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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Using Testimony in Holocaust Education

Written by Shira Magen
Advisors: Shulamit Imber, Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Orit Margaliot

Zachor – Learning and Remembrance

In Jewish tradition, the command to remember is absolute. But its obligation does not end with the cognitive act of memory- it must be connected to both meaning and action. Today, we for whom the memory is burned in our hearts and on our flesh gather to pass the torch of memory to the next generation. We pass to you, as well, the fundamental lesson of Judaism: that memory must be accompanied by action of ethical and moral intent. This must be the foundation and the focus of your energies toward the creation of a better world.[1]

The act of learning is the act of acquiring knowledge, and it is on the basis of knowledge that we can learn lessons, take action, and strive to improve ourselves. One of the conditions for learning from the past is knowing about it. In the context of the Holocaust, this idea is of crucial importance. Since the Holocaust is one of the most important events in history and an event of extreme human and ethical significance, knowledge about the murder of European Jewry is a human obligation. Knowledge, however, is not a value that stands alone. The quotation above is from a paper written by Holocaust survivors and read by the Holocaust survivor Zvi Gill at an international conference, “The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors,” that took place at Yad Vashem in April 2002. In their statement, these people, who actually experienced the atrocities of the Nazis and their collaborators, express their view of Holocaust memory and its role in the legacy of humankind. Educating about the Holocaust, as seen by Yad Vashem, resembles the way the survivors describe the importance of memory – knowledge accompanied by ethical and moral value and intent.

The Role of Testimonies

One of the questions that often occupy Holocaust educators is how to determine the right way to teach the subject and, more specifically, which sources should be used. The corpus of knowledge of any historical event is consolidated by combining many sources of different types. The Holocaust is one of the most documented events in history; official Nazi documents, official Allied documents, and personal documents of Jews and non-Jews are only a few general categories into which millions of documents from this period fall. Apart from documents produced during the Holocaust, one should also refer to sources produced after the war. Records from the trials of Nazi criminals, for instance, include testimonies of both perpetrators and victims who survived. Holocaust documentation may also be divided on the basis of its origin, Jewish or other. Acquaintance with Jewish documents in general and Jewish personal documents (diaries, letters, testimonies) in particular may offer added value. Such documents allow us to hear the personal voice of those who fell victim to the persecution. In the context of Holocaust education, this personal voice enhances the effectiveness of the learning process.

Over the years, many survivors chose to testify in different media and their testimonies are now being used for educational purposes. It is best to learn about the Holocaust from a combination of diverse sources, among which survivors’ testimonies are extremely important.

The role of survivors’ testimonies in Holocaust remembrance and education is crucial for two main reasons:

  1. “The creation of the ghetto is, of course, only an interim measure […]. The final aim must in any case be to totally cauterize this plague spot,” said Friedrich Übelhör, head of Kalisz District, in his order to ghettoize the Jews of Lodz (December, 19, 1939).[2] On July 19, 1944, the Germans began rounding up the 2,000 Jews of Rhodes and Kos. After being detained for several days, the victims were loaded onto barges headed for Athens and were thence transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. During their eight-day journey, the ships stopped at Leros and collected the island’s sole Jewish resident. These are two of many sources, statements, and events that teach us that the Nazis regarded Jews not as human beings but as parasites that had to be completely exterminated. Therefore, they set themselves the goal of eliminating every Jew on whom they could lay hands and obliterating all evidence of the crime. Given this intent, the fact that the surviving Jews were able to speak of what happened, recount those who did not survive, and tell their human experience is of great power and importance.
  2. Speaking about the Holocaust entails dealing with numbers. If people are to gain historical knowledge and understanding of the event, they need to know that approximately 6,000,000 Jews were murdered. If they wish to understand the inhuman conditions in the Warsaw ghetto, for instance, they ought to know that the daily food ration that the Germans allocated to each resident of the ghetto provided 184 calories of nutrition. However, since the Holocaust was a series of atrocities inflicted by people on people and a matter of great moral and ethical significance, it is crucial that the human experience of the victims be told in the first person so that it may be at least partly understood. Here it is proper to note the importance of learning about the human aspects of people in categories other than the Jews, such as rescuers, bystanders, collaborators, and perpetrators. This, however, requires separate discussion.

“Testimony” – Dictionary Definitions

One who looks up the term “testimony” in dictionaries and encyclopedias encounters several definitions that fall into three main categories:

  1. Legal meanings: a) all such declarations, spoken or written, offered in a legal case or deliberative hearing; and b) something that serves as evidence.
  2. Meanings related to authentication that do not necessarily have a legal connection: a) an assertion that offers first-hand authentication of a fact; and b) evidence or proof in support of a fact or an assertion.
  3. Jewish religious meanings: a) the stone tablets that were inscribed with the Law of Moses; and b) the ark that contained these tablets.

