University of Birmingham research sheds light on the increasing importance of 'mediated testimony' in teaching about the Holocaust.

The re-release of Schindler’s List is a timely reminder of the increasingly important role that ‘mediated testimony’ – films, novels, recorded speech and theatre based on first-person accounts – will play in teaching about the Holocaust, a University of Birmingham academic has announced.

This is because the number of survivors who have been able to tell pupils first-hand about their experiences of the genocide is dwindling, as even the youngest are now in their late 8os.  

Professor Sara Jones, Professor of Modern Languages at the University, made the observation in anticipation of the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary re-release on the 7th December’.

Professor Jones says: “It is essential that current and future generations learn about the Holocaust and the impact it had on people’s lives. Face-to-face testimony, where survivors talk to pupils about their experiences, has long been an essential part of Holocaust Education. Testimony helps students to see victims of the genocide as individuals and to make connections between this history and the world in which they live.”

Unfortunately, the current generation of students will be the last to benefit from this unique educational opportunity. As we move towards a post-survivor age, teachers and other educational professionals will be increasingly reliant on other forms of testimony, including films such as Schindler’s List, recordings of survivors, books, video archives and theatre. These sources are known as ‘mediated testimony’.

Professor Jones added: “Mediated testimony can be extremely powerful and informative, it can encourage empathy with victims and survivors and even motivate political action against racism and discrimination. However, like first-hand testimony, its use raises particular ethical and methodological questions that must be answered.”

“These questions include ‘What can we learn from eyewitness accounts and how?’, ‘Whose voices should be included?, and ‘What is the place of fiction in testimonial forms?’. Teachers need resources to help them address these issues in order to ensure that they and their students get the most out of this form of testimony.”

Professor Jones is overseeing the project ‘Testimony after the Survivors’. She is working with the three main Holocaust education organisations - the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMD), and National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM) – and colleagues from the Universities of Nottingham and Connecticut to develop a framework, a sort of ‘instruction manual’, which will be vital for teachers to get the most out of using mediated testimony.

Over the coming months Professor Jones and the organisations involved in the project will work with teachers and other educators to develop the framework. This educational resource will provide the tools to answer these questions and ensure that the use of mediated testimony has maximum benefit for those learning about the Holocaust, and other genocides that have taken place since the Second World War.

Professor Jones continues; “The educational resources we will develop and launch next year will enable teachers across the curriculum to use mediated testimony, including films like Schindler’s List, in a way that enables students to learn about the Holocaust in sensitive, respectful and historically appropriate ways.”

‘Testimony after the Survivors’ has arisen from a two-year project lead by Professor Jones called ‘Culture and its Uses as Testimony’. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, this project created a network of experts from the fields of history, political science, international relations, law, and sociology, and those working on culture, literature, film and museums in a variety of national and transnational contexts. It examined how people use culture to come to terms with traumatic pasts.

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The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.

Professor Sara Jones is currently Principal Investigator for the AHRC network “Culture and its Uses of Testimony”, which will run from July 2016-January 2019. The network brings together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences with non-academic practitioners to consider what role cultural forms of testimony (e.g., autobiographical writing, literature, art, film, documentary and museums) can play in processes of post-conflict reconciliation and justice.