Learning Holocaust History in the 21st Century
Students Document Survivors’ Testimony with a New Curriculum
“I have taken courses on the Holocaust in the past,” Chana shared with me, “but none as . . . meaningful as this course.” Chana, a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, was referring to our Holocaust documentary filmmaking course offered in spring 2018 in partnership with Names, Not Numbers—an oral-history program and curriculum. For more than a decade, the organization has facilitated projects across the United States, Israel, and Canada for over 6,000 students to experience Holocaust history by conducting interviews, filming survivor testimonies, and editing footage into a professional film. While the curriculum is designed primarily for use in middle and high school classrooms, I collaborated with program founder Tova Rosenberg to adapt it for a college-level Jewish history honors course for our own students.
Throughout the course, students learned from historians and documentary filmmakers alike, and developed the skills to conduct and edit their own interviews of Holocaust survivors. The experience was transformative. Although all participants were Jewish, their prior experience with Holocaust history varied—some had grandparents who had been directly affected, while others, many of Sephardic descent, had relatives who were not. But through the course, all developed a deeper engagement with the history in a way that often enhanced or even challenged their initial perspectives. The students created a historical record through filmmaking, connected with courageous survivors, and became advocates against hate and intolerance.
This unique course attracted 19 students from across the college, many majoring in other disciplines. As an academic-programs coordinator, I crafted an educational experience for our students that synthesized historical lectures from Mordecai Paldiel, who was the primary instructor, and filmmaking and special guest workshops facilitated by Rosenberg and her team. I coordinated logistics and programming, and, drawing on my own background in history, guided the students throughout the course.
At the beginning of the semester, we created five student teams and paired them each with a survivor—friends and contacts of Paldiel and Rosenberg—with diverse geographic origins (from Germany to Greece) and survivor experiences (from concentration camps to months in hiding). After an array of lectures, workshops, technical skills sessions, and a trip to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, each team conducted and filmed a two-hour interview with the survivor they had been paired with. Students then collaborated with their teams to select about 20 minutes of footage for their final films, all of which are now archived at institutions such as Yad Vashem and our own university library. In addition, Names, Not Numbers filmmaker Michael Puro, himself a former history major, created a film that documented the students’ filmmaking process and reflections. The course culminated with a film screening and a dinner honoring the participants. Students also delivered oral presentations in which they reflected on the experience.
Students gained both a new technical skill set and a greater appreciation for the historical process.
Through this experiential learning opportunity, students gained both a new technical skill set—“the filmmaking was one of my favorite parts of the class!” a student raved to me—and a greater appreciation for the historical process. In addition to learning videography techniques from Puro, students also developed key historical skills. They created the historical narrative, rather than absorbing an existing account from a book. The students used their interview questions, which emerged from their own research and were not prescribed to them, to elicit unique testimony. Finally, students learned that the task of the historian is to interpret a collection of perspectives and individual experiences, then to shape them into a historical narrative or argument.
Experts in the field introduced the students to important interpretive techniques, complementing Paldiel’s lectures. Notably, students learned how to formulate questions and effectively conduct an interview from film experts including Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar and documentary filmmaker, and renowned documentarians Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein of The Vietnam War.
Berenbaum, for example, shared his own experiences as an interviewer with the students. When a survivor explained the grief of finding his mother’s discarded shoes in the camp, rather than asking about the survivor’s feelings (which were rather self-evident), Berenbaum instead inquired: “How did you know they were your mother’s?” He described the survivor’s eyes widening, as though seeing the shoes again, before recalling further stories of his mother wearing the shoes in happier times. A student cited this anecdote, recalling it months later, as a revelatory moment. It was our duty, she said to me, to help the audience relate to events from a survivor’s perspective, and to think creatively about questions that engender meaningful testimony.
A student also told me that Novick and Botstein’s presentation had been “earth-shattering”—their commentary on The Vietnam War had ignited her interest in documentary filmmaking. (She plans to pursue an internship in the field.) The presenters underscored the importance of listening to the survivors and building trust, allowing conversations to go off script if necessary and reacting in real time to capture true emotions.
The experts’ advice informed student work during the editing process, guiding their decisions about which stories to incorporate into the historical record. One student described her team’s process of homing in on the survivor’s interpretation of her experiences: once they recognized that the survivor’s main message involved hope in the face of terror, they focused on selecting film clips for their final documentary that would communicate her intention with authenticity.
While the integration of the professor’s standard history lectures with the filmmaking portions of the course occasionally proved challenging, the expert guidance was so crucial to enhancing the final films that, in the future, we would incorporate the filming technique sessions earlier in the term, and streamline the process to allow students to maximize their experience interacting with each presenter.
In addition to doing the work of the historian, students also formed personal connections with those who had lived the history. The importance of individual experience is reflected in the title of the course: Holocaust survivors must not be reduced to the numbers tattooed on their arms; they are people with rich inner lives and stories. Our workshops emphasized being sensitive to their experiences and helped students approach the project with empathy. As a student shared in Puro’s film, “There is a totally different experience hearing about the Holocaust from the mouth of someone who went through it rather than from the pages of [a] textbook—it really brings the story to life in a way I’ve never heard before.” The emotional element creates a more compelling film, while enhancing students’ long-term learning and memory. Speaking with students months after the course concluded, I found that many still recalled details of the survivors’ stories and even material from the lectures and workshops, especially as they related to that intimate sharing of testimony.
Students formed personal connections with those who had lived the history.
Many students expressed a sense of duty emerging from their relationship with the survivors. One stated in Puro’s film, “I view it as my obligation to tell Sonia’s story.” Students were moved not only by the substance of the conversation, but also by the survivors’ emotions. Nearly every student I consulted with after the semester hoped to develop a lasting relationship with the survivor they were working with. Some suggested facilitating additional opportunities, beyond the interview itself, in future courses to establish a rapport with the survivors.
The course also had a larger purpose: to advocate for the dignity of all people. Ultimately, the course was successful in that in addition to teaching students to engage meaningfully with history, it also inspired them to pursue justice and to understand the importance of challenging future atrocities. Students shared how the course inspired them to feel greater empathy toward victims of other genocides and instilled in them a desire to act. For students at a Jewish institution, the Holocaust is a natural entry point, one mused, to consider others’ experiences. Another student noted parallels between the experiences of Syrian refugees and those of the survivors we worked with. Yet another discerned the potential dangers of drawing analogies—the horror of the Holocaust was singular in many ways, she pointed out, while recognizing many survivors’ drive to advocate for others’ rights, based on their own experiences. Many survivors emphasized this message; in a note to me, one hoped the project “will be remembered as a cry: never again . . . to any human group.”
Since the number of survivors dwindles with each passing year, our students recognized the time-sensitive nature of their work and were deeply inspired by it. Studying history, documenting history, and committing to shape the history currently unfolding for the better, our students learned the names behind the numbers and had an experience they won’t soon forget. As a survivor explained to the students in her interview: “If not we, who is going to tell you about it? And if not now, when?”
Meirah Shedlo is an academic adviser and special projects manager at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.
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