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Volume 17, No.1 / Spring 2003            
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust
Importance of Testimonies in Holocaust Education

About Testimonies

Importance of Testimonies in Holocaust Education

Using Testimony in the Classroom

Recorded Testimonies of Survivors (1946)
Nechama Tec


Historical Background: Jews in Poland

Writings of Nechama Tec
  • Intro
  • Dry Tears (6th Grade - College)
      • Overview
      • Questions & Activities
Testimony: Dan Bar-on

Why are testimonies important for Holocaust Education?

Dan Bar-On, Ida E. King Chair for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Richard Stockton College of NJ

After World War II

Right after World War II there were almost no Holocaust testimonies. Many survivors preferred not to speak or even to silence their horrifying experiences and also the society at large did not encourage them to speak because everyone felt guilty and helpless, preferring to continue rebuilding life. At that time people spoke about the Holocaust through impersonal and "objective" figures (six million). The only ones who had the legitimacy to talk during the fifties, in Israel for example, were the Ghetto Fighters and the partisans (Bar-On), as they had done something to stop the killing. The other survivors were looked down upon as "going like sheep to slaughter."


The first change in that respect happened around the Eichmann Trial in the early sixties, when an interest in testimonies of survivors emerged, basically as a need to learn the Historical Truth (Spence): What had actually happened there and then? For example, Yad Vashem initiated interviews with survivors all over the world to find out details about what had happened in various sites where the Holocaust took place, at specific times, as limited documentations and other historical sources were available. But even these efforts were seen as providing only partial truths, as it was assumed that people in general and survivors specifically distort the historical truth through their "biased" memories. Their personal experiences were not yet validated as such.


During the seventies a basic change took place, perhaps as a result of post-modern influences, in which the historical truth was already well established and the survivors' subjective life-stories were accepted as a legitimate personal construction of their experiences, their Narrative Truth (Spence). This was an era when "subjective" testimonies became equally important to the "objective" facts. For example, on Holocaust Day in Israel, on television programs, survivors' testimonies have been broadcast only since the 1973 war. Perhaps also that war caused a shift in the Israeli thinking about heroism: Now just to remain alive became a legitimate way of coping with war and was retrospectively attributed also to Holocaust survivors.


In the eighties, it was recognized that the initial silencing of survivors' stories has affected their children's lives. I defined this as the "double wall" phenomenon: survivors did not talk and their children did not ask but knew in some hidden way that terrible stories were behind the silence (Bar-on). The grandchildren of survivors were the first ones, as late as the nineties, to open up the communication with their survivors=grandparents, concerning the latter's experiences during the Holocaust. In many families they found new ways to ask questions and help their aging folks start to tell things they had never told before.


Today we know that this story-telling process is so very important, psychologically, to work through the emotional burden of the past: Why did I survive while my beloved ones did not? Did I do what I could to help out others? Was what I did human or legitimate? And so on. These are difficult questions, which have no "right" or "wrong" answer. Story-telling also has an emotional component of connecting. When survivors come to the classroom and tell first hand their personal experiences during the Holocaust, children feel what the survivors are going through again and again by telling their stories, and they appreciate this and are willing to listen to learn about this period in history first hand. They ask questions and are willing to read more and thereby enrich their knowledge about an era that to them lies far back in history. Suddenly, the figures and dates became alive in front of them.

After the Survivors

We all ask ourselves, What will happen after the survivors die out and there will be no first hand testimonies? Will their videotaped testimonies still have a similar effect on their listeners? I am afraid that the answer is-no. Something will be lost which will not be possible to recover. Young people will have to use their imaginations to fill in this void. Some will be more accurate and some will be less so, as we already have seen in recent films (Roberto Benini's Life is Beautiful) or literature (Bernhard Schlink's The Reader). But as with every gradual change of generations, the stories will be told and retold from one generation to the next, and they will be adopted to fit the current social and political climate. I assume that the Holocaust will play an important role in the human imagination for many generations to come and survivors' stories will fulfill an important role in these reconstructions, perhaps even more important than the pure historical facts of what had happened, when and where.

Testimonies are not only "biased" memories. They are humans struggling with a very dark chapter in human history and as such have their important place in the accumulative process of human experiences.


    Bar-On, D. Fear and Hope: Life-Stories of Five Israeli Families of Holocaust Survivors, Three Generations in a Family. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

    Spence, D. P. Historical Truth and Narrative Truth. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

Articles from the Print Editions of Dimensions
Dimensions continues to be the leading journal in Holocaust studies -- appealing to both serious scholars and the mainstream audience.
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The Hidden Child Foundation®
We hope to reach all former Hidden Children. As the last survivors, we must tell our tragic stories - for now and for the future, we must bear witness to the Holocaust

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