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.

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.

Reddit is not the sole example of scale. Other aspects of new media, like Google Hangouts, could bring live video interactions to classrooms around the world. The vast YouTube library of survivor testimonials from the USC Shoah Foundation, though not as intimate as the former two examples, could also serve to complement the standard history lesson. This simple technology helps those closer to the center of history engage those further on the periphery.

When I enter the classroom, I focus the first half of my presentation on one specific story I grew up hearing. In the closing days of the war, my grandfather was marched to the northern edge of Germany. There, on the Baltic coast, he was loaded onto a ship called the Cap Arcona. It was a defunct cruise liner that now served as a floating hell for more than 4,500 men and women. Many had been crammed there for over a week, with Himmler running out of time and land to carryout his final solution. On May 3rd 1945, at 2:30pm, the Royal Air Force, clearing the way for allied ground troops, mistook the Cap Arcona for a ship carrying S.S. officers. They dropped a bomb on its hull. As the ship began to capsize, my grandfather grabbed a rope and watched those around him sink to the bottom of the frigid Baltic Sea. He was one of only 350 to survive. It was the last day of the war.

The Cap Arcona could very well be a chapter in a textbook, or the plotline in a film. But the true value of my presence isn’t about bringing more attention to this tragedy. The value comes in the second half of the presentation, where I talk about my grandfather as a person. I speak of the life he made in Buffalo, New York. I talk about his obsession with a fresh loaf of bread, and the undying love he has for his wife, even after 60 years of marriage. It’s a reminder that these aren’t the protagonists of fiction, and they’re not digits in a death toll. They’re real men and women; “marching down the street, kicking up the dust.”