Reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: The Future of Holocaust Education

Professor Sara Jones (University of Birmingham)

The 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is a moment each year when we pause to reflect on the past, commemorate the victims of persecution and genocide and consider what that past means for the present. Holocaust survivors have long been essential to that process. Their testimony helps us to come closer to understanding the impact of discrimination, persecution and genocide on individual lives. Nonetheless, face-to-face encounters with those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust directly are becoming less and less possible. Practitioners involved in Holocaust education are thus beginning to ask themselves: what comes next?

There are many responses to this question. Some of which I discussed in the build-up to HMD 2019 with author and campaigner Ruth Barnett, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport. You can see the full film of our discussion here. For Ruth, the answer lies in the second and third generation who can speak about the impact of the Holocaust on them as the children and grandchildren of survivors. Secondary witnesses (as we might refer to them) cannot give testimony as a survivor, but they can, in Ruth’s words, ‘represent’ the Holocaust. Ruth also argues for the inclusion of survivors of other post-Holocaust genocides. Here she touches on ongoing debates among educators about the challenges and benefits of discussing the Holocaust in the context of later atrocities.

If, as Ruth suggests, historians and researchers could ‘represent’ the Holocaust when survivors cannot, we might also ask if books, films and other media can do the same. It is this question that I am addressing, in co-operation with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, Holocaust Educational Trust, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and colleagues from the University of Nottingham, in a project aiming to produce a set of resources designed to help teachers use these kinds of ‘mediated’ testimony. This work builds on the AHRC-funded research network “Culture and its Uses as Testimony” (2016-2018).

These were also questions at the forefront of my mind as I attended two events related to Holocaust education and marking HMD 2019. On the 21 January 2019, I was invited to the European schools’ premiere of the film No Asylum: The Untold Chapter of Anne Frank’s Story – a moving account of Otto Frank’s (Anne’s father) efforts to gain asylum for his family in the USA. The film is based on the relatively recent discovery of letters written by Otto and found in YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. The screening at Solihull School was supported by the Anne Frank Trust UK and followed by a panel discussion with Holocaust survivors, Eva Schloss, Tomi Reichenthal, Mindu Hornick and (via video message) Nanette Blitz-Konig. No Asylum is extremely informative and moving. Its focus on an unknown part of a well-known story is a powerful way of re-connecting audiences to a history that they may feel they already know. The perspective of the father desperate to get his family out of a place where they are threatened is quite different to that provided by Anne’s famous diary. In this way, it connects the memory of this child to contemporary discussion about asylum and (child) refugees: if the Franks had been granted asylum, Anne might today be an elderly woman living in the US and writing books.

Indeed, the demands placed on Holocaust education often go beyond learning about the history of the genocide. We also hope that learning about the Holocaust might help prevent future atrocities by encouraging civil engagement and empathy. In the research project, we have been thinking in detail about what role testimony has to play in this regard. Testimony can facilitate empathy; however, for empathy to promote critical engagement, it must not be overwhelming. A critical empathy must allow us to experience the emotions of others as their emotions, rather than adopting them as our own. This is where art can play a crucial role. Art by its nature can both draw us in, allowing us to identify with protagonists and stories that are not our own, and yet distance us by making clear that that story is mediated. We know that what we are seeing/reading/listening to is theatre, literature, music, dance and so on.

The power of this in terms of Holocaust education is apparent in the Echo Eternal project, being led by CORE Education Trust in co-operation with the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF). In Echo Eternal, schools (both secondary and primary) are ‘gifted’ a single survivor testimony from among the 112 recorded by UKHMF. Students from these schools then work with an artist in residence for a period of around 10 days in which they produce an ‘echo’ of the testimony, that is, a response that takes the form of an artistic expression. In December 2018, I was invited by Nishkam High School to view the first performance of their Echo and on the 28 January 2019 to the Echo Eternal: Horizons event at Birmingham Town Hall – a celebration of the work that all twelve Birmingham schools had accomplished. In 2019-2020, the project will be extended across the West Midlands and then from 2021 to other regions in the UK.

The results of this project have been extremely impressive. The echoes evidence a deep engagement with the survivor testimony on the part of the students. The artistic form appears to have encouraged students to think about the testimony in its individual detail (focusing, for example, on the tin ring that is central to Zdanka Fantlova’s story, as echoed by students at Nishkam), and fragmented nature, and yet also on the ways these fragments combine to produce a whole that binds past and present through the survival of the individual and through memory. I was especially impressed in my conversation with students at Nishkam High School with their reflections on the importance of working with Zdanka’s story as her story, that is, with an empathy that was directed outwards, rather than inwards. It is clear that students from across the twelve schools have connected this past with their own present in a sensitive way. The combination of art forms, from dance to textiles, would make these pieces a unique contribution to the planned UKHMF Learning Centre and, if they can be embedded in a way that ensures a continuation of this critical and sensitive approach, to the future of Holocaust education.


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