Which definition is relevant to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors? We may address this question from two different angles:

  1. The way the survivors view the testimony. For further discussion on this topic, read "Bearing Witness", the central theme of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2007.
  2. The educational point of view, that on which this paper focuses. Thus, to determine the relevant definition of testimonies in the educational arena, let us examine the goals of integrating testimonies into Holocaust education.

Many teachers use audiovisual testimonies and try to invite survivors to testify in front of their classes. This raises several key questions: what role does a testimony play in the educational process? What is the right way to approach a testimony? Can a testimony be used as a history lesson? Can it be the only Holocaust-related activity in which the students will take part? What role should the students play when hearing a testimony? Is every testimony suitable for every class? If not, what criteria should be kept in mind when choosing a testimony? These are only a few of the questions that teachers involved in Holocaust education face. This paper proposes to answer some of the questions and to provide tools with which to address others.

Goals in the Use of Testimonies in the Classroom
  • Re-humanizing the victims. One of the leading principles in the pedagogical philosophy of Yad Vashem is the re-humanization of the people involved in the Holocaust and, in particular, the victims. The Holocaust will probably never be “understood.” If it is to be confronted from an educational perspective, however, it can and should be handled as a cluster of accessible and tangible human stories. The personal stories told by Holocaust survivors present the Jews as human beings and restore their identities, thereby allowing the audience to sympathize with them in their terrible plight.
  • Making the inconceivable more tangible. “[…] Many survivors […] remember that the SS militiamen enjoyed cynically admonishing the prisoners: ‘However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world will not believe him […]. People will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed: they will say that they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda […]. We will be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers.” [3] The essence of the Holocaust is hard to grasp, as are many of the human stories related to it. Learning about the Holocaust through historical documentation combined with hearing personal stories from people who actually experienced this period helps to make those events more tangible and realistic.
  • Delivering moral messages. “’Thou shalt not murder‘! This basic tenet of human morality was trumpeted to all humanity from the heights of Mount Sinai. The memory of the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their willing helpers obligates us to act on this injunction. Life is a gift of creation, its form and essence a statement of ultimate equality among all those created in a Godly image. With this in mind, it would seem obvious and indisputable that this fundamental commandment obligates all of humanity. Yet it is being mockingly violated in every corner of the world. As a part of the legacy of the Shoah we must be relentless in our pursuit of solving human conflict, between states, and between people, in ways that prevent unnecessary bloodshed.” [4] Educators carry the important role of linking Holocaust education to moral lessons. A moral message delivered by a person who experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust has a special power that is amplified all the more when delivered through personal contact between a survivor and students.
  • Promoting the moral obligation to be aware of human suffering. One of the major moral lessons that may be taught through the Holocaust is self-responsibility. This issue may be discussed, for instance, through the themes of perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders. Meeting a survivor and listening to his or her testimony is one way to encourage obligation as well as self-responsibility, as Roger Simon expresses it: “Memorialization insists [sic] that in the face of the historical record, and reinforced by one’s emotional engagement with the suffering of others, one has obligation to maintain – always – a just and tolerant timeless present, never foreclosed to any form of human existence.” [5]
  • Transforming students into carriers of the torch of memory: “When one bears witness through the provision of testimony, one always bears witness to someone,” [6] writes Roger Simon, suggesting the desired outcome of hearing a live testimony as well as an audiovisual one. As professionals who deal with Holocaust remembrance and education, we have to prepare for an era in which there will be no one left to recount the Holocaust in the first person. Preparations for this era take different forms, one of which is the amassing of collections of audiovisual testimonies. When using a testimony in class, the desired outcome of the encounter is that the students will feel obligated to carry the memory. This goal may also be linked to the notion of self-responsibility, as noted above. The idea of transforming students into torchbearers of memory is also important when one considers the phenomenon of Holocaust denial.

Use of Testimony in the Classroom – Practical Issues

Choice of Medium. The victim’s personal voice may be articulated in various ways: presentation of testimony in the classroom by a survivor, audiovisual testimony, or written testimony in the form of a diary or memoir. Works of art such as a short story, a novel, a poem, a painting, or a sculpture may be also regarded as types of testimony. How may one choose the right type of testimony? The discussion below focuses on two of many aspects that may be considered when choosing testimonies:

  1. Students’ age: Age is a crucial criterion in deciding whether and what to teach about the Holocaust. According to the pedagogical philosophy of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust can be taught from a young age as long as it is done correctly. The suggested model is a spiral one. In the first stage, children are acquainted with basic Holocaust terms through the story of an individual. The main principles that guide Holocaust teaching in this age group are:
    1. Use of one individual’s story.
    2. Choice of a story that has optimistic aspects: the protagonist survived, acts of human kindness were performed. This spares the child from exposure to a horror story and demonstrates the existence of positive human values along with the inevitable bad aspects of the story.
    3. Constant accompaniment of the child by a teacher with whom he or she has a positive and long-term relationship.

