Telling Personal Stories From the Holocaust Makes History Come Alive

I visit New York City classrooms to talk to students about my grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor.
AP Photo

Back in 1997, Gregory Peck honored Bob Dylan with the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award. In his short induction speech, Peck recalls a Fourth of July parade he watched as a child; Civil War veterans marched through the streets in his hometown of La Jolla, California. He goes on to compare Dylan to a 19th-century troubadour, “a maverick American spirit.” I’ve watched the video of Peck’s speech over and over.  Peck’s brief, personal description of “Civil War veterans marching down the main street, kicking up the dust” in that small California town continues to amaze me. I’d forgotten these soldiers were real people, as silly as that might sound. But with Peck’s account of seeing them in the flesh, one of the greatest historical events in American history came to life.

My reaction to Peck’s speech is not that different from the reactions I see when entering a high-school classroom, where I tell my grandfather’s story of surviving the Holocaust. Like many children and grandchildren of survivors, I face the lingering fear that when my grandparents are gone, so too will their stories. And that link between humanity and history will vanish. This fear, and its advancing timeline, led to my involvement with an organization called WEDU (short for We Educate), which brings grandchildren of Holocaust survivors into high schools across the New York area. The number of living survivors is dwindling. Their stories are now on the shoulders of the next two generations.

I initially questioned the impact children and grandchildren of survivors could have.  Could a once- or twice-removed generation bring true value to the Holocaust curriculum? It seemed that Night, Anne Frank, or Schindler’s List were the tools to accomplish that. I visited a school for the first time expecting a “Wiesel said it better” response. What I received on that first day, and the three years since, has been the opposite. In front of children from vastly different ethnic and economic backgrounds, there continue to be faces of amazement and disbelief as I recount my grandfather’s time in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, and the death march. It’s not the first time these students have heard a story of persecution and suffering. They’ve most likely covered the Holocaust by the time I enter the room. But the medium in which they’re hearing it is entirely new and intimate. This highlights a void in the way history is currently consumed in the classroom.

No matter how well documented events may be, there is still an impersonal nature to the traditional ways they’re taught. Textbooks are dry, formulaic accounts of events, dates and casualty numbers. They’re a necessary component to learning, but they merely lay the groundwork for what must be a multi-faceted approach to history. The memoirs and films that couple those dry texts, aimed at bringing a human component to school teachings, are not the panacea for making events more relatable. Unfortunately, many of the popular works that find their way into classrooms feel dated. Even with the most popular and compelling works, like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the vernacular is far from the language used in 21st-century classrooms. Another limitation is that films and literature, even when accurate and truthful accounts, can often be consumed with an implicit sense of doubt or fantasy. When any story is transformed into a formal narrative, it loses its footing in reality.

The antidote for this impersonal structure of educating is simple. Exposing students to personal accounts of history is an overt reminder that the atrocities in section four of their history books affected men and women like themselves. The Holocaust is merely one area where such work is necessary and possible. But it serves as a great case study for how those with a connection to historical events can extend that connection to others.  

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Jeremy Elias is a freelance writer and digital advertising professional living in New York City. His work has been published in the Jerusalem Post, Huffington Post, Penthouse magazine, and Business Insider.

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