Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fully Engaging

I recently returned from New York where I attended the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM). As an artist, I am not the typical attendee, but my work is very much in keeping with many of the themes that are addressed. One of those themes is how we will tell the story of the Holocaust when there are no longer survivors to tell it. My work on Lithuania and Poland addresses the Holocaust and I often speak jointly with my friend Dora, a survivor from my ancestral town. Dora and her family started the Holocaust Resource Center in our community which once was quite actively used by area schools. At one time, schools would bus children to the center and Dora’s late husband would speak to them. As school budgets tighten and there are fewer survivors, the center has been less actively used. Dora and I often debate the right vehicle to carry her effort forward in light of these changes. With that in mind, I attended a session titled Assessing Authenticity: Sources and Uses of Holocaust Narrative.

The session covered the gamut of low tech to high tech approaches. For most students The Diary of Ann Frank is their primary exposure to the Holocaust. Alexandra Zapruder sought to expand on that with publication of the book Salvaged Pages , a compilation of diaries by young people trapped in the Holocaust. Alexandra read a very eloquent passage from one of the diaries and talked about how she would work with a class of students in more deeply understanding the text. She felt that it was important to have a teacher mediate discussion, but weighed the benefits and detriments of using technology to explode topics and add enhancements. She raised the question of what point visuals begin to stifle the imagination and become overwhelming and distracting. When she teaches she slows it down from the pace to which most students have become accustom. They focus on specific words and she felt it important that process be preserved.

Linda Mills of NYU shared yet another approach through her film Auf Wiedersehen: ‘Til We Meet Again , an often comic view of her journey back to Vienna with her mother and ten year old son to retrace her mother’s life prior to her 1939 escape.

The session concluded with Stephen Smith of the USC Shoah Foundation who presented the most high tech approach in which they spent five intensive days filming a survivor named Pinchus.
They interviewed him on a variety of topics and connected the video of him with classrooms where through voice recognition they were able to have the students ask questions on a variety of topics and create a seemingly live dialogue as if he were actually present in real time. Stephen noted that in 18 months they expect to have a holographic projector which would create an even more real sense of the speaker’s presence. The result is extremely powerful, but because the filming is so intensive it is a process that would not work for many survivors.

Stephen also shared a learning approach where they had students take survivor testimony from their vast collection and cut words away, distilling it to poetry. The objective is to get students to engage with survivors’ stories and understand the essence.

I came away from this session greatly encouraged at the creativity that is going into assuring a level of personal engagement that I had not thought possible. The ability to leverage new technology presents options that just a short time ago were unavailable.

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