Stories and Emotions: Teaching Holocaust History

In our class discussion on Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, the most emotional moment for me was when we heard a brief audio clip of Vladek, who the main character is based on, telling his own story. Listening to Voladek reminded me of times that I’ve been privileged enough to hear Holocaust survivors speak and how much more powerful that experience is than reading about World War II in books. Others in the class agreed that hearing Vladek’s voice made him more real to them. The discussion impressed upon me the importance of outreach in Holocaust education and in particular of publicizing programs where survivors are speaking.

Despite the fact that I grew up right outside of Washington, DC, where the Holocaust Museum is located, neither I nor my sister ever had a school field trip there. Looking back, I think that my school probably should have prioritized that. One of the few times someone has said something incredibly anti-Semitic directly to my face was when I was in Prague, only a few miles from Theresienstadt, a WWII ghetto where 33,000 Jews died. I doubt the person who spoke to me had ever taken the short trip there. Obviously, these stories are anecdotal, but in my personal experience even cities closest to sites that do a very good job of teaching Holocaust history could do a better job of utilizing those resources. I think school trips and programs in schools that are not near sites that interpret the Holocaust are particularly necessary aspects of Holocaust education because children have not formed opinions the way adults have. If more children have these experiences, there will be fewer adults who are anti-Semitic or deny that the Holocaust happened.

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Cemetery at Theresienstadt (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Our class discussion also touched on what we thought the best way to tell the story of the Holocaust in a museum setting is – through facts or stories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum took the former approach in its main exhibit, although it includes some clips from oral histories. While it is obviously important to teach museum visitors about historical facts and contextualize what happened, I think the museum should include more personal stories. As our own experience listening to Vladek showed us, stories, particularly when told by Holocaust survivors themselves, are better than facts at helping visitors understand the tragedy of the Holocaust. Hearing about the story behind the Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Museum also helped me realize this. I had seen this area of the Holocaust Museum in person, but knowing the stories of the Holocaust victims pictured there will be more affecting next time I visit the museum because now I know their story.

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Tower of Faces at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I do worry that if we focus too much on stories, then we will be giving ammunition to Holocaust deniers. who would use lapses in memory among increasingly older survivors to “prove” that the Holocaust did not happen or that it was not as horrific as history says. The example most in the news recently is, of course, President Trump, who unlike his predecessors, did not mention that the Nazi regime targeted Jews. Senator Tim Kaine explicitly called Trump’s ignoring which groups the Nazis targeted Holocaust denial. Providing a footnote correcting a minor error in an interviewee’s narrative involves fewer stakes in a project like CGP Community Stories than when creating content around oral histories of survivors.

Ultimately, I think the pros outweigh the cons of using stories to teach Holocaust history. Of course, facts are important to contextualize the stories, but while people can intellectually understand facts, but it is harder for them to connect emotionally to them than to stories. The emotional aspect is key because the aim of Holocaust education should not be just to teach people about what happened, but also to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.

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