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Interview with Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem 

What Has Been is Not What Will Be - About the educational significance of testimony with the changing of the generations

Liraz Lachmanovich, Yechiel Weizmann

What will the study of the Holocaust look like for a generation without living witnesses? What makes the encounter between students and those witnesses into a unique one? And how can that uniqueness be preserved for the next generations?

  1. From the film “She was There and She Told Me – The Story of Hannah Bar Yesha, “The International School in Yad Vashem, and the Multimedia Center of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 46m.
  2. The phrase “empathic unsettlement” was coined by Historian and Theoretician Dominick LaCapra . He defines empathic unsettlement as a viewer’s or listener’s response to testimonies of trauma victims. A response which involves historical comprehension and emotional identification with the victim. According to LaCapre, an empathic unsettlement might cause a secondary trauma to the listeners. See: Dominick LaCapre, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

We interviewed Shulamit Imber, the Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem about the role of the witnesses in education and about the challenges facing teachers and educators at a time when students will not be able to hear directly from the survivors.

What, in your opinion, is the educational significance of testimonies and witnesses?

The educational significance of a testimony heard from a survivor is in the fact that the student, sitting directly in front of the witness, receives something extra besides hearing the testimony itself. Holocaust survivor Hanna Bar Yesha says:

I never stop telling my story, to allow whomever hears me, to be able to say one day [in the future] when I am no longer here, "I heard Hannah Bar Yesha. I know her, I listened to her. She was there, and she told me."1.

  • 1. From the film “She was There and She Told Me – The Story of Hannah Bar Yesha, “The International School in Yad Vashem, and the Multimedia Center of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, 46m.

I think that the motto “She was there and she told me”, adds meanings to the student beyond just hearing the testimony. I find that the witness causes students to want to learn more about the Holocaust. It whets their appetite for further studying and researching the subject, perhaps as opposed to when we, the educators, speak to them about it. Sometimes it reaches them, sometimes it doesn’t, but with a witness they will come up after class many times and ask to know more. That’s one point. The second is that the student who listens to the witness goes through a sort of an ‘empathic unsettlement2’ and in most cases this will motivate him to do something with the information he was given. In many cases the encounter instills a feeling of commitment to the memory of the Holocaust, much more than a history lesson does. This commitment grows stronger when they realize the survivors are getting very old.

Should the Witness convey any sort of message?

I don’t think so. In my opinion the message should be, again, “She was there, and she told me”. Moreover, if the survivor must phrase a message it would be redundant in many cases. Every witness should tell his story, what he went through. The students should be able to make out the message, to extract it from the story - that is the empathic unsettlement - I think that when 15 year-olds sit and hears what a survivor went through, who was exactly their age at the time, they undergo a much more effective self-examination process than if they were given a clear message. It forces them to look inside. It’s part of the unsettlement.

Do you think the testimony has a moral significance? Can the witness provide us with moral inspiration?

I think so. What is it that the survivor actually does? He takes the number 6,000,000, which is inconceivable, and tells you, the listener, “I am a human being, do you understand? I was there, and in that pile of bodies was my father, Yosef, and my mother, Hannah.” When we deal with a human story we suddenly understand that we are human too - we also have parents. Even more so, those people lived in a modern world that is very similar to our own. When the survivor tells that there were evil forces in the world that were turned against him, and that he tried to cope and survive in this chaotic world, and didn’t lose the value of life, this story bears a moral significance. This testimony affirms life, since the world of the Holocaust is a world of death, but the survivor says that in this disintegrating world he remains a human being, stayed alive, raised a family. This, in itself has moral significance. Facing death and overcoming it and the ability to move on received moral significance.

We live today in a world where we are exposed, through electronic media, to atrocities from all direction, and our tolerance for it is higher than ever before. Can we still be “unsettled” by a testimony of a Holocaust survivor?

The empathic unsettlement starts with the knowledge that “It’s us”. It’s your grandmother and your family, and it happened to your family. And that survivor there, he’s the same age as my grandfather. This isn’t just another historical chapter. He, the survivor, is related to me! At first it surprised me that a large numbers of the students who go to Poland look for their ancestors’ graves. Then I realized that they are connected to the past. Connected to the stories. That empathic unsettlement the students undergo after hearing the testimony doesn’t occur due to some profound universal realization about human suffering, but because a connection was made to something that is close enough to be recognized. The survivor who stands in front of the students experienced something, and they can connect to it.

Today, in a technological age, where everything is recorded and testimonies and films are available, what are the essential differences between listening to a testimony face-to-face, and watching a testimonial film? Maybe the same connection can be made to the same story through a video?

