Issue 9, Spring 2019

Holocaust Survivors As Participant Educators: Giving Space To Lived Experience Of Social Trauma in Collective Memory

By Irit Felsen, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Edelstein

This paper describes the Educators program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. This program reflects the unique emphasis of the Museum on the lived experience of eyewitnesses to the events of the Holocaust and on interactive engagement with the audience and visitors. Most of the volunteers in the program are survivors of the Holocaust, although children and grandchildren of survivors are beginning to join this core group. The program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage serves as a model for the involvement of survivors and their descendants in Holocaust education within the museum galleries and in the community, as invited speakers in schools, places of worship, and community centers. This model could also be applied with other populations of survivors of social trauma, such as war veterans or refugees. The active participation of Educators who are witnesses of history through which they lived is a valuable educational tool that has a unique and powerful impact. This paper describes the program and discusses its special role in terms of the interplay between social trauma and social attitudes toward the survivors, highlighting the importance of the acknowledgement of traumatic histories in the public space and in social memory. The acknowledgement of the traumatic experiences of particular groups by the social and cultural environment in which they live is a critical element in facilitating post-trauma psychosocial integration. Such support was almost non-existent for the survivors of the Holocaust in the early years after the end of World War II. The Educators program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust exemplifies the impact and the importance of involving living witnesses of social trauma for society and in the education of future generations, not only about the history of the Holocaust but about discrimination and genocide, and the vital role of the museum as catalyst for social change with regards to the dangers of prejudice and hatred of the “Other”.

  1. Gallery Educators

Gallery Educators, the Museum’s volunteer docents, are indispensable at the Museum. They help personalize visitors’ experiences and help visitors make connections between what they see in the galleries and their own lives. The Museum reaches out to potential Gallery Educators through word of mouth, advertisements in teacher newspapers and Jewish newspapers, and on the Museum’s websites.  Approximately 400 Gallery Educators have participated in a rigorous course of study at the Museum before leading tours of the exhibitions.  They attend 11 weeks of course work. The course focuses on learning about Jewish heritage and history and learning to lead a tour of the Core Exhibition. Participants accomplish this through lectures, readings, gallery study, and listening to Holocaust survivor testimony.  They practice in the galleries for seven weeks after completing the course.

When Mrs. D. applied to become a Gallery Educator, she was seeking an opportunity to educate youngsters about the Holocaust. A survivor of Auschwitz, Mrs. D. was concerned about the lack of substantive or quality education about the Holocaust in her local schools. A former teacher herself, now retired, she was confident in her teaching skills. Although a voracious reader, Mrs. D. looked forward to learning more through the Museum’s course work. Even so, she recognized that the content would likely hold some emotional challenges for her.

Gallery Educators commit one morning or afternoon a week and one Sunday a month to leading tours of the Museum for a minimum of a year.  The vast majority of the dedicated and passionate corps of Gallery Educators has volunteered with the Museum for several years; some remember the days before the physical Museum opened and are deeply proud of being members of the first class of Gallery Educators.

Gallery Educators come from many different backgrounds.  They include Holocaust survivors and children of survivors, refugees, and veterans.  Many of them are retired public school or Jewish school teachers but a wide variety of professions is represented in the corps, including medicine, the law, commerce, and the arts. Gallery Educators speak a number of languages other than English and have recently given tours in French, Spanish, German, Hungarian, and Hebrew. The life experience and unique viewpoint each brings is invaluable in their work with visitors.  They are all dedicated to educating about Jewish life and history and helping visitors consider issues of social justice.

At first Mrs. D. maintained a reserved manner among her class of Gallery Educators. She learned and listened to the scholars and other Holocaust survivors who addressed the class. Over the course of the year, two particular colleagues came to have a strong influence on Mrs. D.’s experience. One classmate – not a survivor – was persistent in showing her interest in Mrs. D.’s experiences during the war.  Another classmate – a survivor experienced in speaking about his own experiences – engaged in conversations with Mrs. D., explaining his conviction about the importance of and special obligation of survivors to present eyewitness testimony. Although Mrs. D. had not spoken about her experiences during the Holocaust even to her now-adult children, she came to the decision to begin incorporating parts of her story into her tours for students and, with the support of Museum staff, found appropriate moments in the galleries to do so.

Over the course of a year Gallery Educators work with about 50,000 student visitors and 2,000 adult group visitors in the Museum’s Core and special exhibitions. Visitor evaluation of the Gallery Educator tours consistently shows success and very high levels of appreciation (always above a score of 4 in a 5-point rating scale).

The Museum’s Education Department staff members are a strong presence in the galleries during tours, observing and supporting.  The Museum has two staff members dedicated to working with Gallery Educators but all Education Department staff spend time working with Gallery Educators and groups.  To prepare Gallery Educators for their tours, staff provides information about the group (age, relevant background knowledge from their studies, any special needs or emphases as told to us by the organizer).

At the end of every tour, staff confers informally and briefly with each Gallery Educator about the tour, longer as needed.  Formal annual evaluation of each Gallery Educator allows staff to spend some dedicated time with each, discussing their strengths and any areas which might need attention.  Gallery Educators know from their initial information session that the Museum takes their work seriously and that an annual evaluation is part of the Museum’s commitment to them.  As with paid staff, nothing on the evaluation should come as a surprise, since staff and Gallery Educators talk throughout the year.

