Creative Storytelling

Teaching With Testimony

The Power of Personal Narrative in the Classroom

Twenty-five years ago, in October, 1995, a then 72 year-old Fanny Starr sat down in her living room in Denver, Colorado and recorded a two-hour long testimony with USC Shoah Foundation. Fanny was born as Fala Granek in 1922 in Lodz, Poland -- a diverse city where Jewish and Polish students intermingled. Her family was modern yet traditional. They spoke Polish, kept kosher, went to public school, and celebrated the Jewish holidays; she and her four siblings were assimilated in the way that many young Jewish people in the United States are today.

Fanny was 11-years-old when Hitler came to power in 1933, but it would be six years later when the war officially broke out that she began to feel the first of many dangers that would come to narrate her young adult life. “We found out right away,” Fanny said about which neighbors joined the Volksdeutsche, German-identifying Poles who Hitler radicalized from abroad. “I was shocked that they would belong to the Nazi party.”

Fanny has spent decades telling her story to students, repeating over and over again her harrowing experiences in the Lodz Ghetto and in Auschwitz. By the time she gave her testimony to USC Shoah Foundation in the mid-1990s, she and her husband had been traveling around their adopted state of Colorado for 15 years speaking in schools and community centers, setting an example of how powerful testimony-based education can be. “We have devoted our life for this,” she said. “[The kids] shouldn’t go through that catastrophe like we went through.”

Now, at 98-years-old, Fanny is the oldest Holocaust survivor living in Colorado and recently was a driving force behind the passing of a bill requiring genocide and Holocaust education to be taught in public schools; Colorado is only the fifteenth state in the United States to mandate such education.

Testimony As a Teaching Tool

This past year, Holocaust education program, Echoes & Reflections, a joint effort of USC Shoah Foundation, the ADL, and Yad Vashem, commissioned a study to explore the impact of Holocaust education on college students’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. It unsurprisingly showed that exposure to Holocaust education in high school cultivates more “empathetic, tolerant, and engaged students.” And, in regard to testimony, it found that: “Students who learned about the Holocaust through survivor testimony show higher critical thinking skills and greater sense of social responsibility and civic efficacy.”

“Testimony is one of the most effective teaching tools,” says Dr. Claudia Wiedeman who oversees USC Shoah Foundation’s global education program and its flagship educational website, IWitness, which has 200 thousand users from over 90 countries. “It embodies the universal act of storytelling. Watching testimony opens up the space for students to tell their own story, and that in itself can be deeply inspiring for students. This is what leads to a sense of agency.”

Rachel Luke, a Canadian educator, is one of those teachers using USC Shoah Foundation’s testimony-based education in the classroom. For 10 years she has been introducing her students to survivors and their stories. “Putting faces to an event and a situation and hearing personal stories amplifies the seriousness of an experience and makes it real,” she said on a recent webinar hosted by USC Shoah Foundation and actor Mike Myers. Luke was quoting one of her students who felt more connected to history and more understanding of it after hearing from Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who is the subject of USC Shoah Foundation’s award-winning virtual reality film, The Last Goodbye. “Hearing Pinchas’ testimony firsthand added another dimension to what [they] learned about the Holocaust,” she said.

It isn’t only Holocaust survivor testimony used in USC Shoah Foundation’s testimony-based education. Filmed oral histories of Armenians, Cambodians, Rwandans, and Guatemalans are also being taught in the classroom, as well as the voices and stories of victims of current conflicts like the Rohingyas, Syrians and Iraqis -- all who are represented in USC Shoah Foundation’s archive and are the backbone of the Institute’s educational website, IWitness. “Teachers using testimony are creative in their approach,” said Dr. Wiedeman. “They look for dynamic ways to engage their students under difficult circumstances and they see stories, storytelling and testimony as an effective way to do that.”

IWitness Around The World

IWitness activities, lessons and other educational resources are offered in nearly a dozen languages -- from Chinese to Czech, Spanish and Kinyarwanda. In addition, a number of films and a podcast offer an opportunity for teachers and students to use new media to engage with testimony. Activities vary in length, from as short as 15-minute lesson plans to entire units. Some focus on certain survivor experiences in historical context and others look at themes such as identity and belonging which are resonant in every survivor’s story. “We have what the teacher needs,” says Dr. Wiedeman. “IWitness lesson plans are online and offline. They address topics from social studies to language arts, sociology, media studies and art. And they are for all ages -- elementary to university. And, it is not only the voices of survivors of genocide that play a critical role in these resources, but also the stories told by liberators, witnesses, and even perpetrators.”

For example, an activity developed for ninth and tenth grade students titled "Where I’m From -- Reflections on Identity” is inspired by American poet George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From” and uses testimony from an Armenian survivor, a Cambodian survivor and a Jewish survivor to explore how life experiences and memories play a role in the formation of identity. Testimony is also at the heart of their recently launched Mindful Explorations activities, which are ten-minute lessons that provide educators with brief, but powerful resources that can promote deep reflection, including on topics such as: identity, gratitude, overcoming obstacles, resilience, belonging and justice.

Working with testimony provides teachers the opportunity to create learning experiences that will elicit a response from their students, that prompts the development of both social and emotional skills, and are resonant for the communities they work within. As Dr. Wiedeman puts it, “Students may begin engaging with testimony thinking they have no connection to the survivor or witness, but as soon as they start hearing the universal themes of loss, pain, and prejudice, and losing friends just because of one’s identity, they begin to reflect in a different way. They see their own personal experiences and the experiences of the people they know in a larger context.”

Dr. Wiedeman knows this connection to testimony firsthand. Many years ago, she listened to the testimony of Holocaust survivor Helena Horowitz who as a young girl had to hide her identity as a Jewish person in Nazi-occupied Poland. Her testimony deeply resonated with Dr. Wiedeman, having once been a young immigrant in California living in constant fear that it would be found out that she didn’t have immigration papers. “I could have written those words myself,” wrote Dr. Wiedeman about connecting with Helena’s testimony. “But it was Helena Horowitz, a model of courage that resonated with me as she described obtaining false papers to pass as a non-Jew and using the avoidance strategies she employed on a daily basis. That was me. I, too, had false papers, I avoided large crowds and I remember my mother invariably reminding me every chance she had, “No digas nada” (don’t say anything). I knew what it meant and I kept quiet.”

USC Shoah Foundation continues to bring testimony-based education into classrooms and communities worldwide not only through working with teachers directly, but also in partnership with museums and Institutions. This past year, around the same time that Colorado passed its Holocaust and Genocide Education bill, the Institute partnered with the Mizel Institute in Denver to bring testimony-based educational resources to educators in Colorado. Drawing on the important work of the Mizel Institute, a series of activities are available on IWitness that, among others, address topics such as propaganda and countering hate through respect, with an additional forthcoming activity on countering extremism and antisemitism. It is through strong partnerships like these that USC Shoah Foundation aims to continue to bring about change in every corner of the world.

Survivors have shared their trauma, their experiences, and their healing process as a forewarning of what could come if people aren’t taught tolerance, empathy and compassion and USC Shoah Foundation continuously works to amplify these voices. Now, it is up to educators to use these first-hand accounts and teach not only the history, but the lessons to their students.


To learn more about the educational resources for parents and teachers that USC Shoah Foundation offers, please visit: https://iwitness.usc.edu/sfi/

Rachael Cerrotti

Rachael Cerrotti is an award-winning photographer, writer, and educator. She is the creator and host of the We Share The Same Sky Podcast and has a forthcoming memoir by the same name set to be published in Fall 2021. You can reach her at: rachaelcerrotti@gmail.com.