portrait of Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz
Lesson

Survivor Testimony and the Legacy of Memory

Students deepen their thinking about memory and identity by reflecting on the stories of Holocaust and Armenian Genocide survivors and their descendants.

Published:

Last Updated:

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

Overview

About This Lesson

In the last lesson, students explored some of the causes and consequences of denying the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust and then considered how public art can serve as a form of remembrance and civic participation. In this lesson, students will continue their examination of how we confront and acknowledge mass atrocities by considering the important role that the stories of survivors and their descendants play in how we understand the events of the past and their enduring legacies. Students will start the lesson by revisiting their own identity charts and reflecting on the connection between memory and identity. Then they will work together to read and discuss stories of survivors and their descendants, paying close attention to the tension between survivors’ need to tell their stories and the difficulty of talking about experiences that are, in Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz’s words, “unspeakable." 1 They will explore the deep sense of responsibility, borne by survivors and their descendants, to serve as witnesses and pass on their stories to the outside world and to future generations. Through this exploration, students will reflect on their own responsibility to keep this history alive, making connections between these stories and their role in the world today

  • 1Sonia Schreiber Weitz, I Promised I Would Tell (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, Inc., 2012), x.

Unit Essential Question: How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • What is the relationship between memory and identity?
  • How are stories of survivors of genocides and mass atrocities and their descendants relevant in the world today? How do these stories personalize and humanize the history of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust?
  • Students will deepen their thinking about the relationship between memory and identity by reflecting on the stories of Holocaust and Armenian Genocide survivors and their descendants.
  • Students will consider how these stories can educate us about our responsibilities in the world today.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 handout
  • 1 assessment 
  • 3 extensions

Survivor testimonies—firsthand accounts from individuals who lived through genocide and other atrocities—help students more deeply appreciate and empathize with the human and inhuman dimensions of important moments in history. They supplement what we learn from historians and secondary sources by offering unique perspectives on the difficult and sometimes impossible situations individuals were forced to confront during moments of collective violence and injustice. Over the course of time, second- and third-generation descendants of survivors have acknowledged the importance of honoring these stories by sharing them with future generations so they are not forgotten. These stories challenge individuals and groups who try to deny that these atrocities happened and help new generations of individuals understand that they have a responsibility to protect others in their community and the world from hatred and injustice.

Speaking about the Armenian Genocide, psychologist Ervin Staub, author of The Roots of Evil, observes that we can all learn about ourselves from the way Armenians have responded to the revision of their history and denial of the genocide. He writes:

The intense need of the Armenians as individuals and as a community to have the genocide be acknowledged and known by the world teaches us something about ourselves as human beings. First, our identities are rooted not only in our group, but in the history of our group. For a complete identity, we must be integrated not only with our individual past, but also with our groups’ past. Perhaps, this becomes especially important when our group is partly destroyed and dispersed; our families and ourselves have been deeply affected; and in a physical sense we have at best fragments of our group. Second, we have a profound need for our pain and suffering, especially when it is born of injustice, to be acknowledged, known and respected. 2

Similarly, while the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust is visible in the new laws, new international institutions, and even new religious teachings that were created after the end of the war, the memories and stories of those who lived through and survived the Holocaust form another kind of legacy, less tangible but equally important. The voices of survivors have become a central part of how we understand the Holocaust. Today there are hundreds of memoirs on library shelves and thousands of hours of recorded audio and video testimony in archives. After the war, these stories emerged only slowly. Some survivors preferred to remain silent or were discouraged from speaking; for others, sharing their experiences was simply too painful. And for many survivors, the desire to tell their stories was outweighed by the belief that those who weren’t “there”—in the ghetto, in hiding, in the camps—could never truly understand. Author Elie Wiesel has said, “Only those who were there will ever know, and those who were there can never tell.” 3

Sonia Weitz, a poet who survived five camps, prefaced her memoir by asking, “But how does one bear witness to the unspeakable? . . . Normal standards do not apply to the Holocaust. Even language fails and words like hunger, fear, hot, cold, and pain lose their meaning. In fact, the Holocaust is a crime without a language.” 4

As the process of reckoning and remembrance continues to unfold, one thing is certain: what happened then continues to have a profound influence on the lives of individuals to this day. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, there is a difference between history and memory: “History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. . . . Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me.” 5 Survivors, witnesses, the descendants of those who lived these histories, and all those who learn about it today face the question of how to remember the past and how that memory might shape our understanding of ourselves and our present world.

