Survivor and witness testimonies—firsthand accounts from individuals who lived through or encountered 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. The activities below are selected to help teachers and students engage with these difficult moments and process them.
In this lesson, students will learn about the history of the Holocaust and will view, react to, and interpret first person accounts of the Holocaust and genocide.
Placing these testimonies in a larger context can be crucial to students’ understanding of these first hand accounts. To provide your students with more information about the time and places in which the Holocaust occurred, have them read appropriate context for the stories the survivors will share from Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.
Many of the the stories shared by survivors and witnesses make references to places that may be new to students. Some students may find it beneficial to have a visual reference of the places the survivor describes including a map or other images. If you are sharing the story of a survivor or witness of the Holocaust, it may also be helpful for students to gain a visual understanding of the location and number of Nazi-organized ghettos and concentration and death camps. See a map from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that provides that information.
One way to help create a reflective classroom before viewing a testimony is to have students read this quote from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel about the experience of hearing survivor testimony. Wiesel says, “...the idea of telling these stories is to sensitize people - that you should become more sensitive - to yourselves, to your friends, even to strangers...become sensitive; not only to the story of what we try to tell, but about what happens even today - because what happens even today is always related to what happened then.” Have students reflect on this quote in journals. You may choose to prompt them with one or more of the queries below:
What message is Wiesel trying to express?
What does it mean to “become sensitive”? How can we become sensitive to others’ stories?
Before they view the testimony, encourage your students to both watch and listen. The testimonies include both words and images. Have students watch the speaker's body language and notice the patterns of speech. When do they pause? Where do they look? How do those gestures relate to the stories they are telling?
Each survivor's or witness’s story is unique. During the Holocaust in particular, the experiences of survivors depended on a wide range of variables, such as their country of origin, how early or late in the war they were apprehended, what work or death camp they found themselves in, and what opportunities they had to gain any advantages that could help them preserve their strength.
Have students view one or a few of the testimonies from our collection. Watching several different videos will give students a sense of the range of experiences, while watching one will allow students to focus on one person’s particular experience. You may choose to have students view testimonies from the same category of the collection or from different categories.
If you would like to provide more information about each Holocaust testimony, as well as background information and discussion questions, you may choose to view their full length testimonies and search through resources provided by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem on IWitness, USC Shoah Foundation's educational website.
Depending on your class dynamics, you may choose to have students watch the testimony without taking notes. Other teachers may consider having students use a Two-Column chart for Note-Taking. On the left side of a page, students record information presented in the testimony. On the right side, students record their reactions to this information: a question, a comment, a feeling, or a connection to something they know about or have experienced.
After students have watched the testimonies, choose one or more of the activities below to help students comprehend and interpret what they have just seen and heard. Choose an activity based on the needs and strengths of your particular class; while no one activity works for all classrooms, the group listed below includes a wide range of activities that suit various classroom dynamics.
Level One Questions (Factual)
What events are being described? Where are they happening? Who is involved?
What adjectives do the subjects of the testimonies use to describe what happened to them?
Level Two Questions (Inferential)
How does this story contribute to your understanding of the Holocaust?
What changes do the survivors seem to have undergone as a result of their experiences?
What does this story reveal about human behavior?
Level Three Questions (Universal)
Is it possible to truly understand the experience of a Holocaust survivor?
What limits our understanding of the Holocaust?
You may choose to end your lesson by using Exit Cards, which is one method of assessing students’ intellectual and emotional responses to the testimony they have viewed. Exit cards can be used to have students answer particular questions on a piece of paper that is turned in before they leave the class. These cards — half a piece of paper, provided by the teacher or by students themselves — provide teachers with immediate information that can be used to assess students’ understanding, monitor students’ questions, or gather feedback on teaching. For students, exit cards serve as a content review at the end of a daily lesson and enhance their metacognitive skills.