OPINION: Why does Holocaust testimony matter?

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OPINION: Why does Holocaust testimony matter?

With denial and distortion on the rise, the words of the eye-witnesses have gained even more significance

AJR Refugee Voices, Instagram
AJR Refugee Voices, Instagram

Ahead of an international forum on Holocaust testimonies, Dr Bea Lewkowicz, director of the Association of Jewish Refugees’ Refugee Voices Archive, stresses the importance of different cultural and memorial contexts to how the next generation confronts the history of the Shoah.

When Rishi Sunak, shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day in January, announced that parliament will soon legislate to build the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, my first thought was about the many survivors and refugees who I had interviewed in the last 20 years, for the AJR Refugee Voices Archive and how pleased they would be to hear this pledge from the current Prime Minister to memorialising the Holocaust.

The testimony of one particular interviewee, the journalist John Izbicki, came to mind. He recalled, as an eight-year-old boy in Berlin, he had watched from the window how Nazi storm troopers ransacked his parents shop in the evening of the November pogrom (Kristallnacht).

Knowing his parents were in the shop, he shouted and cried uncontrollably. His parents survived and the family made it to safety in the UK, but his vocal cords had been severely affected and his voice was permanently changed as a consequence.

Dr Bea Lewkowicz, Director, AJR Refugee Voices Archive

When Holocaust testimony moves to the political centre stage, voices like that of John Izbicki will have a strong presence.

Next month, The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), together with the government and the German embassy, is organising the International Forum on Collecting, Preserving and Disseminating Holocaust Testimonies.

The gathering will offer a chance to reflect upon and confront the history and dissemination of Holocaust testimony and the challenges facing us in the future.

We will present a range of topics, to be discussed by thought leaders, including Daniel Finkelstein OBE and Jonathan Freedland, Dan Stone and James Bulgin, and Dov Forman. We will also be joined by survivors Eva Clarke BEM and Jackie Young, and Kurt Marx BEM, who came to the UK on a Kindertransport.

Why is it critical now to think about Holocaust testimonies?

Broadly speaking, the capturing and dissemination of testimonies shape a variety of agents and environments: a) the interviewee and their families b) the academic ‘users’ of testimonies and their areas of research and c) the broader educational and learning fields (use of testimonies in schools, digital and non-digital learning platforms, local museums, televisions and documentary productions, exhibition installations).

In recent years, with Holocaust denial and distortion on the rise, the words of the eye-witnesses have gained even more significance.

For some years now, most institutions dealing with Holocaust testimonies, have been thinking about the future of Holocaust education without survivors. Different institutions and groups have developed new resources or interactive recordings, which respond to the questions of the viewer.

Some organisations have trained second and third generations to tell the stories of their parents or grandparents.  However, we need to be clear about the limitations and challenges of new media as well as those aspects of the original oral histories in supplying vital communicative signals and contexts.

Now that there is a very high chance that testimonies will be high on the political and media agenda, the Forum’s focus on the past and future of Holocaust testimonies is very timely.

By understanding how Holocaust testimonies have been collected and displayed over time and in different cultural and memorial contexts, we can create an important dialogue, which will ensure that the stories of all British Holocaust survivors and refugees, such as John Izbiki’s, will be represented.

My hope is that future generations will learn about individual stories of survival and gain an understanding of the medium of Holocaust testimony itself, underlining its important role in enabling us to follow John Izbicki’s clear message from the end of his interview: ‘Look back to the past and don’t let it become the future’.

This is why Holocaust testimony matters.

  • The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) is holding its International Holocaust Testimony Forum on April 19 & 20 at Lancaster House – focusing on collecting, preserving and disseminating Holocaust testimonies. Book your tickets here.
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