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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Echoes and Reflections: Hearing the Voices of the Victims

Voices of the VictimsVoices of the Victims

The story of the Jewish victim is at the center of our study of the Holocaust. How should we tell this story? What should we focus on? What are the resources we can use to bring it to life? We should not see the Holocaust as the murder of six million anonymous Jews, but we should understand, rather, that six million times during the Holocaust an individual Jew with a name and a face was murdered.

At Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, we believe that the aim of the educator must be to "see" the victim as an individual rather than as a statistic, and to communicate this idea to students. Doing so evokes a sense of empathy with the victims, as they become real people with human identities and aspirations. The empathy created allows students and teachers to discuss the Holocaust more meaningfully as students can relate more easily to human beings than to two-dimensional, black-and-white pictures or numbers in a list. Once empathy is evoked, educators can tailor their lessons to suit the emotional and cognitive level of the students.

This philosophy is also the guiding philosophy of Echoes and Reflections, a multimedia program that was developed by Yad Vashem, together with the Anti-Defamation League and the USC Shoah Foundation. It provides American middle and high school educators with the professional development and resources necessary to responsibly and effectively teach the Holocaust in today's classrooms. Since 2005, Echoes and Reflections has reached more than 30,000 educators across the United States, 99% of whom would recommend the program to their colleagues.

Putting this guiding philosophy into practice, the question becomes: how do we give the victims back their faces and their names? How do we hear their voices?

The Voices of the Victims: Resources

In his last letter, written to his friend Elsa before he was murdered by the Nazis in Vilna in 1941, Holocaust victim David Berger wrote, simply, “I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.” He expressed his fervent desire to be remembered as an individual human being.

The story of Fela Szeps adds another dimension to this desire. Fela was a young Jewish woman from the town of Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland, who was seized by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Grünberg labor camp, later a satellite camp of the infamous Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Along with the other inmates of the camp, she was forced on a death march that covered hundreds of miles and ended, after 106 days of hunger, sickness, humiliation and treacherous marching through snow and ice, in Volary, Czechoslovakia. Fela survived until liberation, but died of exhaustion in her sister's arms on the very day that WWII ended. In Grünberg, Fela kept a diary on various scraps of paper. She wrote: “Our imprisonment should not be forgotten. I want people to know about it. I want our simple desires to be known, our thoughts and feelings acknowledged.”

The sentiment expressed by David Berger and Fela Szeps motivates and informs the way both Yad Vashem and Echoes and Reflections teach about the Holocaust: by teaching the human story and hearing the voices of the victims. Likewise, the resources above – letters and diaries – are two examples of resources used by Yad Vashem and by Echoes and Reflections to help us do so.

A diary enables us to touch the past. In a way, it is like a photograph that is frozen in time. It is not influenced by future perspectives – memory cannot change it. Unlike a photograph, a diary describes a particular moment in time, enabling us to gain insight into the way people understood and experienced the events as they were happening, not knowing what the future would bring.

It is important to realize when reading a diary that it is a personal document. A diarist writes a diary for himself alone, reflecting upon his life. A diary is not meant for any other reader; it is not a historical document. When reading a diary written by someone who was murdered during the Holocaust, we should be respectful of his dignity as we enter into the intimacy of his soul. To understand more about the way diaries can bring history to life, we recommend the short “video toolbox” film on ghettos, which can be seen here.

Letters are personal testaments that also reveal what the victims felt; however, unlike diaries, letters are meant to convey the personal experiences of their writers to another individual. Letters convey a direct message, without commentary from outside observers. As Balzac wrote, "A letter is a living soul, a faithful echo of the voice of the speaker."

The sources above, which come from within the inferno of the Holocaust and were written during that period, represent just two of the victims. Since we can't hear the voices of all six million victims of the Holocaust, the voices of individuals like David and Fela allow us to weave together the story of what happened to Jews during the Holocaust. Theirs are voices that have managed to reach us from within the Holocaust. However, in the brutal and repressive circumstances of the time, when even simple writing implements like pens and paper were not available, few were able to write diaries or letters that they could leave behind to express their feelings. The great majority of the victims disappeared without a trace. Their voices will remain silenced forever.

For this reason, we must use other sources to piece together the human story of the Holocaust. These sources come, naturally, from the small minority who somehow survived the Holocaust: the survivors. By listening to the voices of survivors through their testimonies or their memoirs, we gain an awareness of the depths of the struggle of the Jewish victims as well as the strength of the human spirit. The voices of survivors tell the story of the Holocaust from a human perspective.

Testimonies create empathy without the need for simulation. A survivor describing his experiences is reliving these events to some extent. Watching his testimony reveals a great deal. Not only does testimony provide authenticity, testimony makes it possible for us to bridge the gap of time and touch events that happened tens of years ago. The Echoes and Reflections program contains 65 clips of testimony that bring survivors’ experiences in the Holocaust to life.

Memoirs written by survivors also describe events and experiences, but – like testimonies – their perspective is affected by hindsight, by the passage of time which affects memory, and by the present. In many cases, memoirs are works of literature where the words are carefully chosen, taking into account what the reader will understand. As authors and witnesses, survivors do more than speak and write about the events they experienced; they may also try to give meaning to these events in light of their later experiences or their reflections upon and knowledge about those experiences. Echoes and Reflections uses memoirs such as Elie Wiesel’s Night to give insight into these events.

Echoes and Reflections

The Echoes and Reflections program focuses on the human story in telling the story of the Holocaust. All of the resources mentioned above – letters, diaries, testimonies and memoirs – are used to great effect in telling the stories of individual survivors and victims. These individual stories help shed light on the entirety of the Holocaust. The Echoes and Reflections program incorporates the voice of the victims in each of its units.

