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Elie Wiesel essay contest winner is a 17 year old with a powerful voice

Samantha Peltrau received a $3,000 college scholarship for her essay that connects Black Lives Matter to the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author.
Samantha Peltrau, 17, of Miami Gardens, Fla.
Samantha Peltrau, 17, of Miami Gardens, Fla.Courtesy of Samantha Peltrau.

Samantha Peltrau was 8 years old when Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watchman in 2012. Martin hailed from Peltrau’s exact neighborhood, Miami Gardens, Fla.

“I didn’t think it was just a random shooting. When you’re young and black, you pick up on the fact that you fear the police,” Peltrau told Know Your Value. “My mom did not sugarcoat it for me at the time. She wanted to let me know that this is reality, and I’m glad she did.”

Peltrau, who is now 17 (the same age as Martin when he died) said she is nervous walking down the street. And she wrote about it in her essay “My Promise to Humanity, to Ethics,” which won first place in the prestigious Elie Wiesel Ethics Essay Prize Contest earlier this spring.

Samantha Peltrau with her teacher Melissa Keller at iPrep Academy North in Miami.Courtesy of Samantha Peltrau.

In the essay, Peltrau discussed Martin, police violence, Black Lives Matter and their connections to Wiesel, the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author. Peltrau originally became interested in Wiesel in the 9th grade after reading his book “Night.”

“Elie Wiesel became my embodiment of integrity. He survived and persisted and testified and passed the torch to me, solidifying my promise to humanity,” wrote Peltrau in the moving essay. “And, yet three years later, I found myself staring in disbelief at burning buildings, maced and crying children, flying bullets, deafening protests, and solemn marches for the dead — the summer of 2020 was an explosive procession honoring those fallen to racial violence…I think about [Martin’s] life, I realize that I am Trayvon’s age; this year on February 13th, I turned 17, and it ignites in me a realization that institutional racism is my fight, too.”

Melissa Keller, Peltrau’s teacher and mentor at iPrep Academy North, has long recognized the young woman’s writing and critical thinking skills.

“She’s got the gift. She’s a very introspective deep thinker,” Keller said. “When you hear what she’s involved in, she’s like VP of the Key Club, secretary of the student government, VP of the Gay-Straight Alliance—she’s this incredibly all-around person and has such an awareness about the world.”

Keller assigned the essay contest application to her whole class. She helped Peltrau refine her ideas before the submission deadline, but it was always clear that this essay was a winner.

“The anecdotes of her walking through her neighborhood with her sister after George Floyd...the parts where she talked about how Elie Wiesel moved her to activism, I said ‘my God, she is just really special,’” said Keller. “She speaks to the power of her generation.”

Hundreds of writers apply for the Elie Wiesel award, and it is traditionally granted to college students. Peltrau, a junior at iPrep, didn’t expect to win and called the announcement “surreal.” She said she will save the prize money for her higher education. She is interested in pursuing women’s studies, African-American studies, psychology and fashion.

Peltrau’s mother, Melissa, told Know Your Value that Samantha was always destined for greatness.

Samantha Peltrau with her mom, Melissa.Courtesy of Samantha Peltrau.

“She has always been very naturally book smart,” said Melissa. “She has come out of her shell over the years. You can see the confidence in her writing. I’m so proud of her.”

It was extremely difficult to talk about Trayvon Martin with her three daughters in 2012, she said, and it has not gotten easier.

“It is a very scary conversation to have, and it has evolved over the years between that shooting and everything going on in summer 2020,” said Melissa. “But, you have to empower them.”

Her daughter told Know Your Value that dismantling racism will require strong voices and cross-cultural understanding, which is what Wiesel championed.

“The message that I decided to focus on in my essay was to never stay silent and to speak up,” Peltrau said. “Being silent is just as problematic as being the oppressor. That main message is what I decided to take from [Elie Wiesel] and put in my essay.”