The Column: When survivors are gone, who will teach the Holocaust?

Anyone who doubts the merit of collecting so many oral testimonies from Holocaust survivors should talk to 16-year-old Mallak Mukatash. Better yet, they should watch her film.

A rising senior at Mercy High School, an all-girls Catholic prep school in San Francisco, Mallak was one of eight Bay Area students chosen last year for the Manovill Holocaust History Fellowship. The fellowship, a program of the Holocaust Center of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, allows students to conduct college-level Holocaust research, including meeting local survivors and putting together short films about their lives.

Mallak’s film is about Anne Marie Yellin, a feisty, articulate woman who survived World War II as a “hidden child” in a Belgian convent. Yellin even converted to Catholicism, and now speaks about her experience in local schools through the Holocaust Center’s Speakers Bureau.

That piqued Mallak’s interest. “It was different than the usual concentration camp stories,” she says, explaining why she chose Yellin. “I knew about hidden children, but not as much as I knew about the camps. So while I was teaching others about it, I could learn something myself.”

She didn’t  interview Yellin herself, but pored through two hours of video footage provided by IWitness, an online resource that gives students and teachers access to more than 1,000  filmed testimonies of Holocaust survivors. IWitness culls its selections from the 52,000 collected so far by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute.

So … Anne Marie Yellin, an aging Holocaust survivor, “meets” Mallak Mukatash, a Catholic high school student, via her personal testimony filmed and archived by the Shoah Foundation and distributed back to schools through IWitness.

It’s an elegant system, and one that becomes increasingly relevant as the survivors pass away. 

I watched Mallak’s touching film a couple of weeks ago at a session on high school Holocaust education, part of an international conference on genocide studies held at San Francisco State University. During the discussion period, presenters and audience members bemoaned the passing of the survivor generation, and wondered how future educators could convey the same powerful lessons without the survivors to tell their own stories.

“If you tell students ‘6 million died,’ it goes over their heads,” said Eileen O’Kane, who teaches high school history at the Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco. “You need to make it personal in order for them to engage.”

O’Kane spends six weeks on the Holocaust in her class. She feels it’s better to deal with a few subjects in-depth and get the kids to really connect. “My classroom textbook has four pages on the Holocaust, nothing on Rwanda or Bosnia, and one paragraph on Armenia,” she said in her presentation. “I want to pull my hair out!”

Using a curriculum designed by Facing History and Ourselves, which emphasizes individuals making ethical choices, O’Kane takes her students in small groups to a survivor’s home. The kids listen to the survivor’s story for about three hours, then ask questions and film the whole thing on Flipcams.

“It gives them ownership,” she says. “They really feel connected to that person. ‘That’s my survivor,’ they say.”

O’Kane and many other educators in the room, who hailed from as far away as Scotland and Australia, spoke about how tightly their teaching methods were tied to face-to-face encounters with living survivors. But the inevitable will come to pass. And that’s where IWitness, the Shoah Foundation, and other oral and video history projects come into play.

“History lasts after the eyewitnesses are dead,” pointed out one history professor in the audience, naming the Inquisition and the French Revolution as subjects he manages to teach without living witnesses by his side. The Holocaust is no different, he argued. “It even has a big advantage — the films, the documentation.”

Mallak can’t believe that people might question the utility of preserving survivor testimonies.

“It is useful,” she insists. “These survivors won’t always be here to share their stories, whether from the Holocaust or Armenia or Cambodia. You can look back and learn from the past.”

You tell ’em, Mallak.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].