For instance, in telling the complex story of the ghettos and the human struggle to maintain life and dignity within them, Echoes and Reflections uses testimonies, diaries and poetry to convey personal, individual stories. The challenges of teaching about ghettos are considerable – among them is the issue of relevance. How do we make the story of the ghettos relevant to our students? If the story of each ghetto is comprised of the stories and experiences of each and every one of the people who were incarcerated inside, and if we can bring the larger story of the ghettos down to the stories of these individuals, then students will be able to see the faces of the victims and hear their voices. The ghettos will no longer be impenetrable monoliths but will be prisms reflecting individual experiences. In order to better understand the story of the ghettos, the Echoes and Reflections unit on this subject focuses mainly on the Lodz Ghetto.

The city of Lodz was situated in the part of Poland that the Germans annexed in September, 1939. It was intended to be Judenrein, free of Jews. As such, the Germans attempted to deport all the Jewish inhabitants from the city. When difficulties arose with their initial plan, the Germans established the ghetto in Lodz in May 1940. (For a newsletter which describes the last days of the Lodz Ghetto, see here).

The Lodz Ghetto was one of the first to be established and it became the second largest ghetto in the occupied Polish territories. It was completely sealed off from the outside world. Since many of the residents of the surrounding area were of German origin and identified with Germany and the Nazis, the environment was hostile. The hostility of their neighbors and the strict closure of the ghetto made it almost impossible for Jews to smuggle food into the ghetto, which compelled them to live on the meager ration of food allotted to them by the Germans.

The area of the ghetto was about 1 1/2 square miles, and some 170,000 people were incarcerated in it, often at a density of eight to ten people per room. Many of the houses were run down and were not connected to the sewage system, running water, or gas. The Germans did not provide fuel for heating and in the harsh winters the inhabitants suffered gravely from the cold.

All of the above are dry statistics that describe the Lodz ghetto but do not allow us to see the faces of those who were imprisoned in it. In order to do that, the Echoes and Reflections unit on the Lodz ghetto uses primary sources such as testimonies, diaries and poetry and, of course, photographs.

One of the testimonies included in the Ghettos unit is that of Ellis Lewin, who was a child when he was imprisoned in the ghetto. In his testimony, Ellis talks about the immediate and drastic change that took place in the ghetto. According to Ellis, it was not only one immediate change; it was an ongoing process of constant change influencing every aspect of life that created a sense of uncertainty and chaos. Even the concept of time changed. Time no longer flowed continuously; each day stood alone with its own difficulties, challenges and concerns. The future was reduced to the next hour or the next day. Ellis’s description reinforces the idea that the ghettos were a means to move Jews out of society and isolate them.

Another of the first-person materials used in the Ghettos lesson is the diary of David Sierakowiak. David was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1924. He began to keep a diary before the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1939. He continued his daily entries until shortly before he died in the summer of 1943, at the age of 19, from hunger and exhaustion. In his diary he meticulously noted the events his own feelings, and opinions. The notebooks of David’s diary were found after the war by a Pole. According to the man, “a whole pile of notebooks filled with notes was lying on a stove. Someone must have been using them for firewood because some of them were torn up. […].” Only five of seven, or possibly more, notebooks in which David wrote his diary survived.

From the beginning, David reveals the constant destruction around him. Through his depiction of his world being shattered, we learn about what is happening to the entire Jewish community as a result of the Nazi occupation. David was a popular teenager who had lived a normal life. His diary shows us how he was thrown into a situation where he was humiliated, abused and starved. We know what he doesn’t know – that the situation will only continue to radically deteriorate.

David's diary describes life as it was happening, revealing the constant fragmenting of normalcy. On Sunday, April 6, 1941 he writes:

"I’m beginning a new notebook of my diary, and thus dare to express the wish that it will become the start of a new, brighter and better period in my life than the one I covered in the preceding notebook. That seems just another pipe dream, though. In spite of a gorgeous (and expensive) holiday food ration, the situation remains as tragic as before. There’s no hope for improvement."

The overcrowding, hunger, loss and constant deprivation had become an inseparable part of the reality of life in the ghetto, turning day-to-day life into an incessant battle for one’s very physical and human existence. Ultimately, more than 43,000 people, totaling 21 percent of the ghetto’s inhabitants, died due to the harsh conditions. While David's diary reveals the morbid ongoing process of deterioration, the quote above reveals the hope he still clung to. Because the diary was written during the Holocaust and not after it, it is genuine. The sparks of light that it reveals are an authentic reflection of not just David's state of mind, but probably that of other Jews then imprisoned in the ghetto.

This reminds us that we cannot just focus on one story. To get a true picture, we must combine different voices of different individuals with different experiences in order to broaden the perspective. Only then can we get a deeper understanding of the magnitude of the tragedy, but also of the strength of the human spirit.

Another resource used in the Echoes and Reflections lesson on Ghettos to reflect the human spirit is poetry. One example of this is the poem written by an unknown girl in the Lodz ghetto who was left alone with her brother. It is assumed that both perished in the Holocaust. The author talks about her childhood:

"Childhood, precious days,
Alas, how few they were!
I will remember them as if in a fog.
Only in dreams at night can I
Identify days long gone."

Yad Vashem has produced a short video using the materials found in the Echoes and Reflections lesson on the Ghettos. The video can be seen here.

Echoes and Reflections conducts face-to-face workshops for educators throughout the United States where the pedagogy and educational philosophy described above are discussed and modeled. Basic professional development programs are now offered online, as well.
Yad Vashem educators would be pleased to direct you to trainings and to explain the program to you in greater depth. If you are interested in hearing more about Echoes and Reflections, please use this link and we will reply to you as soon as possible.

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