    In this kind of discussion, the teacher and the children explore basic aspects of the changing reality of one person, preferably a child, e.g., a girl who has to move into a ghetto: What does she take with her? What does her life in the ghetto look like? How does wearing a Jewish badge make her feel? What does it mean to grow up in the ghetto?

    The next stage, for older children, elicits a wider discussion that refers to a family. Acquaintance with a family includes more characters, more instances of fate, and attention to relations between people and groups. Discussion at the family level is important because this is a social setting that all students are familiar with and can relate to. At this stage, the children may also be encouraged to address not only the victims’ perspective but also that of the rescuer.

    When children enter adolescence, they start to consolidate their personal identity, social and national identity, and human values. Therefore, in this third phase they can relate to a wider social circle – a community at large. Since their cognitive and emotional perception has matured, adolescents can deal with psychological issues of a complexity that transcends those of the victim only. They can now address the dilemmas of the rescuer , the issue of the bystander, and finally the perpetrator.

    In sum, exposure to the topic of the Holocaust should be established gradually, in a manner that corresponds with the students’ stage of emotional and cognitive development.

    The encounter with these different human circles creates awareness of the diverse situations and problems that Jews faced in the Holocaust. If conducted in the right way, it reduces the tendency to judge and encourages self-reflection.

    The choice of testimony should also be guided by the following key criteria:

    Testimonies for primary and middle-school students: a teacher who is interested in inviting a survivor to testify should extend the invitation only after a preparatory meeting with the survivor. At this meeting, the teacher should explain that the story should be told in such a way that the students will not be traumatized. Primary and middle-school students should not be presented with a survivor whose story includes horrific descriptions of life and death in the camps. A survivor who spent the war in hiding would be a better choice.

    Testimonies for high-school students: By high school, students are prepared to deal with more difficult stories. Therefore, personal materials of people who did not survive also may be used with older students. It is still, however, the responsibility of the teacher to make an initial inquiry into the story beforehand and use proper judgment in choosing testimonies that will correspond with the students’ cognitive and emotional characteristics.

  2. Local context: Those who teach the Holocaust often face the dilemma of where to place the focus in the limited time available. Should they present a general picture of the Holocaust in Europe or concentrate on events that took place in their own country? Ideally, they should strike a balance between the two. Thus, to impart a historical understanding of the Holocaust, teachers should confer knowledge of the wider context of the tragedy without overlooking specific local aspects. Therefore, when choosing testimonies it is extremely important to try to present a local one and to set it in the correct historical context. Teachers may also ask their students if they have survivor grandparents who are willing to tell their story.

One last note: our discussion did not refer to the choice of live versus taped testimony. A live encounter with a Holocaust survivor has the added value of the quality of direct personal interaction; therefore, it is usually preferable to use live testimonies if possible.


Different types of testimonies require different kinds of preparation. Several general principles, however, are relevant in all cases.

One of the most important steps is to provide historical context. A survivor’s testimony is micro-history, one person’s story told from a specific and subjective perspective. Although it has great power in itself, its fuller meaning, especially in the educational sense, is gleaned when it is set in a specific context. Our moral mandate requires us to seek the universal aspects of the Holocaust. Such a discussion, however, can take place meaningfully only when rooted in an understanding of the historical reality. Therefore, it is the teacher’s obligation to provide students with sufficient historical context before they meet the survivor face-to-face. The historical context includes terms of importance in understanding of the testimony, e.g., ghetto, labor / transit / concentration / extermination camp, and roundup. If the students are not familiar with those terms, they may obtain only a partial understanding of the story.

When preparing for a live encounter with a survivor, specific groundwork vis-à-vis the three human players in the meeting – the teacher, the survivor, and the students – should be performed: [7]

Teacher and survivor: The teacher is a key figure in preparing the students for the meeting. He or she must meet the survivor before the survivor meets the students in order to establish an infrastructure for the encounter. First, this primary human contact may contribute to a more comfortable environment for the meeting with the students. Second, the teacher and the survivor may use the preliminary meeting to clarify their mutual expectations. By talking with the survivor, the teacher will acquaint him/herself with the survivor’s story and may guide the survivor on where to place the focus when meeting the students. It is advisable to suggest that the survivor not only retell his/her experiences during the Holocaust but also describe h/her life before and after the Holocaust. The teacher may discuss with the survivor various questions that the students may ask and let him/her know that s/he is not obliged to answer all questions.

