To Keep the Memories Alive One Must Witness
I found as a teacher that the most challenging task when teaching about the Holocaust and genocide, is how to do it not using material that shocks the students to the point that they do not want to look at the content, study the history or listen to present day issues due to the emotional shut down that can occur.
Although overwhelming, my grade 11 students’ were very curious about the history and the people who were instigators, facilitators, victims and survivors of the Holocaust. I began with an explanation of the Nazi system as prior to this they had studied the First World War and the impacts it had socially, economically and politically in Europe, specifically after Germany’s defeat.
We then worked on a task that asked students to look at different forms of rhetoric. Students’ were asked to read a speech, read song lyrics and then listen to them, then to watch them. One of those was Hitler’s Reichstag speech in which he declared that the Jewish people would be responsible for starting a world war. At first what seemed obvious to the students in the speech became a flood of questions:“Why would he blame the Jews? What reason did he have to blame the Jews? Why would people support this statement?”
We returned to the processes of indoctrination and propaganda. Students were given a “gallery walk” looking at propaganda and children’s stories that were used by the Nazis to encourage and influence children and older people’s perception of the Jews. Students were encouraged to create a timeline of events: The Nuremburg laws, Kristallnacht etc. One student in particular became very curious about this entire time in history wanting to know more and telling me “It is so overwhelming because it still doesn’t make any sense.”
I always tell students that learning about the Holocaust is frustrating. All students professed that despite everything they are learning about, they can never get the question “why?” out of their minds. Every question that could somehow be answered to their satisfaction turned into a new one. The biggest challenge was reminding the students that it was human beings who did this to other human beings. They were not phantoms or demons; they were all human: perpetrator, collaborator, victim ands survivor. And then I thought of Eva.
I met Eva Davis many years ago. She agreed to talk to me about her life, her traumas and her survival. Eva had survived her ghettoization, deportation and internment in Auschwitz. Eva and I had a long conversation after she told me her story. She showed me her tattoo and asked whether or not things had really changed? Although we have not seen the systematic and planned extermination that was the final solution, I was still hard pressed to answer her. Eva also asked, “Why shouldn’t we talk about it?” Those words never left me.
Because I always encourage students to read as much as they can the stories of the survivors, I remembered that USC Shoah Foundation has survivor video testimony. Many students do not really get the sense of personal understanding until they hear a survivor. Eva, I remembered, told me that she had her story recorded for the foundation. I decided to bring Eva to the students’.
Thanks to the USC Shoah Foundation and their education platform IWitness, I was able to introduce my students to the woman who encouraged me to continue to study the Holocaust and to teach her story. Students’ were quiet and contemplative after witnessing her story. They were stunned that the names of people they had learned about earlier were discussed through Eva’s testimony. They questioned how people can be swept up in discriminating portrayals of other human beings. Most importantly, they asked how they could learn more.
IWitness and video testimony is a much needed resource in the classroom. Students become engaged, proactive and protective when they are introduced to someone that they may have never known. They learn not only about the survivors, but generations of people whose memory will always be survived through IWitness. As teachers it is our responsibility to provide our students with the accurate information and our duty to help them make sense of it, regardless of the complexities. Eva’s presence in the classroom was extraordinarily real for my students because they were able to see her, hear her and be a witness to her survival. Studying the Holocaust brings up so many unanswerable questions. Teaching it, brings up so many more. My students, in a high school in Alberta, were the most empathetic and curious students I had ever encountered because the testimony challenged them to look at the person, recognize the things they had in common. Nothing is more powerful yet so intimidating as that!