  • 2Ervin Straub, “The Genocide of the Armenians: Psychological and Cultural Roots and the Impact on Survivors,” Armenian Review 42 (Winter 1989): 55.
  • 3Quoted in Walter Laqueur and Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, The Holocaust Encyclopedia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 208.
  • 4 Sonia Schreiber Weitz, I Promised I Would Tell (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, Inc., 2012), x.
  • 5Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

The readings for this lesson’s Jigsaw activity, located in the Survivors and Memory Jigsaw handout, include testimony from four survivors or descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Each expert group is responsible for one of the readings, which are lettered A through D. The first four pages of the handout include readings A through D, and the fifth page includes the “teaching” group discussion questions. When copying or printing the materials for this lesson, you might give each student the entire handout containing all four readings plus the discussion questions, or you can prepare single copies of the readings for each “expert” group.

The pacing of this lesson depends in part on your students’ reading level and how well they can understand the materials in the Jigsaw activity. To shorten the lesson and build in more time for reading and for groups to comprehend their texts, you can have them skip the short journal response and discussion of their underlined sentences in the second activity. After the “expert” groups read, summarize, and discuss the question on their testimonies, have them move to “teaching” groups for the second part of the activity. You can assign a “found poem” exercise for homework if you would like students to consider how the language and imagery of their story conveys aspects of the writer’s identity and relationship to family memory.

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Lesson Plan

Activities

  • To prepare students for this lesson’s opening journal response, take a moment to have them review the identity charts they created earlier in the unit (Lesson 2: Exploring Identity). Ask the class if anyone included “memories” as part of their identities and, if so, if they would like to explain how memory is part of their individual identity.
  • Then project the following passage by Jonathan Sacks, a British rabbi and philosopher, and read it out loud. Ask students to respond in their journals to the questions below.
    “History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. . . . Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Survivors, witnesses, the descendants of those who lived this history [of the Holocaust], and all those who learn about it today[,] face the question of how to remember the past and how that memory might shape our understanding of ourselves and our present world.”
    • What do you think Rabbi Sacks means when he observes that “memory . . . is part of identity”?
    • Over 100 years after the Armenian Genocide and 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, the generations of survivors and witnesses are aging and passing away. What are some ways that we can keep the memory of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide alive today? What is at stake if we don’t remember?
  • Divide the class into groups of four or five students for a Jigsaw activity and explain that they will be reading the testimony of a survivor or the descendant of a survivor of the Holocaust or Armenian Genocide. During this activity, groups should think about the relationship between memory and identity and who bears the responsibility of preserving the memory of these genocides.
  • Pass out the Survivors and Memory Jigsaw material so that each “expert” group has reading A, B, C, or D. After reading the directions on the handout out loud as a class, have groups read together and then respond individually to the testimony in their journals.
  • When it looks as if students have finished writing, instruct them to have each person share the sentence they underlined and why it stood out for them before discussing the question at the bottom of their handouts together. Encourage students to take notes because they will be sharing these ideas in new “teaching” groups.
  • Next, have the students move to “teaching” groups. Once they have settled, instruct them to have each person briefly summarize their testimony by explaining whose story is represented, what stood out for them, and how their group answered the discussion question.
  • Instruct students to find the teaching group discussion questions on their handouts. They should try to include examples from their readings, this unit, and their own lives to support their thinking.
  • After groups have had time to discuss the questions, bring everyone together so they can share their ideas with the class.
  • Close the lesson by giving the final word to the survivors and their descendants. Explain to students that they will be creating a Lifted Line Poem using a short phrase from the sentences they underlined in their Jigsaw reading. Unless you teach on a block schedule or are extending this lesson over two class periods, you may not have time for the strategy’s discussion, but it can still be powerful for students to hear phrases from the testimonies stitched together to create a singular voice of memory.
  • To prepare for the poem, have each student circle a short phrase of one to five words from their underlined sentences, or another phrase in the reading that strikes them. Then have the class stand in a circle, and have each student read their phrase in succession.
  • Close the lesson with a few moments of silence to honor the survivors and descendants from this lesson’s readings, as well as the countless others whose stories go untold.

