Elise Widerlite, special to wtop.com
WASHINGTON – Today marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And while reflections and remembrance will be the focus of the day, the ways in which the museum will move forward to preserve its history and message is also of importance.
Holocaust educators are looking to interact with younger generations to ensure current and future students never forget the moment in history. And they are using several different techniques — from graphic novels to technology and music — to reach these generations.
“If you want a 17-year-old high school senior to be interested in the history of something that happened a long time ago, and 75 years is a long time ago for a young person, then you need to come up with creative, new ways to present your material,” says Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in D.C.
The Director of Corporate, Foundation and Restricted Giving at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Cara Sodos, presents a troubling statistic for the museum. The average age of their membership constituency is 71.
To reach the younger demographic, the museum founded The Next Generation Initiative, which focuses on engaging 25-to-40-year olds.
“On fundraising, the Next Generation groups are where we’re looking to groom and sort of cultivate the next leaders of the museum,” Sodos says.
There’s much more work to be done in order to secure the interest of this age group. One of the biggest obstacles, according to Sodos, is that the museum is a federal institution. Having federal status prevents it from acting as an advocacy group, which makes deep engagement with the community difficult.
Sodos praises the efforts of the marketing team in engaging the younger constituents through social media, but believes there is still a crucial component missing: active participation.
Young people are looking for ways to make an impact. But Sodos says the majority of younger folks pour their efforts into combating present day genocide.
The museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide asks visitors to take a pledge to prevent current day genocide, but this is where the engagement ends. The museum has no way to track the authors of the pledges and check up on the fulfillment of their responses. Sodos believes the solution includes expanding the museum’s volunteer base to satisfy the youth’s desire to act on the injustice of present-day genocide.
In addition to active engagement, capitalizing on new media techniques may also hold the solution to the problems professors and teachers face in reaching students. This is where the graphic novel comes to the rescue.
Paul Vincent had his doubts. The chair of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College avoided graphic novels about the Holocaust for 15 years, unable to get his head around a Holocaust story that was told through comic book characters.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Vincent changed his mind when he attended the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University.
Spiegelman’s “Maus” was a required reading prerequisite for the institute.
“I kicked myself for the first 15 minutes, as I started to read through it that, my god, this is fabulous, and it’s something that young people can relate to immediately,” Vincent says.
Another way Holocaust educators are working to reach the younger generation is through technology.
University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Department of Education announced IWitness, a website launched in January 2012 that brings 1,300 testimonies into the classrooms of middle and high schools around the world. Using the software, students can watch visual testimonies and make movies using them. It also includes lesson plans for teachers that are customizable to their course focus.
Kori Street, the director of education at the Shoah Foundation, explained that IWitness is a way to use more than 52,000 first-person testimonies that the foundation has collected over years for educational purposes. The approach gives the material a human face that teachers and students have found to be a compelling and rewarding experience.
“The reality is, your students are coming in with smart phones, iPhones, iPads and computers, and their expectations are that you’re going to help them learn the topic in that context as much as in a print and writing and verbal context,” Street says.
IWitness is interdisciplinary in nature with teachers using the software to teach geography, economics and history, as well as media studies and information literacy, which are useful skills in today’s gadget-obsessed world.
“One of our theories is that if a student gets exposed to information that includes information about the Holocaust at multiple points in their education, they’ll understand it more deeply than if we just do it, say at Yom Hashoah,” Street says.
While these methods seem to be accepted among the scholarly community, professors are less willing to praise other techniques.
Larry Siegel, the composer of the Kaddish Project, has received backlash from Holocaust educators. His work is an adaptation of testimonies of Holocaust survivors set to music.
“When you engage with the scholars of the Holocaust you run into the Gordian knot of problems of how they teach it and how I’m presenting it and sometimes they’ve not been happy,” he says.
Engaging this generation involves timely approaches. It means an appeal to its desires for action, tangible results and instant gratification that the constant flow of information reinforces.
What has remained constant almost a century after the Holocaust is the universal human experience of emotion, an experience that weighs heavily in the teachings of the Holocaust and the moral imperative to bear witness.
Whether it’s the emotional experience of a Kaddish concert, the personal connection through a first-person visual testimony, a school trip through the Holocaust Museum or a graphic novel, experts are hopeful that stories from the Holocaust will continue to be passed through generations to come.