Deciphering the Noise: Teaching Teens Through Holocaust Testimony

There is a lot of hate and fear to go around these days. With the recent attacks in Paris and the larger civil unrest happening across the United States, the current social climate is difficult to comprehend, even for adults. How do we recognize the face of hate and intolerance in 2015? How do we counter acts of violence that rock our foundation to its core? How do the youth of today envision countering such acts?  

The current generation of youth must navigate a complex social, economic, and political climate and they often struggle to make sense of the world around them.  Technology adds to the complexity.  We are in the midst of a technological revolution and the rapid development of digital platforms as extensions of ourselves in the 21st century.

So, the question is, how do we teach the Holocaust to today’s youth? This is an increasingly important question.  How we, as adults, educators, mentors, and authority figures, help the youth of today see the nuances of the world, while still being grounded in the history of the past, and the mark of the Holocaust in defining the 20th century. Answering that question is about identifying the personal and the political. It is about showing students a way to see the events of the Holocaust as relevant to their own lives, to a larger historical legacy that we all share and must grapple with. History never lives in a vacuum.

In our partnership with Echoes and Reflections, one of the ways that we seek to help answer these complex questions is through the integration of testimony with the teaching of the history. At USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education, we see testimony as the key to critically engaging with these complex stories that allow for students to see the relevance of the past to their present. The Institute’s theory of change asserts that when students and teachers work with testimony, they will experience attitude and behavior changes that will make them more likely to contribute to civil society. Our online IWitness program provides students with the tools to explore testimony through a variety of activities that target student’s abilities to think critically, gain multi-media skills, and to deconstruct stereotypes.

A good example of the power of testimony can be seen in the IWitness activity entitled “Kristallnacht.” The activity, which was developed for use with Echoes and Reflections, illustrates a powerful example of anti-Semitism and the systemic cultural violence that marred Europe before World War II. In 1938, Germany unleashed a number of violent acts against the Jewish population across Germany and Austria known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass.” This IWitness Information Quest allows students to explore a variety of primary source material, including film footage, photographs, and survivor testimony to make sense of how this event fits within a larger Holocaust history.  

As students complete tasks associated with this activity, they are asked to create a word-cloud by the end to demonstrate a personal understanding of the historical information, including a better understanding of anti-Semitism across Europe.  Engaging with testimony from someone like H. Henry Sinason, who as an adolescent experienced violence and hatred first hand, allows students to develop empathy for others who are experiencing violence.

By learning about the specificity of the Holocaust through personalized testimony, students can begin to decipher the noise of larger social, political, and cultural events that not only paint the past, but also contribute to current positive social change relevant to their own community and peers. Through participation, we can help students make sense of this current and past landscape. And, we can provide the necessary tools for students to be engaged and to be active participants in countering hate in today’s world.

Dr. Stephen D. Smith is the Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation ‐ The Institute for Visual History and Education.

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