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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.

Those videos aren't going anywhere. But time is ticking on the interactions between survivors and students.

A visit from a survivor "turns the facts and figures and the scale of the Holocaust into something real and personal and tangible," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation. He plans to start focusing on recording students and survivors together as a way to capture at least part of the interaction.

Others have looked at the Holocaust survivors as an example, he said. Survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda -- many of whom are in their twenties and thirties -- have started to tell their stories, inspired by the Holocaust survivors. In the next year, the Shoah Foundation plans to record thousands of testimonies in Rwanda.

Even as work starts on understanding other genocides, efforts continue to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust.

At the museum, curators have been soliciting donations of the personal artifacts of survivors, who are able to spin stories around ordinary objects that would be lost if the trinkets ended up at the museum after their deaths. They also have pushed forward with programs such as the art project to bring survivors and students together.

Changes in the Works

Some changes have already taken place. The content of the testimony is transforming as the youngest survivors become the dominant voices. Because it was almost impossible for children to make it through a concentration camp alive, child survivors of the Holocaust -- the youngest of whom are now in their late 60s -- rarely experienced them. Instead, they share stories of spending the war in hiding or escaping on the Kindertransport, the program that placed thousands of Jewish children in British foster homes.

Even those stories will diminish over the next few years, and some scholars are not convinced that the presence or absence of survivors in classrooms should affect education much at all.

"Studying the Holocaust means firstly studying the history of the Holocaust," said Lawrence L. Langer, who wrote a seminal book praising and analyzing the ways in which survivor testimony contributes to understanding the genocide. "Most survivors know very little about Holocaust history. They know their own story."

He said that although he values the testimonies that have been recorded, he has observed that survivors in classrooms sometimes have difficulty navigating how frank to be with children and have often focused on how they were saved, not how their families perished. That distorts the history, Langer said.

"It's not a story of saving European Jewry, it's a story of murdering European Jewry," he said. "

One group is taking a wholly different approach. The Peabody, Mass.-based Holocaust Legacy Partners project is asking volunteers to sign contracts committing themselves to getting to know a survivor now so that they can tell their story later. ("No less than twice each year," the materials state. "You will represent their memory by providing firsthand eyewitness testimony to current and to future generations.") About 35 people have signed up so far, said Sonia Weitz, a survivor and the head of the program.

Another group is turning to the children and grandchildren of survivors. Facing History and Ourselves, a Brookline, Mass.-based education organization that has worked with Holocaust survivors for more than 30 years, recently started meeting with the children and grandchildren of survivors to talk about how to tell their stories in classrooms. That approach is controversial, with some wondering whether the younger generation's own experience is what needs to be retold.

Even if advocates disagree on how to respond to the shift taking place, most agree that some response is necessary.

"I don't think there's any substitute for having a direct relationship with a survivor," said Sarah Bloomfield, head of the Holocaust museum. "That's an unforgettable thing."

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