Keeping Holocaust Stories Alive
As More Survivors Pass Away, New Ways to Remember Are Found

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.

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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