by Hannah Holtschneider
On 4 April, Mia and I offered a session on the use of survivor testimony in the classroom at a teacher training event run by the Holocaust Educational Trust at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.
We were lucky to work with an engaged and well-informed group of teachers. Faced with technical difficulties – playing our carefully chosen video clips of survivor testimony was a challenge – we quickly changed format and ran the session as an interactive workshop. The teachers present contributed their experiences of working with survivor testimony in their classrooms, the difficulties in presenting life stories focused on years of persecution and loss of family members, and their efforts to contextualise the testimony in the history they were teaching. Tom Jackson and Catrina Kirkland, representing HET, contributed their insights on working with a stable group of survivors who offer their testimony in school classrooms on a regular basis.
These reflections from the coalface of teaching opened the door for Mia and I to think together about the changing expectations audiences bring to survivors, the rise of interest in survivors, the challenges of listening to testimony, and the aim of being in conversation with survivors as persons whose life extends beyond the years of the Holocaust. Hank Greenspan’s work On Listening to Holocaust Survivors which explores the challenges of listening was the basis of our presentation. Oscillating between the valorisation of survivors as heroes and the understanding that survivors represent our greatest fears and anxieties, we considered ways of ‘humanising’ or ‘normalising’ survivors, so that we are able to relate to their whole life story.
Our discussion concluded with a consideration of four different formats of accessing survivor narratives each gaining public attention at a different time:
Hannah Bloch Kohner’s appearance on This is your life in 1953 brought an encounter with a Holocaust survivor to a mass audience via an entertainment chat show.
The 1980s saw choreographed Holocaust testimony gathered for educational reasons and as a collection of oral history resources.
Closer to home and closer in time, the video testimony of Dorrith Sim forged a connection to the Scottish context in which the workshop attendees work. There was a desire for more local resources for teaching, particularly if these could be made available within the SJAC.
Finally, we broached the question of the future of testimony at a time when the last survivors are dying. The Forever Project seeks to make the interactive nature of hearing a survivor speak accessible to future generations through 3D imaging technology. The discussion following the introduction of this project was lively and minds were split as to whether a ‘3D survivor’ is a helpful educational tool or whether this attempt at keeping ‘live’ representations of survivors present is manipulating and thereby perhaps more likely to close down learning opportunities.