By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
I recently attended the Ethel LeFrak Holocaust Education Conference which is sponsored by the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University in Greensburgh, PA. This conference is geared for educators who teach about the Holocaust and genocide. You may be thinking, what is the relevance to this conference and ETC?
There were three ways in which technology and technology issues were relevant. First of all, as is pretty much the norm in today’s world, email and the Internet were used for the logistics of the conference. The call for proposals was posted online, and it was also emailed to attendees and presenters of previous conferences. The conference was advertised using online technology. Communication with presenters and attendees was online.
Secondly, most of the presentations used a wide range of computer technology, from PowerPoint presentations to DVDs to linking to web sites. For example, my own presentation combined all three. Some of the PowerPoint presentations were fairly straightforward. However, one presenter used an interactive PowerPoint presentation which was quite sophisticated. Again, this type of technology use is not new. It is a rare presentation today that does not use some form of computer technology.
However, the third way in which technology was used and discussed at the conference is what actually prompted me to write this essay. World War II ended 64 years ago. That means that Holocaust survivors are an aging and, frankly, dying population. One of the key questions and concerns at the conference this year was: what do we do when there are no more survivors? Survivor testimony is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools for teaching about the Holocaust. Pictures of the atrocities shock, dismay and disgust, but they are inanimate, as are films, documentaries, and even books. None of them bring the horror of what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil that was perpetuated as clearly as hearing and talking to a living person who experienced these horrific events. According to Holocaust educators, teaching about the Holocaust should be more than teaching about facts and figures. It should have an emotional impact so that its lessons will not be easily forgotten. The goal of Holocaust education is not merely to inform, but to bring an end to the violence and hatred that bring about genocide and mass killings.
Ephraim Kaye of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem focused his session, titled “Using New Technologies to Study and Teach the Holocaust,” on the various ways that technology can help accomplish these ends (see the bottom of the webpage for a summary of his remarks). Yad Vashem has a range of materials available online. Besides the traditional videos, lessons, and Internet links, they also incorporate YouTube to present material in English, Arabic, and Farsi. Kaye also pointed out that as a result of computerizing survivor names there have been family reunions after decades of separation.
However, Kaye also pointed out technology has a serious downside that can be a challenge for educators. With the advent of the Internet, the proliferation of hate sites and Holocaust denial sites has increased. He states: “This challenge makes it imperative that educators teach students to be savvy and discriminating about the information they access online.” (There are a number of good sites which address information literacy skills, such as this one from Rosemount High School in Rosemount, MN.
However, to return to the original question of what do we do when there are no more survivors, let’s look at what is being done. The US Shoah Institute at the University of Southern California has documented “nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses in 32 languages and from 56 countries.” The US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and many other Holocaust museums around the country have archives of taped survivor testimony. Many Holocaust education websites for teachers, such as The Tennessee Holocaust Commission, have access to survivor testimony.
However, Yad Vashem developed the idea of combining survivor testimony using a documentary style. Rather than merely being the “talking heads” accounts that are the norm, Yad Vashem has attempted to create documentaries with more depth. Survivors are taken back to places, such as their hometowns in Poland, Germany, or the Ukraine, and/or back to the concentration camps where they were incarcerated, and filmed as they walk around and talk about their lives, and how they changed forever during the Holocaust. For many of these survivors, this is the first time they have returned to these places, and hearing them reminisce about their lives and talk about the changes creates a more emotional impact than just hearing someone talk about their life while seated in their living room. The viewer is reminded that this is about a specific human life, not just some person who has no past or no future. One of the critical components of this format is that it “closes the circle” so that the viewer can gain an understanding of the survivor’s whole life experience.
For Holocaust educators, modern computer technology provides ways that can give depth and breadth to this difficult topic. Not only can we access archives and documents of historical and current events related to the Holocaust, modern technology provides educators and students ways to connect with others that were unthought of just a few years ago. For example, the Maine Holocaust Education Network maintains a Ning that has a link to the US Holocasut Museum Twitter Feed.
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