The Power of Firsthand Accounts in Holocaust Education

November 11, 2022
Jason Calderon

Springfield, New Jersey, United States

Class of 2023

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For as long as Jewish people have been around, our job has been to take the stories of our ancestors and pass them from generation to generation. We have been commanded to remember and retell.

But this obligation does not end with the physical act of memory - to hear and to internalize - this obligation must be connected to both intention and to actionable deeds. Since the Holocaust, memory takes a whole new meaning for the Jewish community.

Those who have no knowledge of history are doomed to repeat it. We learn to gain knowledge, and it is from this starting platform of knowledge that we learn lessons, teach lessons, and inspire change.

Truly understanding the entire scope of the tragedy that befell the Jews would drive any sane person mad. Perhaps this is why we teach it as we do. In the context of the Holocaust, your traditional modern American classroom sees it as one of history’s biggest atrocities, an event with an extreme human toll and ethical significance. And this is how we learn about it. If we are learning about human cost, approximately 6,000,000 Jews were murdered. If we are learning about starvation, we learn that the daily food ration that the Germans gave each resident of the Warsaw ghetto was 184 calories of nutrition when the average man requires over 10 times that for decent health. And as Jewish kids, we sometimes sit in the back of the classroom, unsure what to say, knowing there is more to it than this but not quite knowing how to express it. I just sat there listening to my history classes over the years just going through the war, learning about the developed ideals and why they were wrong, and how it led to the systematic killing of over 6 million Jews. But nobody else in those classes could feel that some of those six million were my people’s brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, and friends. Future leaders of my community, future parents and grandparents. But I can’t blame my classmates for not feeling this as deeply as I do. 

When we consider the immense moral and ethical significance such an atrocity presents to us, it is crucial that the human experience of the victims be told in the first person so that the scope of the event is at least partly understood.

Knowledge cannot stand alone in this fight to inspire change. We cannot truly understand the atrocities until we hear “from the horse’s mouth”, so to speak. And until February of last year I’d learned about the Holocaust, I sympathized, I even had relatives who’d passed down their stories, but I never had a face to face interaction with someone who lived it until IC Baltimore. Along with one of my good friends, I ran a Kabbalat Shabbat Service with the theme “The Power of Remembrance,” a service with Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann’s stories and prayers woven throughout. As I heard him speak briefly about his experiences, I was struck. I didn’t know what exactly to expect going in, but what I got going in was the most spry, optimistic, joyful man despite his experiences. Now, this was not only a massive dose of perspective but it allowed me to empathize for the first time. There is a difference between reading about tattooed numbers on arms and seeing the actual ink on the man’s skin. There is a difference between reading about torture and hearing tears choked down as an actual person describes the lasting effects of medical experiments performed on him like a lab rat.

The Power of Remembrance Kabbalat Shabbat Service at BBYO IC 2022 in Baltimore with Sami seated beside the podium.

I found Sami’s message so powerful that I felt that the chapter that I credit with so much of my personal growth hear about this. So, in collaboration with the rest of the board, we set up an interview with Sami at our JCC. The place where we explore our Jewish identities in BBYO would become a place where we could all perhaps even discover a new aspect where we didn’t know we had it. At our meetings, in our emails, and in our marketing, we implored T’sahal folks to attend because we didn’t know how many opportunities we would have left to speak to a live survivor. Through BBYO On Demand and promotion to our Jewish and school communities, we reached over 200 people in less than 20 days of promotion. 

When I sat on stage with Sami, I saw myself in our audience. I saw people not knowing what to expect. And when he began talking, I saw the same surprised expression with Sami’s spry attitude. People that walked in stressed about their days at school and work hearing about the pain he has been through for decades. Yet Sami is the one cracking jokes.

It is so convenient to assume that people, even those of other religions, know about these camps, so they don’t need to hear about the horrors again and again. I disagree. If they actually heard Sami speak, if they actually listened to what he had to say as opposed to just reading about it in a textbook, then perhaps they would understand my passion. When they go around the school asking why Kanye’s recent actions are such a big deal, they would know. When they go around complaining that Kyrie’s suspension wrecks their fantasy weeks, they would understand. When they listen to the experience of someone who lived through the atrocities that are taught with numbers in today’s classrooms, they won’t be thinking this way.

And hearing these things in my community is the reason why my goal is to continue to educate. Not by monotonously outlining events as they occurred, but weighing the ethical and moral significance with it. To put a face to the 6 million who had the ability to tell their stories to their children and their children’s children brutally snatched away from them. As a chapter Godol within an organization whose goal is to inspire more Jewish teens with more meaningful Jewish experience, I can think of nothing more significant than empowering our members and prospects with something that they can remember and retell. Something to enable them with the tools to teach others, to inspire other Jews and even non-Jews by giving them someone on whom’s behalf to fight for. And someone that will allow them to advocate as not just be that kid sitting in the back of the room, but as a person who has heard a Holocaust survivor. Someone who can provide that perspective that people less knowledgeable need so they begin to understand why Jews feel the way we do when we see people on highway overpasses and social medial platforms promoting anti-Semitism.

Jason is an Aleph living in Springfield, New Jersey who loves cheese sticks.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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