That’s what we tried to do with the “Witnesses and Education” project. This film project greatly contributes to the memory of the holocaust. It’s important that we brought the survivors to these places, and I see what it does to the students. It brings them closer possible to that unsettlement they experience as they hear the testimony from the survivor himself. It’s an educational project, with great effort put into identifying the things which will no longer exist in a world with no survivors. However, it’s done through a camera. Apparently there is something in that direct human interconnection, where I look you in the eye, and there is no video calling between the viewers, speaking about this difficult subject, expressing body language. The personal connection with the survivor conveys something beyond the testimony, and that raises many questions regarding the limits of technology and the lack of personal unmediated [experiences]. It seems that ultimately the personal human connection, as I’ve already said, is what causes that unsettlement among the listeners. In my opinion this will not occur in a generation without survivors, but then again, it doesn’t mean there won't be other developments.

What will happen when there will not be any more living witnesses, and only the testimony will remain?

First of all I wish that we say it out loud – what was is not what will be. This needs to be understood. I admit that ten years ago, when people started asking “What will happen when there won’t be any survivors left?” I thought “No big problem – we'll screen recorded testimonies…" That is, I didn’t realize the added value the actual survivor gives us. And that’s why I say: let’s first define what the witness adds, and then we can understand what will happen when they are gone. I think the blow will be felt more in places around the world which were established by Holocaust survivors. There are a lot of education centers abroad that are run by Holocaust survivors. In the US, for example, the survivors are called “the first teachers.” Here in Israel, things are different, The International School of Holocaust Studies incorporates the survivors but is also independent in regard to Holocaust studies. The survivors aren’t at the foundation of the teaching of the Holocaust. Surely they will be missed, but after a mourning period for this loss, we’ll have to make up for it with other things.

Certainly, every Holocaust themed day in schools will have to change. Today the survivors usually come to educational institutions to tell their story, and in the future the schools will have to adapt to change. The teachers and the educators will have to work harder – they will have to understand the scope of the educational task they have undertaken.

How will our educational work, in Yad Vashem and in other places, change due to this move towards an “age of no survivors”?

There is a place for recorded testimonies and films we produced here at the International School for Holocaust Studies. We will also have to use shorter testimonies, and examine them more thoroughly. While today the survivor comes and tells his story and that’s it, in the great effort on the teacher’s part is to choose between the testimonies, considering which might induce the empathic unsettlement. It will be necessary to do more intermediary work to hear the testimonies. That’s the way this is being done in the US, where there aren’t as many survivors as in Israel. It means the teacher will have to find those testimonies that will include the “added value” missing from the live witnesses’ testimonies. As I’ve said, the search will become a large part of the teachers and the mediators’ work.

In addition there will be a lot more interdisciplinary work. When there will be no survivors, interdisciplinary means will be used to direct empathic unsettlement constructively. We will have to turn to art, literature and other fields. The International School of Holocaust Studies will also have to undergo that transformation and realize that other fields shouldn’t be merely complementary to the main studies, but be presented as independent units. We will have to study those disciplines as of themselves, and the canonical questions that stem from these disciplines. That is to say, some options will close, but others will open. That is also what author and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld says, "Open the (artistic/ethical) work!" He claims that during the first 60 years the historians and the survivors sat down and documented everything. But if we don’t ask the final questions, we will be left only with history and recorded testimonies. This is a very big challenge that needs to be met.

What is your opinion on the growing phenomenon of second-generation survivors providing testimony in the name of their parents?

I have to express myself on this subject unequivocally: As the Kuzari ]in Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s book[ said: "Your intentions are welcomed, but your actions are not”. Their intentions are genuinely good, because they grew up in a certain home, and they say “We don’t want you to forget. We heard so much from our parents and we want to pass it on.” Of course that stems from a very good intention, but that special quality I discussed earlier is missing, that “I was there and I am telling you.” Students like authenticity, they can feel it when someone stands and (authentically) testifies about what he or she experienced. We know that the authentic experience cannot be replicated. It can be conveyed in other ways, but you can’t speak for them. Also, many of these second generation members are elderly people with grey hair, and the students can be easily confused into thinking they are hearing a testimony straight from the source. Sometimes the speakers even speak in the first person. At some point when the students will discover the truth they might feel cheated to such an extent they won’t want to deal with this subject anymore. That’s where the danger lies. I think that when a survivor comes up and tells about his experience, he affects the life of the student one way or another. If we breach this confidence, at some point we will be held accountable. I think that members of the second generation can do a lot for the commemoration of the Holocaust, but they shouldn't tell the story in place of the actual survivors.

  • 2. The phrase “empathic unsettlement” was coined by Historian and Theoretician Dominick LaCapra . He defines empathic unsettlement as a viewer’s or listener’s response to testimonies of trauma victims. A response which involves historical comprehension and emotional identification with the victim. According to LaCapre, an empathic unsettlement might cause a secondary trauma to the listeners. See: Dominick LaCapre, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.