fatal flaws of the opposing East Berlin. One example of this is when Kennedy states,“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” This identifies the impending doom of East Germany, and communism as a whole. If the citizens of a country do not want to reside there, the country will eventually fall, which is later proved by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This helps give hope to the West Berliners that they will get their freedom and be reunited with their loved ones.
“Ich bin ein Berliner” was able to allow the West Germans to feel included in the greater democratic and free world, utilizing empowering phrases such as,“ Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” This phrase helps to express the solidarity of both JFK himself, and all who believe in justice and liberty. To the West Berliners, Kennedy’s speech was a glorious show of support which helped give them the motivation to continue battling for their freedom. To the West Germans, it was crucial in showing that they will not be alone in fighting for the freedom of their brothers and sisters, and for the eventual unification of greater Germany. However, this speech reaches far beyond just Germans. The address was a call to the whole world. It is saying that we must fight for every single individual who is being oppressed. It is saying that the fight for West Berlin is worth much more than just the freedom of many, but it is a show of strength and unity, proving that freedom for all will always be fought for and will always prevail.
Author: Micah Hertz (Chamblee Middle School, Chamblee, GA)
Teacher: Sarah Lewis (Chamblee Middle School, Chamblee, GA)
Winner: Grades 9-12
The division of Germany after World War II represented Europe’s ideological divide: communism vs. capitalism, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization vs. the Warsaw Pact. The city, which had stood for centuries, was divided into West Berlin, part of the democratic and capitalist West Germany, and East Berlin, part of the communist police state East Germany. West Berlin, however, was not abandoned by the rest of the world, or strictly controlled by the former Allied nations. Instead, these countries took pride in the freedom of West Berlin, as one can hear in President John F. Kennedy's famous speech, in which he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Kennedy’s speech resonated around the world because it emphasized support for the people of West Berlin, while simultaneously pitting the United States and the rest of the “free world” against communism and the Soviet Union. Today, 60 years later, this speech reminds the world that no one is free until everyone is.
In his speech, Kennedy declared that the entire free world were proud citizens of West Berlin. He praised the bravery of the citizens of Berlin, acknowledging that they lived on the front lines of the Cold War and not only needed to be fought for, but were worth fighting for. To the German people, Kennedy’s speech meant that the world was behind them and that Germany had been reintegrated into the community of nations. To the Soviet Union, this speech was a pronouncement of opposition to communism and a defiant statement that communism meant a lack of liberty. While this speech might have been a show of support for the Germans, it was undoubtedly hostile to the Soviet Union, and was a step in solidifying the strain between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
As the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, fifteen countries emerged from the Soviet Union, and West and East Germany reunified to become one country. Although over three decades have passed since these changes, Europe and the rest of the world continue to feel the tremors, and Kennedy’s speech still rings true. When Kennedy asserted that “when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he was referring to the division of Germany and Berlin, and the need to remove this wrongdoing before all could be free. While this part of the speech no longer applies to Germany, it still has meaning for Europe. In February of 2022, Ukraine, a country which was once part of the Soviet Union, was invaded by Russia. Since then, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country, and the war has wreaked destruction and death. It also brought about the realization that the tensions behind the Cold War and the sentiments behind Kennedy’s speech still affect people around the globe. Today, Kennedy’s speech still resonates, but Ukraine now represents Europe’s struggle for democracy rather than Berlin. To those who believe that the fight to preserve the free world has ended, let them come to Ukraine.
Author: Mia Rothschild (Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts, New York City, NY)
Teacher: Brian Schmidt (Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts, New York City, NY)
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