Hungarian study: the Institute's video testimonies of Holocaust survivors boost student empathy

Thu, 08/23/2018 - 4:42pm
Researchers conducting the study for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences say their conclusions are all the more vital in an age where, thanks to the internet, youth are more susceptible to believing “fake information.”
Hungarian Holocaust survivor Mike Terezia

Hungarian Holocaust survivor Mike Terezia describes life after liberation. Her testimony is among several being used in a study by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences about the effectiveness of testimony in the classroom.

Hungarian students in middle and high school who watch video testimonies of Holocaust survivors from USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive in their history classes are developing more empathy for marginalized groups than students whose classroom exposure to the Holocaust and genocide is limited to textbooks.

This is among the preliminary findings of the a long-range, first-of-its-kind study supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which is gearing up to publish details about the study in scholarly journals and discuss them at international conferences.

The researchers say their conclusions are all the more vital in an age where, thanks to the internet, youth are spending less time than ever talking with their families and sharing stories. 

“Today’s youth can be characterized as having a special world of life ‘outside history’ due to the lack of family stories,” said Csaba Jancsák, the lead researcher on the study and a professor of sociology and social sciences at the University of Szeged. “This results in more exposure to accept fake information uncritically.”

The four-year study, which ends in 2020, so far includes about 100 students from three schools – one elementary and two secondary – in three different cities. Next year it will expand to more schools.

At each school, participating students are divided into two groups. In one classroom, the Holocaust curriculum includes the survivor testimony; in the other, instruction is delivered solely by textbook.

The clips of testimonies are shown to students by teachers who have completed a Teaching With Testimony seminar offered by the Institute and created lessons themselves.

As part of the study, students in both the experimental group and the control group fill out questionnaires one week prior to the lesson and after the lesson.  Students in both sets also take part in focus-group interviews.

Jancsák said the initial findings of the study indicate that students whose history curriculum is complemented by video testimonies develop a deeper understanding of the material. He added that they also have demonstrated more empathy and tolerance.

Jancsák said the diminished tradition of face-to-face storytelling in Hungary has exacerbated a cultural reluctance to discuss the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is a part of Hungarian history that is the most unspoken of, and this ‘unspokenness’ is in general very typical of the history and the historical traumas of the 20th century,” he said.

He added that history teachers say they realize that the internet has revolutionized how the new generations obtain and interpret information, but generally feel unprepared to deliver materials that are more attuned to the times.

Said one student of testimony-based instruction: “When we approach it like this, that people tell about how they were affected, then we can identify with the topic, because we see that they were not just a big crowd, but each person in that crowd had their different feelings and stories. We can understand it better like this, I think.”

Said another: “Teachers usually just project a slide that we write down, then we discuss it and that’s it. But now that we saw video interviews, the topic got closer to us.”