Assessment

  • Listen carefully to students’ contributions to the Jigsaw discussion in this lesson to check for understanding and the quality of their contributions to their classmates’ learning.
  • For homework, have students use the 3Ys global thinking routine to make connections between what they learned in this lesson and their own lives. In a journal response or on separate paper that you collect, have students respond to the following three questions, supporting their thinking with examples from this lesson, this unit, current events, their family stories, and/or their own experiences.
    • Why might learning the stories of survivors of genocides and mass atrocities and their descendants matter to me?
    • Why might learning the stories of survivors of genocides and mass atrocities and their descendants matter to people around me (family, peers, community members)?
    • Why might learning the stories of survivors of genocides and mass atrocities and their descendants matter to the world?

Extension Activities

Artist Samuel Bak, who survived the Holocaust as a child in Poland’s Vilna ghetto, dedicated his painting The Family to the memory of the members of his family who perished. This powerful painting is filled with small details and invites a close viewing and analysis. To help students notice the many small details, use the Crop It teaching strategy, and then have students discuss the following questions in small groups or as a class:

  • How does Samuel Bak’s painting echo the stories of loss and survival shared in this lesson’s readings?
  • In what ways is seeing a survivor’s story conveyed through visual art similar to or different from reading or hearing the story?
  • How does it add to your understanding of what it means to be a survivor of the Holocaust?

If you are interested in having your students explore other paintings by Samuel Bak, see the Facing History resource Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak, which includes an image gallery and other educator resources.

Additionally, if you would like to explore the historical memory of the Armenian Genocide, you may wish to share with students the painting The Artist and His Mother by Arshile Gorky. You can also use the Crop It teaching strategy for this image and modify the questions above for the Armenian Genocide. After students discuss the painting, you may wish to share with them the original photograph on which the painting was based, which appears on page 11 of the resource book Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians.

In recent years, two troubling, and possibly related, global trends have emerged: knowledge and memory of the Holocaust is receding, and antisemitic and xenophobic violence is on the rise. Despite the international community’s post-war commitment to building institutions that combat antisemitism and promote peace and tolerance, recent studies suggest that the calls and commitment to “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust may be fading. To help students understand these trends and what they may be hearing on the news and social media, use the second activity of the Rising Antisemitism and Fading Memories of the Holocaust teaching idea, which invites them to analyze recent polling data and consider how understanding history can guide our efforts to bring about a more just world today.

Consider supplementing this lesson with the documentary The Genocide in Me by Araz Artinian, a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors. The film offers a portrayal of the genocide’s impact on Artinian’s personal and family identity that deeply resonates with the themes of this lesson. The film is available to borrow through Facing History’s online resource library.

How are you planning to use this resource?

Tell Us More

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handout that students use throughout the Survivor Testimony and the Legacy of Memory lesson plan.

Download the Files

Handout
Survivors and Memory Jigsaw
Students use this handout to complete a jigsaw activity using survivor testimony.

Was this resource useful?

Tell us More

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History and Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

The resources I’m getting from my colleagues through Facing History have been just invaluable.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif