Grades: Middle and High School
Duration: 1.5 hours
This lesson plan focuses on the winning design of the 2012 National Holocaust Remembrance Day Poster Competition, "Designing Memory," held by Yad Vashem and Israel's Ministry for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs.
The poster was chosen from 186 submissions. It was designed by Doriel Rimmer Halperin, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem.
The judges remarked: "The poster is clear and instantly intelligible. This is a memory that speaks every language of the world…" "The poster reflects the reality of the lives of Holocaust survivors and the isolation of their unsettling memories… The memories of an ordinary family enjoying a daily event, which is comprehended in the end by the absence of the actual characters…."
The lesson plan will discuss the existence of Holocaust survivors after the Shoah through central concepts in their lives – loneliness, loss and trauma, childhood and family, identity – which are evoked by the winning design as well as from testimonies given by survivors on these very topics.
The aim of the lesson plan is to expose the students to the poster, and thereby stimulate a class dialogue on the topic of Holocaust survivors and the difficulties they faced in building their lives anew after the Shoah. An emphasis is placed on their greatest losses – their children, their families, their health, their faith in humanity – as well as on the situation in which many of them now find themselves: suffering from acute loneliness and the lack of the most basic necessities of life.
Using these universally familiar concepts, we will try to engender empathy for the lives of Holocaust survivors. The situation presented in the poster – a family outing with two parents and two children, the youngest holding both of his parents' hands – is familiar to almost every child. The old man, whose shadow reflects that of the child, presents an immediate connection between the family unit and the reality of Holocaust survivors who walk alone among us.
67 years have passed since the end of WWII, and the Shoah continues to stand at the center of Jewish and universal discourse – through the various hues of history, humanity, identity and values. Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day is the day when the State of Israel unites with the memory of the Six Million, murdered by the German Nazis and their accomplices during the Holocaust. It is a day of both personal and communal remembrance, a day to commemorate the victims, a day to identify with the survivors, and a warning beacon to humanity. Each year, we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day with official state events, via the educational system, through the media, and in local and nationwide ceremonies in a wide variety of ways.
One of the most important and productive ways to engage with the memory of the Holocaust is through art. Works of art have the power to present us with a reality while broadening our horizons of understanding. As such, the encounter with art allows us to deal with universal issues that lie beyond our own internal lives.
The Development of the Lesson
- What do you see in the poster?
The students' responses will form the bases of the discussion, whether they relate to the following simple facts – an elderly man walking with the aid of a cane; the shadow of a family on an outing; the paving stones of a town; the colors in the poster (a black-and-white photograph); the title in the center of the poster – or whether more meaningful ideas are brought up at this initial stage.
Analyzing the Poster – A Suggestion
The poster depicts the image of an elderly man, whose face is turned either towards or away from us, and whose shadow is that of a family with four members: two parents and two children. The man himself is attached to the shadow of the youngest child in the family. The shadow of the family also touches the title of the poster: "Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day 2012."
The background of the photograph is a wide square, made of paving stones, with the image of the elderly man and the shadow of the family at its center. Apart from these images, no other person appears in the entire photograph.
The poster is black and white.
- What is the strongest feeling that arises from looking at this poster? What do you understand from the image of the elderly man as opposed to the family that he was once seemingly a part of?
The main feelings that arise from looking at the official Holocaust Remembrance Day poster are those of loss, mourning, difficulties, and loneliness. The figure of the elderly man in the center of the poster seems somehow lacking, as its silhouette is constructed of other figures that no longer exist. As he marches forward, his past accompanies him involuntarily, as a shadow, wherever he goes.
The black and white colors add to the sorrowful atmosphere emanating from the poster.
Among the responses from the group, some of the following concepts will most likely arise: loss, childhood, family, trauma, loneliness, identity. These concepts will form the basis of discussion about the poster in particular, and through them – a dialogue about the lives of Holocaust survivors after the Shoah.
Some 60,000 Holocaust survivors were found on German soil in the aftermath of the war (according to Prof. Anita Shapira), and about 1.5 million in Europe as a whole (according to Prof. Hagit Lavsky), not including those in the areas of the FSU. Many of these survivors were children at liberation, parentless youth in orphanages, in hiding with Christian families, in monasteries and in other places of refuge. Some were liberated from the camps and other locations, utterly destitute.
