‘Putting a human face to history’

‘Putting a human face to history’

Discussing an upcoming commemoration of Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a member of the NJJN staff mentioned that the keynote speaker was a child survivor. “I guess they are all child survivors now,” she added, ruefully.

Indeed, 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, eyewitnesses to the persecution and near annihilation of European Jewry were, if not children, young people at the time. On Monday, at a ceremony held in Whippany by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, the survivors who lit memorial candles rose with effort and made their way slowly to the lectern. Each year — each month — there are fewer survivors and liberators still here to tell their stories, and the task has fallen to their children and grandchildren. 

With the last cohort of survivors in their final years, Holocaust education and commemoration, which once relied heavily on eyewitness testimony, is in a period of transition. The Holocaust Council still arranges for survivors to speak at schools, but the number of able-bodied speakers is inevitably shrinking. New Jersey — one of five states with a mandate to teach about the Holocaust in public schools — remains committed to bringing survivors, liberators, or rescuers to classrooms. A large part of that goal, says Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, is to help youngsters refute Holocaust deniers years after there are no longer eyewitnesses.

Across the country, more than 80 groups offer resources and training for Holocaust educators, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. More and more, these centers are relying on recorded testimonies. “It’s putting a human face to history,” said the director of education at USC’s Shoah Foundation, which has collected more than 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors. 

But such testimonies cannot be shown in a vacuum; Holocaust education will depend on trained professionals and volunteers who can put them in the context of history, anti-Semitism, and the persistent threats from intolerance and totalitarianism. 

As we enter this new phase in Holocaust awareness, we need to cherish the survivors and eyewitnesses still in our midst and help our institutions prepare for a time when the transmission of memory falls to a new generation.

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