Using "Mediated Testimony" to Combat Holocaust Denial

On the 20 May 2019, the BBC reported that Al Jazeera had suspended two of its journalists following the publication in its online AJ+ video service in Arabic of a profoundly anti-Semitic video that propagated Holocaust denial. 

Captioned “What is the truth of the Holocaust and how did the Zionist movement benefit from it?" the video claimed that the number of Jewish deaths had been exaggerated, that Jewish people manipulated the media and that Israel was the primary beneficiary of the Holocaust. The combination of anti-Semitic stereotypes and attempts to downplay the genocide of the European Jews is shocking. From our position as education professionals, we might be tempted to believe that such views wouldn’t be possible in a context in which Holocaust Education is part of the National Curriculum, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked each January across the country, and ongoing discussions about the need for a (new) national Holocaust Memorial occupy media attention.

Sadly, we would be mistaken. Research released on Holocaust Memorial Day 2019 by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust shows that 5% of UK adults do not believe that the Holocaust really happened and 8% say that its scale has been exaggerated.

For many of us it seems incredible that someone exposed to the enormous volume of evidence about the Holocaust could still believe it didn’t happen. Presenting facts and figures is crucial in this context; however, they are often difficult to comprehend. Who can really understand what 6 million deaths means? Or how it could have happened? This is where the personal testimony of those who survived the genocide is so important and so powerful. Hearing an individual give an account of their experience can help connect facts and figures to an individual and “make real” the impact of discrimination, persecution and genocide.

Indeed, testimony has long been an important feature of Holocaust Education and rightly so. However, the passage of time means that it cannot continue indefinitely in its current form: that is, centred on a survivor speaking face-to-face with a group of students. Even now, most survivors who are still able to speak were children or teenagers at the time of the Holocaust. This means that they bring a unique and important, but also quite particular perspective on the events.

Moving forward we will be increasingly reliant on what I have termed “mediated testimony”; survivor accounts that are produced in different cultural forms, such as books, films, video, theatre, digital technologies etc. Many such accounts already exist (indeed the recording of experience by victims has a very long history) and many are already used in the classroom. Nonetheless, our transition into the “age of the postwitness” necessitates a rethinking of how we approach these kinds of sources in the classroom – the challenges and opportunities of working with this material to encourage engagement with survivor experience and to combat Holocaust denial.

In collaboration with Gary Mills (University of Nottingham) and with the support of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Holocaust Educational Trust and National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHC), I am developing a set of guidelines and resources to support teachers in this regard. What is the impact of the medium? What is authenticity and how does it relate to testimony? How should students be engaged with mediated testimonies? What (if any) role should empathy play? What about perpetrator testimony? What about families? What role can second and third generation Holocaust survivors play in the future of Holocaust Education?

Emerging from collaborations developed in the AHRC-funded network “Culture and its Uses as Testimony”, we are seeking to address and provide a provisional answer to some of these questions and to support teachers in engaging ethically, sensitively and in a methodologically sound way with this complex material.