This lesson complements the resources from Chapter 9 of Holocaust and Human Behavior to help students process and honor the experiences and testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Chapter 9 includes several testimonies and reflections from survivors of the Holocaust. In addition, some classes may have the opportunity to host a Holocaust survivor and hear his or her testimony in person. Creating a “found poem” from a survivor’s testimony can be a way to pay respectful attention to and honor such experiences. A found poem is one that is created using only words that have been copied and rearranged from another text.
Elie Wiesel wrote that it is not possible for those who were not there to fully understand the experience of the victims who lived and died during the Holocaust, nor is it possible for survivors to fully describe what happened to them. He writes: “The past belongs to the past and the survivor does not recognize himself in the words linking him to it. The survivors of the Holocaust who tell their stories bear witness, transmit a spark of the flame, tell a fragment of the tale and remember for those who begged them to tell the story.”1
Through the process of creating a found poem, we can honor the survivors’ experiences, begin to process the difficult and emotional stories they tell, and make meaning of these stories for ourselves.
Create a Found Poem
This activity requires each student to use a single survivor testimony to create a found poem. Use the Materials section to create a list of possible testimonies for your students. You might ask all students to use the same source, or you might let students choose from several possible testimonies.
Once students have chosen (or been assigned) a testimony to work with, have them follow these steps, which you can also find in the Creating a Found Poem handout:
- Read the testimony at least two to three times. If possible, read it aloud at least once.
- While reading the testimony one additional time, copy down at least 15 to 20 words or phrases from it that you find memorable or powerful.
- Arrange the words and phrases you have selected into a poem. You might want to copy the words and phrases onto notecards or separate scraps of paper so that you can easily rearrange them. Try to arrange the words in a way that captures what you think is the essence of the testimony, as well as your experience of hearing it. Here are a few more guidelines for creating your poem:
- You DON’T have to use all of the words and phrases you chose.
- You CAN repeat words or phrases.
- You CAN’T add other words besides those you copied from the testimony.
- Your poem DOESN’T have to rhyme.
- When you are satisfied with your poem, give it a title.2
After students have completed their poems, give them the opportunity to share their work. You might ask each student to read his or her poem to the class, or you might divide the class into small groups for sharing.
After students have had the opportunity to share their poems and hear the poems their classmates wrote, lead a class discussion, focusing on the following questions:
- What strikes you about these poems?
- What do they have in common?
- How are they different?
- What surprised you as you heard them?
- In what ways do these poems honor the survivors' experiences?
- How did working so closely with the words of a survivor affect you? What did these words make you think and feel?