Lessons from the Shoah
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Lessons from the Shoah

Interactive program uses testimonies to give Schechter students a new understanding

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Students watch IWitness testimony from the USC Shoah Foundation.

“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Is there any way to turn that around? To make any miniscule amount of good come out of great evil?

The Holocaust as living memory soon will flicker out. Survivors who can tell their stories are growing old. Soon it will be just images, photographs, videos, written and spoken words.

The Holocaust was pure evil, the unleashing of the worst human fears and instincts. There was nothing at all good about it. But in a soul-affirming act of reversal, it now is possible, almost 70 years after it ended, to use it to teach students how to become better people.

The first steps in that process are never to forget it, to honor its victims, and to listen to its survivors.

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford has been chosen to partner with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to that process, in a program that uses some of the foundation’s more than 107,000 hours of video testimony and its highly sophisticated, searchable database to teach about worlds lost to genocide and lives lived before, during, after, and despite it. It also teaches tolerance and decency.

“We are the first Jewish day school to be part of the Shoah Foundation,” Schechter’s head of school, Ruth Gafni, said. “It introduces teachers to methods of teaching using testimonies, and we incorporate the foundation’s educational materials into our school curriculum.”

The students from Schechter, which goes from preschool to 8th grade, will join about 21,000 other students, mainly in public high schools, and about 5,000 educators in 58 countries around the world.

The program is unique in the way that it allows the school access to the vast resources the Shoah Foundation has amassed, Ms. Gafni said. Her school’s commitment to it took many years, culminating in last year’s trip to Rwanda.

“We were able to pull testimonies from the foundation from Rwandan citizens who have gone through genocide, and testimonies from people who have come through the Shoah,” she said. “We were able to see commonalities of behavior among the predators, and the notion of the Other. We could see the uniqueness and magnitude of the Shoah and its impact on us and on Israel today.

“We became partners with the foundation – in order to do that you have to commit to training with their materials, through professional development and visits to our school from USC professors,” she continued. “That takes time and resources, and it also takes a decision from our leadership that the Shoah is a subject that is key to understanding and unlocking historical events, and to our understanding of the importance of tolerance.”

Half of the school’s funding for the program comes from the Shoah Foundation, and the other half is from the school, Ms. Gafni said. The foundation’s own resources come from donors around the world.

“It also aligns with the inauguration of our new Shoah resource center,” she said. “We have the vision of serving as a resource to Hebrew schools, public schools, and other day schools in the area.

“For us, the uniqueness is in our ability to teach the material in a way that is alive because you are interacting. The testimonies are very personal, and you can focus on a word or subject. You can teach with more accuracy. Sometimes, when you talk to someone, you hope that the person will say the right thing. Here, you have more control over the content.”

That control is possible because of the searchable database available to educators and to their students through iWitness.

“In today’s world, our kids have access to everything,” Ms. Gafni said. “The importance of teaching Holocaust and genocide studies is because you want children to understand the depths and meaning of what happened in a developmentally age-appropriate way. Therefore, exposing them to it should be done responsibly, and with an understanding of the cultural context of the time, the geography, the anti-Semitism of the time, and all the other conditions that allowed it.

“When you raise kids, you should raise them with the ideal of tolerance, from the time they are very young,” she said. “Rather than it’s being, ‘It’s mine, it’s all about me,’ we should teach them, from the time they are very young, to think about the Other, to be aware of what they have versus what others have, to learn how to address each other, to think of the comfort of those around you.

“That is the framework that you create at home and at school, because it is only through education that you can make a difference,” Ms. Gafni concluded.

“IWitness is USC Shoah Foundation’s online education platform,” Dr. Kori Street, the foundation’s director of education, said.

The testimonies in the foundation’s Visual History Archive – first-person accounts from Holocaust survivors, their liberators, and other eyewitnesses, as well as of survivors or descendants of the genocide in Rwanda, the Nanjing Massacre, and very soon the Armenian genocide – are the raw, unedited video memories captured over the last 20 years by interviewers for the Shoah Foundation, she continued. They all are accessible on the Internet – but not on the Web – in 44 places around the world.

A subset of those videos has been culled to produce IWitness. Those videos are posted on the web, and both students and teachers can use the database’s search engine to find exactly what they want.

“Those testimonies provide a complete picture of the overall collection,” Dr. Street said. “They also are clear and understandable to students. What we focus on is the raw material. We do not pick them because they are perfect, with no mistakes. They are all uncurated testimonies, and they go from earliest memories to the moment of the interview itself.”

The IWitness program teaches two very different sets of skills – not only does it teach about genocide, but it also trains students in digital media and information literacy, Dr. Street said. “Our overall goal – and what Ruth saw in the program – was what a difference it makes for students in terms of developing knowledge, thinking critically, and being motivated to act in their communities.

“The testimonies we have are life histories. Students find them incredibly compelling. It’s using the power of digital storytelling to help students learn, from financial literacy to history to civics to English language arts,” Dr. Street said.

So, Ms. Gafni concluded, IWitness’s database, with its huge collection of stories of the unthinkable, “uses real people’s testimonies, from people who have been part of history at its worst and at its best, people who have performed heroic acts.” When students can look at that, they can “put a past event and a current event side by side, and see how much is learned, and how much there is to learn.”

More information about the USC Shoah Foundation is on the web at sfi.usc.edu.

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