From Term Paper to Temple

It started with a term paper for Professor Walke’s course, Identity and Genocide: Migration under the Regime. But because you might find some measure of context helpful, I’ll back up a bit.

This is the Sparknotes version, to say the least, but two years ago, I received a scholarship from the Spungen Family Foundation to go to Poland with CANDLES Holocaust Museum. On our last day at Auschwitz, we were fortunate enough to be joined by Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a world-renowned Holocaust historian (he just so happened to be lecturing in Krakow at the time). I had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Berenbaum as we walked through Auschwitz, and he told me how, after World War II, the Vatican helped get Nazis out of Europe; as a Catholic, I was both horrified and deeply fascinated, so I made a note of it on my phone.


Talking with Dr. Berenbaum at Auschwitz.

Two months later, I came to WashU for my first semester. Now, coincidentally I had enrolled in a course entitled Identity and Genocide: Migration under the Nazi Regime. And from the day I got the syllabus, I began looking for a way to investigate what Berenbaum had told me.

I didn’t need to look far. For our final project, we were to write a research paper on something relating to migration during this period.

So I wrote a term paper on Nazi migration, and I discovered that yes, as Berenbaum had said, this was the Vatican. But it was much bigger than just the Vatican: it was the United States and Britain and France and the Soviet Union and Argentina. It was a chapter of history that governments preferred to brush under the rug. And I was hooked.

Fast forward to March 2015. Setting: the northern suburbs of Chicago. My former history teacher and friend Mr. Schuster is sitting at one of his temple’s adult enrichment programs—they host a variety of speakers on Sundays throughout the year—and thinks to himself, “maybe Sophie would want to do this.” So he e-mails me, and I say yes without hesitation.

We set a date, January 10th, and then I’m left to my own devices to figure out how to fill a ninety minute slot (the temple’s suggestion: 60 minutes lecture, 30 minutes discussion/Q&A). No big deal, right?


Everything about it was stressful. Nothing about me was “qualified”: I was nineteen (barely twenty on presentation day), I had never spoken to a group for longer than ten minutes in my life, and I was petrified of public speaking. Worse still, my original term paper didn’t have nearly enough meat for an hour of lecture.

But I had more than enough support along the way, from my family to Mr. Schuster to my roommates to my professors. Professor Walke, for example, gave me plenty of advice and met with me multiple times throughout the fall semester; similarly, Professor Kieval, who had never even taught me, offered suggestions for revision and several potential angles for my presentation. Come January, I was ready to go—whether I realized it or not.


When I entered Lakeside on Sunday morning, the room was already starting to fill up. By go-time, over 100 people had arrived (I had been told to expect 40). While I nervously lurked behind the front table, someone made announcements. Then Mr. Schuster introduced me and handed off the mic.

After a few minutes, adrenaline took the place of stress, and before I knew it, I was three-quarters of the way done. I was having a blast, honestly. It was incredible.

Once we made it through Q&A and I surrendered the microphone, several people came up to thank me and wish me luck in the future. The temple asked if I would be interested in speaking again sometime, perhaps to their high school students. My friends, family, and teacher hugged me, congratulated me. They couldn’t stop smiling, and I couldn’t either. It was, undoubtedly, one of the better experiences I’ve had.

And to think it all started with an essay.