Testimony after the Survivors: Schindler's List and Teaching about the Holocaust

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Indeed, survivor testimony is – and has long been – central to Holocaust education. The experience of meeting a survivor face-to-face and hearing their story is widely viewed to be very positive and enriching for students and a way of promoting empathy with victims of persecution.”  

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On the 7 December, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List returns to the silver screen, twenty-five years after its first release. One of the most powerful moments in the film is its closing scene. We see (in colour) ‘Schindler’s Jews’, accompanied by their families and alongside the actors who played them in the film, laying stones on Oskar Schindler’s grave as a mark of gratitude and respect. In 1993, many of the survivors in the film are visibly frail – after all, a person in their thirties in 1945 would have been approaching or in their eighties when the film was released. Twenty-five years on and even the youngest survivors of the Holocaust are well into their old age. The girl in the red dress – had she survived – would have been roughly eighty years old in 2018.

We are moving into a period of Holocaust remembrance that might be described as the “post-survivor” age. Very little time remains for us to listen to the memories of those who lived through persecution and genocide during and in the build up to the Second World War. This sad fact has provided the impetus for many innovative projects, each of which aim to record survivor testimony and make it come alive for those using it. Notable in the UK context is the Forever project being developed by the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM), which uses digital technology to allow visitors the experience of interacting with a survivor. The Echo Eternal initiative is currently being undertaken by 12 schools in Birmingham. Here, students work alongside an artist to create their own response to one of the 112 survivor testimonies recorded by the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation.

Indeed, survivor testimony is – and has long been – central to Holocaust education. The experience of meeting a survivor face-to-face and hearing their story is widely viewed to be very positive and enriching for students and a way of promoting empathy with victims of persecution. Hearing ‘whole life’ accounts can also encourage students to see survivors as individuals with complex lives that start before and continue beyond the Holocaust. Survivors are core to the work of national organisations such as the NHCM, the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMD).

Educators at all levels are thus considering how they will continue their work when face-to-face testimony is no longer possible. One solution is to use testimony that is recorded in some way, be it on video, through digital technologies, in film, autobiography, memoirs, theatre and so on. These forms of testimony are what we might call ‘mediated testimony’ and will come to play an increasingly important role in Holocaust education.

Nonetheless, like face-to-face testimony, using ‘mediated testimony’ to teach about the Holocaust raises complex questions about ethics and methods. What can we learn from eyewitness accounts and how? Whose voices should be included? What is the place of fiction in testimonial forms? Can the descendants of survivors be witnesses? The answers to these questions need to include reflection on what we understand by ‘authenticity’ (can fiction be authentic?), what we hope to achieve by encouraging ‘empathy’ (what should students feel and why?) and our aims in teaching about the Holocaust. Might perpetrator testimony play a role in instructing students on the conditions in which ‘normal’ people can come to commit horrific crimes?

With this in mind, I am currently working with the NHCM, HET and HMD, alongside secondary teachers and colleagues from the Universities of Nottingham and Connecticut, to develop a series of resources and a framework to help teachers make use of ‘mediated testimony’. Our aim is to promote the use of testimony in ways that are sensitive towards the nature of the material, respectful of the experiences of survivors and which contribute towards a fuller historical understanding.

The ‘Testimony after the Survivors’ project is emerging from a 2-year research network 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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