We open with concepts related to:
Trauma and Loss
"The concept of trauma comes from medical terminology. It means 'a tear,' a break in consecutiveness, a disruption. Like a bodily wound, mental trauma violates a kind of balance, causing a disruption in tissue and function"
(from an interview with Prof. Gabi Shefler).
- From what kind of trauma do a large percentage of Holocaust survivors suffer? What are they "torn" from? How is trauma expressed in the poster before us?
The Holocaust provided fertile ground for many kinds of trauma for a large number of people. In an instant, they lost all that was dear to them – their parents, their siblings, their home, their faith, their routine life, and more. This "rupture" from all they had previously known, with no preparation, created a traumatic reality that survivors were left to face for many years after the Shoah – and for some, their whole lives.
Elie Wiesel describes the parting from his mother and sister as they entered Auschwitz:
"In an instant, I saw my mother and sister step to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them from afar… I did not know that at that moment, at that time, I was leaving my mother and my sister forever."
The snatched departure, the inability to bid loved ones goodbye, is what created the rupture.
The trauma of loss is expressed in the poster in different ways: First: the total emptiness, the absence of the people creating the shadow. One would expect them to physically be present, but they are not. This is surprising and painful at the very first glance.
The same "rupture" cries out from the elderly man walking along the street, in the shadow of his family. We know that he should be surrounded by the family members themselves, but they are not present, and his isolation is emphasized by their shadows.
The paved street on which he walks also expresses some kind of alienation, which strengthens the feeling of solitude. It is clear that a person who has lost his immediate family walks alone, even in a world full of people.
The actual location in the photograph is anonymous and characterless, representing the experience of the Holocaust survivors, which is defined neither by place nor time.
– For those wishing to delve deeper into the topic of trauma and loss: Post-traumatic stress occurs when one experiences the traumatic event once again, in one of a number of ways: remembering the event, among other things through visual images; suffering from recurring nightmares about the event; having the feeling that the event is happening again; and more. Returning to the event is expressed in the poster by the elderly man being accompanied by memories of the family he lost. They walk with him and lighten his solitude, but are also there through no choice of his own, as a shadow. The traumatic event he once experienced thus becomes an inseparable part of his life.
- How is the two-way direction of trauma expressed in the poster?
It is difficult to distinguish whether the elderly man in the center of the picture is running away from the shadow, from the past, towards the future; or whether he is standing facing the shadow, the past. Is he trying to distance himself from the memory of the past and begin anew (i.e., moving quickly away from the trauma), or is he looking unceasingly at his past, and thereby creating a reality in which only he and his past exist (i.e., stopping and standing still)?
- What could the reaction of Holocaust survivors be to the trauma they carry? How does it affect their lives? Do you know personally of any kinds of coping mechanisms?
From the psychological aspect, trauma generally generates one of two responses: stopping and standing still, or moving quickly away from the event. Survivors reacted to their experiences during the Shoah in different ways, without necessarily any direct link between the force of their tragedy and the intensity of their trauma.
According to Prof. Shefler, one has no way of measuring how one will respond to a trauma, or the strength of each person's individual response.
The second concept we will discuss is:
Childhood and Family
- Read the excerpt below, which is from a letter sent by a woman called Rosa Timberg to her husband and son, during the war:
"And now to you, my child, my one and only, my most beloved. How are you, my pure soul? Are you well? Are you studying diligently? Your loving mother misses you so very much. Pray, my child! Pray every day, morning, noon and night, for your Mameleh, your aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Pray, my child, so that we can meet in health once more, Amen, Amen! While my eyes are still open, I bless you, my beloved child. May God bless you and protect you on all your journeys, Amen! And may you have good fortune in all you do, Amen! Never forget your Mamaleh, be good and listen to your teachers. Listen to and obey them, for they all want the best for you, just like your Mamaleh. Oh, how I wish I could be with you. For now, may peace be with you. May you be healthy and strong, and one thousand hugs from your Mamaleh who loves you forever, Aunt Santa, Regina, Katha, Uncle Manfred, Heinz, Walter, Siggi and all the family, all your acquaintances ask after you and join my wishes to you. Be well.
Last Letters from the Shoah (ed., Dr. Zwi Bacharach), p.319
- What is the significance of this letter for the mother and for her son?
- What can we understand from what the mother wrote relating to her chances of being reunited with her only son after the war?
- From her assessment that she would never see her son again, what does the mother wish him? In what areas of his life was it important for her to leave her mark and chart a course for him so that he will be able to overcome her absence?
