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Holocaust education: Exploring new models of memory

CM 05/05/2021

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Holocaust education is becoming more challenging with each passing year. Survivors and their firsthand testimonies are becoming rarer. As time goes by, it becomes harder to transfer to younger generations the unparalleled horrors that took place more than 80 years ago and the lessons that must be learned from them.
One must thus ask, is it time to reexamine our existing models of communicating the messages of the Holocaust? What should those messages be? And where does the line cross?
On the same month marking Israel’s 73rd Independence Day and 78 years to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and shortly after Israel commemorated the country’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, this Jerusalem Post correspondent explored an alternative way of remembering the story of six million Jews and millions of others – through self-exploration and art – and set out to see how Israelis feel about redefining what we have come to know as memory and grief.
Located on 120 Herzl Blvd., Jerusalem, a five-minute drive from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site, the “Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room” takes on a completely different approach to Holocaust education than most would expect.
The mini museum is not a museum in the traditional sense. It is covered with colorful displays and works of art that may seem unrelated or even connected to the Holocaust at first but serve a role in portraying the message the museum tries to promote: hope.
It tells the story of Rachel Sarenka Zylberberg, who held a key role in rousing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, based on a letter sent by the brave rebel to her sister shortly before the uprising took place. The letter was discovered decades later by Ofer Aloni, Zylberberg’s nephew who has now decided to commemorate her memory in the form of the museum, his latest project in a life-long career of promoting hope in various constellations.
Aloni was named after Zylberberg (“Sarenka” in Polish and “Ofer” in Hebrew, both of which translate as young deer), which might have played a part in Aloni’s preoccupation with the notion of hope. 

