As Holocaust Survivors Dwindle in Numbers, Scholars Look for New Ways to Remember

High school students from D.C. area met with Holocaust survivors to create artwork that will forever remind us of the atrocities of World War II. Still images provided courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Video by John Johnston/The Washington Post.
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009

Schools across the country will soon be forced to alter the way they teach the most disturbing event of the past century. The reason: Old age is claiming what Hitler could not.

For decades, men and women have visited classrooms to give firsthand accounts of the systematic elimination of Europe's Jews. As survivors, they were the exception, because far more perished than made it out alive. Stories from eyewitnesses to the Holocaust have been seen as the best way to help students understand how a civilized, educated society could collaborate as 6 million Jews were murdered.

That is coming to an end. People who were teenagers when the war began in 1939 are now in their 80s. So educators are looking for new ways to reach students before the Holocaust becomes just one historical event.

"We are going to lose the reservoir" of living experience, said Michael Berenbaum, a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a past president of the Shoah Foundation, an organization that preserves survivors' testimonies. "Despite all of the power in establishing memory, there's a fragility to it, because it depends on a certain generation of men and women."

Holocaust educators and advocates generally praise survivors' visits to classrooms. Men and women tell the story of their lives before the war and speak of the gradual elimination of freedoms as the Nazi regime tightened its grip. Some escaped and avoided deportation to a concentration camp. Others bear the camps' tattooed numbers. Invariably, parents, siblings or cousins were left behind to die.

Students sit in hushed reverence, then pepper them with questions that often have little to do with the facts and figures they would learn in a textbook: whether the survivors believe in God, whether they forgive the Nazis, whether they still feel anger.

Those answers don't come off a page. And they help students realize that the now-faraway events affected real individuals, advocates say.

"It took me 50 years to figure out I shouldn't hate" Germans, Martin Weiss told a group of students last month at a program run by the Holocaust museum in which Washington area students worked with survivors on art projects that reflected their wartime experiences. "When I was liberated, every German was a Nazi, and every Nazi was a German."

Weiss, 80, a slender, friendly-faced man who grew up in Czechoslovakia and survived the Auschwitz and Mauthausen camps, said he sees something take root when he speaks to students. The understanding they take away about the Holocaust and, more broadly, about human nature "will last for the rest of their lives," he said. Still, he said he thinks the documentation that researchers have collected will do the job once his generation is gone.

Even though the students in the art project had already attended a weeks-long training program that taught them about the Holocaust and about the museum, they said that working with the survivors helped add depth to their understanding of the wartime events.

"He doesn't just give you the facts," Haumaira Safi, 16, a student at Annandale High School, said of Weiss. "Obviously you can't feel what he's been through, but he helps you understand a little bit of it."

Individual Stories

Of course, the basic demographic shift applies equally to veterans of World War II, whose ranks at Veterans Day celebrations diminish every year. But Holocaust education has always placed special emphasis on individual stories, with advocates arguing that abstract facts and numbers alone don't do justice to the memories of those who died. For decades, groups such as the Yale Fortunoff Video Archive and the Shoah Foundation have worked to film survivors' testimony for posterity.

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