A large proportion of the letters that Jews left as their last wills and testimonies during the Shoah were written to their children. The significance of writing to their children, whom they would never see grow up or be able to educate, was enormous. These letters are filled with words of love, pain at the loss of a joint destiny, and instructions and requests for the future.
According to the letter from Rosa Timberg to her son, it seems that she believes she will never see him again, although she obviously deeply wishes it otherwise. Understanding that he will grow up motherless, she leaves him road marks for life, in the areas she deems appropriate: that he should be diligent in his studies; that he should listen to his teachers; that he should believe that those close to him wish him the best (have faith in other human beings); that he should be healthy and strong; and that he should embrace the warm wishes from his extended family, acquaintances and friends.
- Why did Rosa Timberg choose these specific blessings and instructions?
It seems that Rosa felt that concentrating and investing in his studies would promise her son a better future. She also understood that as her son grew up unaccompanied by his parents, he would need to engender a faith in, and a closeness to, other adults in his life. Of course, she saw too the importance in his understanding that many people were blessing him and following his progress in their hearts – relatives and friends whom she quotes in her letter.
- The mother's words to her son contain many repetitions and fragmented phrases. What do you think lies behind this?
We can relate to the torment in her soul, knowing that she will not live to see her son grow up, and will not be able to accompany him through life and be there when he needs her.
In the poster, we can understand that the lonely old man was once a young child, part of family now lost. He holds the hands of his parents who surround him on both sides, endowing him with protection and warmth, and even the joy of an ordinary family outing.
A family provides its members with their physical needs – protection against the cold, hunger, sickness, etc. – as well as their emotional needs – love, joy, close relationships, a feeling of belonging, and more. The ultimate price is paid for a forced and sudden departure from the ones closest to us – including loss of faith in adults, and future difficulties in building close and intimate relationships.
It seems that the man in the center of the poster is refusing, or is unable, to separate himself from all the functions his family once fulfilled. He walks alone, yet he carries with him the shadow of the entire family, their absence and his yearnings. They accompany him wherever he goes, and in their vicinity he is once more the young boy whose tender age provides him with all he should receive from his loving parents.
The final concept we will discuss is:
- What can we say about the proportion of the elderly man to his shadow, that of the child? Can we attach any significance to this?
When we look at the picture in the poster, we see that the height of the man's shadow is that of a boy, and that of the boy is the height of the man. From this, a question arises – what share does the boy hold in the image of the man? Does this child represent his entire past? The man's past? The trauma?
- On which points on a timeline does the poster focus – past, present, future? What can we learn from this?
The poster focuses on the past and the present. The images in it are the family of the survivor that lived in the past, and the survivor himself in the present. The future is not found in the poster. Graphically, too, the horizon that stands before the elderly man is without substance.
It would seem that the aim of focusing upon the past is our renewed examination of Holocaust survivors. Holocaust survivors, in the main, built themselves new lives after the Shoah – they had families, they studied, they worked, and they lived. The poster requires us to see what they carried with them on their life's journey after the catastrophic loss brought about by the Holocaust.
A large proportion of Holocaust survivors were rehabilitated, but continued to carry with them all they had lost. We are obliged to see where they have come from, to acknowledge what was taken from them, and even to look at them again, from a new perspective. Every joyous occasion, every development and every achievement of Holocaust survivors seen through this lens is far more complex.
- Can we deduce the place of the Shoah in Israeli society from the lives and souls of Holocaust survivors?
At this point, the discussion is opened to more general questions regarding Israeli society – what is the place of Holocaust-based trauma in Israeli society? Does its memory tag along behind us, like a shadow? Does it accompany us? What share of our identity as a people and a society does it hold? What is the significance of the power of remembrance on our existence today?
When we look at the official poster chosen for this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day, we see that the Shoah is not actually present in a substantive sense, except for the title.
- Why do you think this poster was chosen as the official poster for Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day? Would we identify its subject without the title?
The poster does not make use of well-known Holocaust symbols: uniforms, trains, yellow stars, familiar photos, etc., but instead expresses the trauma and the loss through the experience of one man and his family. This personal, human experience, in daily life, is what expresses in the clearest possible way the solitude and pain endured by Holocaust survivors after the Shoah. The poster is emotive, as it touches the part of us as human beings that understands the significance of family – and though this, we are able to engender empathy with the survivor who continues to suffer from the terrible loss of his family.