Students: It is crucial to provide the students with some basic facts about the survivor and his or her story. The teacher may point out important places and terms that may come up in the story and set them in the historical context that he or she has already given over. Knowing the significance of the historical terms, the students will be able to focus on the human experience of the story. The teacher may also advise the students to write down questions while listening to the testimony and present them at the end. It is important to encourage the students to ask questions and the witness to be prepared to answer, because the reciprocal human contact is the added value of a live meeting with the witness.

Suggestions for Preparatory Activities
  1. What to expect and what not to expect: it is important for the teacher to probe the students’ expectations of their meeting with the survivor. “We are neither historians nor philosophers but witnesses,” says Primo Levi when discussing his experiences as a witness.[8] In the educational process, testimonies should not be the primary source of historical knowledge and understanding. Since most survivors are not historians, the educator should ask them to tell personal stories that will act in parallel with the historical details that the students acquire from other primary and secondary sources.
  2. Depending on the class and the teacher, it is also possible to conduct a discussion before the encounter, at which the students will be encouraged to suggest questions that they would like to ask the survivor.


While working with testimonies and benefiting from their values, the teacher, and in certain cases the students as well, should be aware of specific characteristics related to this source of knowledge.

  • “Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. This is a threadbare truth known not only to psychologists but also to anyone who has paid attention to the behavior of those who surround him, or even to his own behavior.” [9] Thus Primo Levi notes one of the main limitations of survivors’ testimonies. Never will two people who shared an experience remember it in the same manner. The human memory is influenced by various elements that shape it. Beliefs, personality traits, life experiences, posterior knowledge, repression, and erosion caused by passing time are just a few of the elements that affect the way our memory is shaped. Discrepancies between a testimony given shortly after the events and another testimony by the same witness years later are quite common. Inaccuracies in dates and details are also an integral part of the medium of testimony. It is the teacher’s duty to be aware of these characteristics. It is also his/her duty either to be prepared for questions from the students about those issues or to initiate a discussion about the issue of memory and testimonies.
  • The Holocaust was the systematic killing, for ideological reasons, of approximately 6,000,000 Jews during World War II. Stories about personal experiences at that time are of course recounted by those who survived. They are the stories of the living rather than of the dead. This is why we need to be very careful not to construct a biased view of what happened. Such a bias may occur, for example, in a discussion about Auschwitz-Birkenau. Concurrent to the mass murder of Jews, Birkenau operated as a labor camp that exploited thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners. Trains delivered thousands of Jews to the camp each day. Most of these Jews were sent to the gas chambers immediately. The death sentence of the minority, who were chosen for labor, was postponed. Eventually, most of them died from labor and starvation or were eventually sent to the gas chambers. When one hears the testimonies of former prisoners at Auschwitz, one may easily fixate on the account of “life in the camp” and forget that Auschwitz was above all a death camp and that those who lived to tell the tale are a small minority of the people who were taken there.


We began this discussion by providing several dictionary definitions of ”testimony” and establishing three categories of meaning. By examining the role of survivors’ testimonies in the aftermath of the Holocaust generally and in Holocaust remembrance and education particularly, we see that this type of testimony contributes something to each of these categories.

Some survivors of the Holocaust gave testimony in court, thereby providing ”live evidence” in the process of building cases against war criminals. In the past twenty years, some of them testified again, this time to confront the new-old phenomenon of Holocaust denial.

When given in the general context of remembrance and in the more specific context of education, testimonies have the different goal, explained above, of authenticating events that are so difficult to grasp. Finally, many survivors testify for the purpose of delivering moral messages. By so doing, they connect in some way to the third definition of the term “testimony.” ’Thou shalt not murder,” the imperative that appears in the survivor’s document quoted above, is probably the commandment that is implicit in all testimony.

[1] Remarks by Zvi Gill (in Hebrew) in his Closing Message to the Conference on the Legacy of Holocaust Survivors (April, 2002 at Yad Vashem). Translated into English in Our Living Legacy, Yad Vashem, 2003, p. 7.
[2] Documents on the Holocaust, Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot (eds.), p. 194.
[3] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Summit Books, 1988).
[4] Remarks by Zvi Gill (in Hebrew) in his Closing Message to the Conference on the Legacy of Holocaust Survivors (April, 2002 at Yad Vashem). Translated into English in Our Living Legacy, Yad Vashem, 2003, p. 7.
[5] Roger Simon, “The Contribution of Holocaust Audio-Visual Testimony to Remembrance, Learning and Hope,” in Cahier International sur le Témoignage Audiovisuel 1 (1998), p. 144.
[6] Ibid, p. 147.
[7] The following discussion is inspired by the Hebrew article Holocaust Survivors Meeting with Students.
[8] Primo Levi, p. 150.
[9] Primo Levi, p. 23.