“I’m named after a woman who found hope in the darkest place in history,” he says proudly, stressing the important role women played in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and in the war in general.
And while Zylberberg’s story might have inspired the museum, it is not the primary focus of the visit. Rather, Aloni takes visitors on a journey of self-examination by imposing philosophical questions about creation, knowledge and essence – encouraging them to reevaluate what they know about the Holocaust and its meaning. But more importantly, it calls on visitors to try to fit their own story within what many people define as inconceivable horrors.RECREATING AN image of Mordechai Anielewicz and Rachel Sarenka Zylberberg, pioneers of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (Courtesy)RECREATING AN image of Mordechai Anielewicz and Rachel Sarenka Zylberberg, pioneers of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (Courtesy)
“IF YOU WANT to learn about the big things you must start with small questions,” he says, admitting that he does not have all the answers. Instead, he asks visitors to keep an open mind and through interactive displays to take on an active role. Remaining passive during the visit is impossible, as the experience is structured as both a guided tour and open discussion with Aloni, and includes two questionnaires that visitors are asked to fill out when arriving and before leaving.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like to think, I prefer doing, creating. My claim is that the force of creation is in movement, not in thinking. Our mind is something that inflicts pain on us. The thing that truly develops us is movement and the heart. That is the essence of being human, not thinking,” Aloni says, explaining the idea behind the project.
Aloni’s focus on learning through movement is reflected in the second part of the experience the museum offers: a limited version of an “escape room.” Following the guided tour, visitors enter a second room that is locked behind them and are asked to search for a barcode that opens a questionnaire on their phones. Only after answering the questions and receiving a door code sent to their emails can they leave. The experience can be somewhat stressful, with loud sirens wailing in the background and smoke slowly filling the small dark space.
This untraditional and perhaps controversial approach to Holocaust education is less educational than it is emotional. While I cannot say I left the museum with answers, it did refocus the questions I have and raised new ones, such as: What is my personal responsibility in preserving the memory of the Holocaust? Do old thinking patterns limit the ways I approach these kinds of questions? Should there be a red line?
Barak Saadon, a 26-year-old computer science student from Jerusalem who recently visited the museum, said that while the idea of visiting a “Holocaust-themed escape room” felt uncomfortable at first, it did reflect a new way that allowed him to become more involved, and demanded a reevaluation of his prior knowledge.
“Calling it an escape room is quite misleading. The name made me feel uncomfortable at first and almost made me not go. I thought to myself, what if a Holocaust survivor saw this?” Saadon said, explaining that at first sight, the idea seems disrespectful to victims and survivors alike.
“On the other hand, eventually deciding to go represented for me a kind of flexibility, a willingness to keep an open mind and to accept ways of not experiencing the Holocaust, but participating in a way that will help me better understand and honor the memory of the victims,” he added.
Saadon noted that growing up in the Israeli education system, he felt that learning about the Holocaust was always passive in nature and maintained a constant distance between the observer and the experience.
“I think that participating in something instead of only watching it from afar like I did growing up – by visiting Yad Vashem once a year, watching movies and listening to teachers – has value in it. The museum, for example, draws you nearer, makes you an active participant, which can create a sense of connection,” Saadon says.
And yet, he has his reservations, noting that the last thing he would want to see happening is “creative ideas” distorting history and creating a new form of “fake news.”
A RECENT discussion on the Facebook group Secret Jerusalem surrounding the issue of Holocaust education proved just how controversial the topic is, drawing extremely different responses from people.
While some users outright rejected the idea of an “escape room” dealing with Holocaust memory, calling it “a gimmick,” “disgusting” and blaming the people behind similar initiatives for trying to make personal gains off the backs of the victims, others welcomed the idea and pointed to problems with existing models.
“To put things in perspective. I knew a survivor who refused to go to Yad Vashem because it was “too pretty,” one user wrote.
Other users went as far as questioning the very necessity of commemorating the Holocaust and “maintaining the trauma” on a national level, with one user writing, “I believe that it should be a tradition that the individual family has the choice of keeping. Whether they want to pass down the trauma to their generations. I don’t believe that a whole country needs to instill fear and trauma over something that happened in the past.”
Such perspectives, however, were not as common and sparked quite a backlash on the public thread.
“Guess what, it’s not about you,” a comment by another user read. “And clearly you learned nothing except how to avoid that which makes you uncomfortable… newsflash: one can embrace peace, love, forgiveness and STILL teach the Holocaust, teach the lessons of history, of bigotry, of the power of dictatorship-controlled media, the lessons of Othering people… and memorialize past victims, commemorate their loss.”
Aloni’s mini museum is only one among many similar initiatives around the world that have attempted to take a new approach to Holocaust education and memory in recent years.
A new app developed for elementary school students in the UK allows users to step into the shoes of Leo, a young boy growing up in Berlin under Nazi rule, through an interactive game. In another example to how technology has been utilized to educate and preserve the memory of the Holocaust, a Reddit user recently made headlines after bringing Anne Frank, one of the Holocaust’s most discussed Jewish victims and well-known symbols, back to life by using an Israeli app that allows users to animate old pictures using artificial intelligence.
And while those initiatives and Aloni’s “Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room” have received generally positive feedback, others did not and were deemed offensive.
Such was the case of an “escape room” in Greece themed around the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp that was shut down after Jews and non-Jews alike complained it was disrespectful to Holocaust victims. Another example was a board game called “Secret Hitler” that came under fire in 2019, with the Australian Anti-Defamation Commission urging several retailers to stop selling it, criticizing its creators for naming a game after “a brutal, evil monster, responsible for the extermination of six million Jews and millions of others.” Others, however, defended the game, dismissing any claims that it is antisemitic.
This comes to show that there is no clear line as to what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to Holocaust education. And maybe a blurry line is a good thing, as it generates new creative ideas.
There is no doubt that historical books, documentaries and the chilling testimonies from survivors can never be replaced with interactive Holocaust-themed “escape rooms” or creative apps for children. Perhaps, though, they can be used hand in hand, and maybe even serve as a gateway for teenagers who would otherwise be less keen to explore this dark yet important stain on humanity’s shared history.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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