Holocaust Remembrance After the Survivors

by | Oct 19, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

The linchpin for Holocaust remembrance is Holocaust survivor testimony. The direct meeting with the survivors creates an emotional experience for the student and the pairing of the remembrance with this emotion ensures its retention. This powerful meeting with living witnesses activates a level of engagement and emotional resonance which gives personal meaning to the lessons learned from the survivors. This kind of felt participation in the audience is unique to the meeting between survivors and their audiences and is difficult to achieve by other forms of documentation of the Holocaust, not even through reading texts describing individual people’s experiences or by viewing photographs and artifacts. The impact of the encounters of the survivor with students and visitors creates an experiential, living testimony that is transmitted from the last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust which ensures Holocaust remembrance.  What will happen to Holocaust remembrance when the last survivor is gone?

I would like to review 5 programs that have been developed in order to overcome the obstacles outlined above:

  1. A New Generation of Witnesses

Institutes such as Shem Olam and Dorot Hemshech have conducted courses for the Second and Third generation on how to tell their parents’/grandparents’ story so that they will continue telling the narrative. Although the narrative is passed down generationally, the narrative told by the other is not really testimony and thus, lacks the emotional authenticity of testimony. The attempt of some second and third generation to tell the story in the first person in order to create an experience of testimony and add emotional content has been branded by many as “identity theft” (Ruth Franklin), vicarious witnessing (James Young), and nonwitnesses (Gary Weisman). Thus, the retelling of the narrative as testimony may strike some as inauthentic and can interfere with the process of remembrance.

  1. Enhancing Video Testimony

The Survivor narrative is one of traumatic memory and, as such, is related matter-of-factly with little or no emotion. There is much dissonance between what is being said, which is full of pathos, and the way it is being said, which is emotionless. Testimony in person is able to overcome this dissonance, but with video testimony, it is more difficult to establish an emotional connection to the narrative in video testimony than it is to in-person testimony. There are attempts to try to overcome this via technology by supplementing the testimony with other information and with video to “humanize” the testimony. One such example is the Azrieli Foundation’s Re:Collection project. Re:Collection is a digital platform that relies on edited first-hand accounts of survivors personalized by memoir excerpts, photographs, and artifacts relating to that Survivor testimony.

  1. Hologramic Testimony

In Hologramic Testimony, a brief Survivor testimony is filmed with Hologram technology and then, up to 1200 questions are asked, to which the survivor must respond as best as he/she can. The exhibit (such as this one) uses voice-recognition technology and machine learning to let visitors ask questions about survivors’ World War II ordeals and to hear answers. The advantage of this technology is that it allows students to ask very probing questions without having to worry about upsetting the survivor. There is a possible drawback in that students may be tempted to try and “stump the survivor” by asking questions that have not been programmed and, thus, getting an irrelevant answer. This technology has only just begun to be implemented, but its initial response has been reported as being a good substitute for in-person testimony.

A different take on the hologram testimony is having the testimony take place in the virtual reality (VR) of the actual circumstances of the survivor. One example is the VR film “The Last Goodbye.” The film transports viewers inside the Nazi death camp Majdanek in Poland with Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who tours the concentration camp where he was interned. As Pinchas recounts his experiences, you walk alongside him—seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears, and learning as he guides you through an account of his own history. The narrative here is more compelling because of the setting, but it does not allow for questions and answers. 

  1. Instagram Stories

The first widespread use of Instagram stories to engender Holocaust remembrance is Eva.Stories, an Instagram account that recounts the real-life story of a Jewish girl murdered in a concentration camp, by imagining she had documented her life on a smartphone.  With 1.4 million followers, Eva.Stories features hashtags, internet lingo, and emojis used by a 21st century-teenager in order to promote identification of today’s youth with the character. The jury is out on this endeavor, divided mostly along generational lines, with the older generation seeing this as trivializing and dumbing down the Holocaust narrative, and the younger generation finding it an accessible way to learn about the Holocaust. 

  1. Virtual Reality

In addition to the VR testimony in recreated settings discussed above, virtual reality is also used for guided virtual tours of Holocaust sites (such as this). Further sophistication of this is Holocaust gaming that adds challenges of survival for the viewer. There is a range of the reality that can be depicted from a simple reality with no depiction of people and a static environment or fires in the crematoria to a full-blown depiction with prisoners, guards, simulated crematoria, and gas chambers and corpses. While the former is sterile and creates a Holocaust-lite atmosphere with little horror, the latter is lurid and traumatic. Both extremes are undesirable, and there is currently very little information on how to best find a happy medium in Holocaust education.

Psychological studies have shown that there is a proven interrelation between creativity, memory, and learning. As a second-generation survivor, I was able to find the words, to express the pain, and to mourn and thus to process the traumatic memory that is the Holocaust via the creative process. Writing poetry enabled me to access my emotions and truly commemorate what my parents and millions of others endured.

I created the project “Creating Memory” in an attempt to harness the creative process to connect future generations to Holocaust remembrance.

“Creating Memory” asks the student to explore, via the creative process, key themes present in the Holocaust and its aftermath which are also relevant today. The goal is to create personal and emotional connections. It is not about facts or history or places; rather, it is about human, existential questions and emotions, meaning-making, and designing memory. The activities focus on different types of skills and processing – creative writing, visual expression, drama, movement. It is now their own narrative, their own personal remembrance, and not a narrative foisted on them. It is a remembrance forged via creative expression in which they have their own unique voice.

A world without Holocaust survivors will require new approaches to continuing the Holocaust narrative in the coming generations. Some of the innovations in Holocaust remembrance and education shared in here have helped me personally. I hope they will help others as well.

Creating Memory is an arts-based program created by The Lookstein Center intended to help young people encounter the Holocaust in a personal, emotional way. Based on the successful Hebrew program created by Martin Herskovitz, participants will be exposed to poetry and text that express universally relatable themes, providing them with a basis for an affective connection to the Holocaust.

Receive your free copy of the curriculum and sign up for free teacher training at www.lookstein.org/creating-memory/

Martin Herskovitz

Martin Herskovitz

Martin Herskovitz is a Second Generation to Holocaust survivors. His poetry deals with his attempt to find a narrative from the silence and a way to process the traumatic memory of the Holocaust that was transmitted to him. For more information or any questions about his project Creating Memory, please contact him at hmartin@bezeqint.net.



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