Panel Evening: "Reflections on Yad Vashem Conference"

Panel Discussion

On Wednesday 24th of November, four people who attended the recent conference at Yad Vashem gave us their reflections on their amazing experiences.

The five day conference was held in October and was the Second International Conference on the Holocaust and Education, titled "The Memory of the Holocaust in the 21st Century - The Challenge for Education".

The four speakers were: Pauline Rockman, President of the Descendants of the Shoah, Executive Member of the Holocaust Centre and Australian Coordinator of the Shoah Visual History Foundation; Susan Hampel, Jewish History Coordinator at Mount Scopus College; Ilona Oppenheimer, Convenor of the Education Committee at the Holocaust Centre and John Lamovie, President of of the Friends of the Holocaust Museum, Volunteer in the Curatorial Department at the Holocaust Centre and Child Survivor.

Pauline Rockman spoke first. Her reasons for attending this conference were to learn and observe what was happening around the world in Holocaust education and to share ideas and experiences with other educators.

The conference delegates were an international group of educators, historians, researchers, academics and museum workers.

The format of the conference was - lectures and discussions, led by moderators, in the morning and workshops in the afternoon. There were over 150 workshops from which to choose. She attended 16 workshops.

For Pauline, the conference was educative, exhilarating and wonderfully exhaustive. for her, the experience was on three levels: cognitive - "what did I learn?"; intrapersonal - the range of fascination people to meet and share ideas with' interpersonal - Pauline's own journey of learning and discovery.

Pauline spoke about in detail about four of the workshops she attended which gave her ideas to bring back to Melbourne.

  1. Museum Tours for the Visually Impaired, presented by the Washington Holocaust Museum. These are small tours conducted for four visitors with one or two guides. They use low vision aids such as magnifiers, flash lights and sound bells. Also incorporated are items for the visitors to touch and feel and the guides use a lot of descriptive language.

  2. Police Cadets at the Washington Museum. American Police cadets are given one day of training at the Washington Holocaust Museum. This includes a tour of the vast exhibits, a question and answer session and an educational activity. The purpose of including this is to teach them about the police in the Weimar Republic and how easily they fitted into the Nazi regime.

  3. Young people's journals. A young actor from the UK presented excerpts from young people's journals, written during the Second World War. She took on the persona of each writer. Pauline felt this would be a wonderful medium for educating children about the Holocaust.

  4. Dialogue between a survivor and a German person. This workshop was presented by two women: Ruth, an English psychotherapist who had been a Kindertransport child and Angelica who had been in Hitler Youth. They talked about their meetings, how they were changing their ideas and working together and the healing this dialogue provided for them. The ramifications of this type of dialogue are just beginning to be explored.

Pauline offered the papers and material to anyone interested in finding out more about the workshops she attended.

Sue Hampel spoke next. This was Sue's third visit to Yad Vashem for educational purposes. Her main focus is on how we will teach our children about the Holocaust in the next century when survivors won't be here to guide the way.

Sue met many teachers from various countries who also teach Holocaust Studies. She learnt that it is mandatory to teach high school students about the Holocaust in Germany and Austria, but not in Poland.

The closing ceremony of the conference was very moving for Sue. It was attended by one hundred survivors, all pleased to see the torch of remembrance being carried into the 21st century. The one survivor from Sobibor was there.

Sue was interested to meet people from the museums of Auschwitz and Terezin and to learn that the Auschwitz museum opened in 1947. Only since 1990 have these museums mentioned the plight of Jews in their displays.

Sue also met Anna, the woman behind "The Nasty Girl" film who now lives in the USA. Anna said there was still a lot of racism in Germany, especially Bavaria where she is from and where the film is set.

We were then shown a video Sue brought back with her. It was a short piece with Elie Weisel introducing Rabbi Pollack, a Canadian child survivor, who spoke to a group of students about his memories from a child's perspective.

John Lamovie then told us about a two day tour he and Ilona took after the Yad Vashem conference. They visited Lochamei Haghettaot, The Ghetto Fighters' Museum and kibbutz, located 10 miles south of the Jordanian border. This was a memorable experience for both of them.

The original members of the kibbutz were survivors and ghetto fighters. They have created a magnificent museum where you could spend days and days. It is also a centre for learning for people from all over the world. There is also a children's museum, which has been created with so much love. There is a special room honouring Janusz Korczak and a reproduction of life in the ghettos.

Ilona Oppenheimer spoke last and offered to make a list of all the books, videos and email addresses they brought back with them.

Questions were asked about the danger of basing Jewish identity on the Holocaust and how important it is to teach Jewish students that there is more to being Jewish. The youth movements explore Holocaust Education as do the schools and universities. This all needs to be taught in a context of the richness and diversity of Jewish education and history, both religious and cultural. It is important that these issues are discussed in the home and books and movies can open up the discussion.

Ilona attended a workshop about programs for middle school students. The emphasis was on the need to rescue the individual, the real people behind the horrific pictures of mass graves and bodies. Stories need to be gradually brought into a child's life, such as a range of diaries written in the war years and stories about Righteous Gentiles. Educators need to personalise the material and teach about what life was like before the war and what their message is about life today. This is the approach our guides take when talking to school groups.

There were also discussions about the age-appropriateness of the material. In Israel, Holocaust education is presented to 11-12 year olds, here we start with older children.

Another workshop Ilona attended was about using survivors' testimonies, presented by a psychotherapist from Amcha, the Israeli support organisation for Holocaust survivors. He spoke about the vicarious traumatisation process and what is passed onto the second generation. Three survivors also spoke about how they present material to groups of school students. The testimony needs to be kept brief, to a point where the students are still interested and curious. This was demonstrated aptly by the story Rabbi Pollack told in the video previously seen.

To sum up, Ilona spoke about trends in Holocaust education:

  • the importance of individualising the stories told to children
  • children need to hear a variety of experiences, from all over Europe
  • authenticating and the integrity of material
  • Holocaust denial and the internet
  • the different ways the Holocaust is taught around the world
  • what age do we start teaching children

There was plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion, with most of the audience reluctant to leave.

Thank you to all four speakers for a fascinating evening.

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