After This: Survivors of the Holocaust speak
Alice Nelson is a novelist who won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and was named Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist in 2009. Here she talks about her latest book After This: Survivors of the Holocaust speak.
Tell us a little bit about your book. How can it be used in education?
After This: Survivors of the Holocaust speak is a collection of fourteen narratives of local Holocaust survivors. Each individual recounts the story of their life before the Holocaust, their wartime experiences and their new lives as migrants to Australia after the war. The survivors come from a range of different backgrounds and countries but all endured the horrors of the Holocaust. Their experiences are diverse, although of course there are many overlaps: persecution, discrimination, hiding, ghettos, deprivation, trains and camps. Each individual narrates their particular Holocaust experience, but emphasis is also given to their lives before and afterwards, so that they are not portrayed just as victims.
The use of witness testimonies has long been a vital part of Holocaust education – from classrooms to museums all over the world. Sometimes the sheer scope of the Holocaust and its staggering number of victims can challenge comprehension.
The personal stories help to translate the overwhelming statistics and abstractions of the Holocaust. They show that individual people – children, mothers, brothers, grandparents – are behind the awful statistics and help emphasise the diversity of personal experience during the Holocaust.
The survivors whose stories are included in After This are all local Western Australians, who live in our own communities here, which helps to bring another layer of connection for young people to whom the subject of the Holocaust can sometimes seem remote and faraway.
After This would be an excellent resource for students studying World War II, and also for English classes where students are looking at memoir, narration and historical narrative.
Why do you believe it is important for schoolchildren to learn about the Holocaust?
One of the survivors in the book ends his chapter by saying: ‘The Holocaust is a monumental part of history, so please do not forget what I am saying. I won’t be here forever to tell the story. It is in your hands and the hands of your generation and generations to come – to always remember.’ I think that really summarises the imperative to teach young people about the Holocaust.
Holocaust education is vitally important to bear witness to the monstrous events of the Holocaust, to ensure that it does not slip away from consciousness as just another historical example of genocide, and also as a way of examining wider questions about human behaviour, morality, democracy, conformity, obedience and apathy.
The Holocaust, in all its horror and incomprehensibility, is one of the most powerful forums for examining fundamental questions relating to humanity’s capacity for evil and I think it is very important for young people to try to grapple with these concerns.
In an era of rising anti-Semitism, it’s also very important for all people, and particularly our youth, to be educated about the Holocaust – and about all forms of discrimination, oppression and human rights abuses. It’s essential for young people to learn the dangers of remaining silent, apathetic and indifferent to the oppression of others.
What inspired you to decide to write the stories of the survivors?
The inspiration behind this anthology was the pressing need to safeguard the memory of the Holocaust and to communicate it to future generations. One of the driving imperatives of the book was to ensure that the stories of the survivors were not lost to history. We are in an age where the survivors among us are reaching the end of their natural life spans and we will have to contemplate the Holocaust from a position where there are no more survivors left to tell us their accounts in person. All of the survivors included in the collection have volunteered at the Holocaust Institute of WA to recount their experiences to groups of visitors. However, many of their testimonies had not been formally written down, so it was very important that they were preserved in as much detail as possible, with photographs and historical documents where they were available. The survivors and their families all saw this as a vital legacy to future generations.
It was also very important that the diversity of lives and experiences of the survivors be presented in all their fullness as much as possible. The goal of the Holocaust was to depersonalise, to erase identity and to reduce humans to objects. Sharing the stories of individual lives and experiences is, in a small way, a counterbalance to that.
Where can schools find more resources?
Yad Vashem, the world centre for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, has an outstanding website with wide-ranging digital collections and multimedia archives. They also have extensive and compelling online Holocaust education materials including a Video Toolbox for teachers. Schools can subscribe to their ‘Teaching the Legacy’ e-newsletter for Holocaust Educators.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also has an excellent website with online exhibitions and collection highlights, as well as some great resources for educators including lesson plans and teaching materials.