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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Reel Witnesses: A New Type of Holocaust Testimony

By Yael Weinstock


For the past 65 years, the most effective method of learning about the horrors of the Holocaust was through eyewitness testimony – namely, survivors who could recount what happened to them and their families. Countless students, educators, and lay people of all religions and nationalities, have learned about the suffering, heroism, rescuing, and devastation that occurred during the Nazi occupation and “Final Solution” as they listened intently to survivors from different countries. As time passes and the survivor generation continues to dwindle in number, there is an ever-growing need for a new way of continuing that same type of connection that was established with first-hand testimony.
The Shoah Foundation has compiled 51,174 video testimonies to date, which are in English, and include Jewish survivors (the most testimonies by far in the collection), homosexual survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, liberators, political prisoners, rescuers and aid providers, Sinti and Roma survivors, survivors of eugenics policies, and war crimes trials participants. Yad Vashem has collected thousands of similar testimonies in Hebrew, many of which can be found in the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. While all of these testimonies are crucial to the documentation of the events of the Holocaust, they are difficult to use educationally as they are long and not age appropriate.

Teaching the Holocaust without Survivors

With this in mind, Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in cooperation with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has created the “Witnesses and Education” project. To understand this project, we must ask the fundamental questions of memorialization: what is it that survivors provide us through their testimony? And as educators, why do we sometimes find the written version to be less powerful?
Personal survivor testimony offers several advantages over the written word:

  1. Testimony with a human face creates empathy and commands attention. It thrusts the listener into the survivor’s world before, during and after the Holocaust. Beyond the testimony itself, we also experience the physical meeting with the survivor.
  2. The unmediated exposure to the survivor invokes an active thinking process.
  3. Listeners undergo an emotional and intellectual process that sparks interest in learning and expanding one’s knowledge.
  4. The group interaction creates a sense of commitment to the subject of the Holocaust.
  5. The particular phrasing of testimony serves to shape Holocaust memory.
  6. The testimony conveys the “emotional landscape” of the survivor.

Therefore, we must ask ourselves, as educators, how do we safeguard these advantages in a world without survivors? How do we carry over the empathy, the desire to learn, remember and maintain a set of values? How do we ensure that the heritage of survivors lives on?
“Witnesses and Education” is a series of seven unique video testimonies, featuring a different survivor who returned to his/her hometown in Europe and visited the places of his/her youth. Each video (4 of which have already been translated into English) is built according to Yad Vashem’s pedagogical philosophy which begins in pre-war Europe when these survivors were children and goes through their experience, concluding in their move to Israel after the war. The individual’s voice is that of the survivor. We have found that much of the previous testimony given through interviews is delivered historically, as directed by the interviewer or historian. As a result, some details that might have been of interest to educators have been glossed over, or omitted entirely. In these testimony films, trained educators accompanied the survivors, asking questions that don’t often arise in “regular” interviews. The videos are short, only about 45 minutes each, thereby easy to show to a class, and may also be broken up into segments, in order to teach about one particular area of the Holocaust period.
Each testimony is filmed on location where the events transpired, providing extra vividness and depth. Filming on location has tremendous value – survivors are reintroduced to their own life’s story. They return to the scenes of their youth. They rediscover the parks, fields, and buildings they used to play in. They revisit the homes in which they were raised, meet their neighbors, smell the scents, and hear the sounds of their former life. This multi-sensory experience evokes a range of emotions. The combination of subject matter, educationally oriented questions, and survivor face-time, makes these journeys highly valuable educational experiences. In this way, we preserve a living memory of the Holocaust for generations to come.
Below is a brief explanation of each of the films that have been translated into English, which provide the educator with a feel for using these films to teach the Holocaust.

  • Malka Rosenthal, born in 1934 in Stanislawow, Eastern Galicia, tells the story of her childhood in a wealthy, intellectual family. While living in the ghetto, Malka lost her baby brother, and while seeking refuge with gracious gentiles, she watched as her mother was shot and killed by a Nazi. Her father fled to become one of the partisans, and Malka was taken in by a gentile family who hid her in a barrel underground for a year and a half. After liberation, she was one of the survivors aboard the illegal immigrant ship “Exodus”, and eventually arrived in Israel in 1948.
  • Yosef Neuhaus was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1924. After being forced to move into the Lodz Ghetto, Yosef’s family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is the only survivor of his family. Yosef survived and was imprisoned in several other camps. In 1946 he immigrated to pre-state Israel, fought in Israel’s wars – including the War of Independence – and started a new family.
  • Hannah Bar Yesha recounts her childhood in Ungvár, Hungary. She was born in 1932 to a loving, warm family. In 1944 her family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of her family was murdered.
  • Ovadia Baruch, a Greek Jew, was twenty years old when he was deported with his family from Greece to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He struggled to survive Auschwitz as well as Mauthausen before being liberated in May 1945. While in Auschwitz, Ovadia met Aliza Tzarfati, a young Jewish woman from his hometown, and the two developed a loving relationship despite inhumane conditions.

There are hundreds of films about the Holocaust, including documentaries, feature films, and footage from the 1940s. Each tells its own story and in using one of the most widespread and accessible mediums, has reached thousands of audiences across the globe. While films about the Holocaust will continue to be produced, we will not always be able to benefit from first-hand accounts of the events, and must begin to rely on celluloid to record and preserve those who can no longer be physically heard. This is a crucial element in Holocaust education, and I would recommend using this form of testimony in any lesson on the subject.
The particular educational videos mentioned in this article may be purchased through Yad Vashem.

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