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?
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.
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.