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.
The apparent obstacle to expanding this concept on a mass scale is accessibility. There are only so many children and grandchildren of survivors. There are fewer with the ability to visit and speak at schools. The same is true for those able to talk on other major events in a student’s curriculum. Luckily, there are already examples where this obstacle is overcome through the use of new media. Earlier this year, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor named Emery Jacoby took part in an online Q&A. After his grandson posted a current picture of him on the popular website Reddit, users urged him to host an AMA (Ask Me Anything). With over 2,000 questions asked from people around the world, the personal story of Emery Jacoby reached thousands.