Throughout the year, the Museum offers a minimum of five Gallery Educator in-service seminars. These focus either on topics associated with temporary, special exhibitions or on topics related to the permanent, Core Exhibition. These in-service seminars and workshops ensure that the Gallery Educators are provided with current research and, in this way, may present the highest quality tours for visitors. Staff also organizes visits for Gallery Educators to other cultural institutions in New York City, offering opportunities to learn new, related subject matter and pedagogical approaches.

Gallery Educators are also invited to Museum commemorations and the annual Volunteer Recognition Dinner.

  1. Speakers Bureau

The Speakers Bureau is made up of approximately 120 volunteers, including Holocaust survivors and veterans. All the speakers address groups across the tri-state region, whether they are small classroom-sized groups or auditoriums of hundreds.

The Education Department responds to requests for speakers throughout the year, with the greatest number of requests around Yom HaShoah.  Museum staff helps teachers and community organizers plan their speaker programs to ensure a productive visit for both audience members and speakers.

Members of the Speakers Bureau generally address more than 20,000 people each year at the Museum and in schools and community centers.

The Museum learns of potential Speakers through word of mouth and the Museum website. Most speakers – not all, but most – have experience speaking to groups before they join our Museum’s Speakers Bureau. When someone expresses interest, staff meets with them individually.  In this conversation, staff determines whether they are familiar with the Museum and how the Museum presents the history of the Holocaust; what their own history is; their experience speaking to groups; their preferences for speaking engagements (adults, children, at the Museum, offsite, day, night, small groups only, large groups only, etc.); whether they have published; and whatever else they wish to share.  They provide their availability and travel information.

Museum staff then schedules an opportunity for a potential speaker to speak to a group at the Museum, so that staff may both observe and offer support before sending them to engagements at other sites.  For those who have never spoken to groups before, Museum staff invites them to sit in on an experienced member of our Speakers Bureau’s speaking engagement, so they can get a sense of what’s involved.

After leading tours, hearing other survivors presenting testimony, and self-reflection, Mrs. D. made the decision to begin speaking to groups as a member of the Museum’s Speakers Bureau in addition to remaining a Gallery Educator leading tours. Mrs. D. structured her Speakers Bureau testimony to allow her listeners to learn about her and her family before the war, during the war, and after the war. As Mrs. D. was fortunate to have some pre-war photographs of family members, she incorporated them into her talk, helping her listeners feel connected and carrying out her personal commitment to ensure her loved ones are remembered. Eventually Mrs. D. created an extensive Power Point presentation including photographs of family and places, with Museum staff handling the technical aspect – although it must be said that Mrs. D. herself is quite tech-savvy. After more than a decade, Mrs. D. has now spoken with thousands of students, teachers, military academy cadets, and professionals of all sorts. Recently, independent of the Museum, Mrs. D. visited Auschwitz, something she never imagined she would do – this time an invited guest of a formal Israeli delegation.

Committed to getting her messages across, Mrs. D. asks Museum staff for feedback after her speaking engagements at the Museum. Staff works with all outside organizers to make sure speaking engagements are productive and ask organizers to provide anecdotal feedback afterward.  There is no fee for speaking engagements but many organizations make donations to the Museum in honor of the Speaker, which are then acknowledged to the Speaker.  All positive feedback (in the form of emails, cards, letters, etc.) is passed along to the Speaker, with a copy retained in the Speaker’s Museum file.

One Museum Education Department staff member is dedicated to working with the Speakers Bureau, although all members of the department do so informally.

As with Mrs. D., some Holocaust survivor members of the Museum’s Speakers Bureau are also members of the corps of Gallery Educators.  During their Gallery Educator training, staff speaks with them about how and where to incorporate parts of their story on a tour.  This is challenging and it is an enormous testament to the Speakers who are able to do this effectively.  Of course, not surprisingly, for visitors to tour the Museum with a Holocaust survivor is perhaps the most meaningful visitor experience they have had.

The Museum holds an annual meeting for members of the Speakers Bureau, during which they can re-familiarize themselves with the Museum’s Core Exhibition, visit the special exhibitions, engage in an activity relating to conveying their story to listeners, and hear a lecture relating to their experience. Throughout the year, the Museum is contacted by news media, scholars, documentarians, students, and others with requests to interview Holocaust survivors. Based on the nature of the request, Museum staff inquires of members or particular Speakers Bureau members as to whether they would be interested in participating.

Speakers Bureau members are also invited to Museum commemorations and the annual Volunteer Recognition Dinner.


Foot note:

The Museum acknowledges with appreciation the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) for supporting Gallery Education and the Speakers Bureau at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.  Through recovering the assets of the victims of the Holocaust, the Claims Conference enables organizations around the world to provide education about the Shoah and to preserve the memory of those who perished.


The engagement of survivors of the Holocaust in the epicenter of the activities organized by the museum, whether as docents in its galleries or in their role as invited speakers in the community, is a significant and integral aspect in Holocaust education and commemoration presenting a unique approach for educating the public about social trauma. The role of the survivors, whose presence provides an embodied historical testimony, closely follows the mission reflected in the name of the museum, Living Memorial to the Holocaust. As Felman put it: a “life testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life” (Felman & Laub, 1992, p. 2). The direct meeting with the survivors and the active interactions between students and visitors and the survivor-educators are profoundly moving emotional experiences both for the survivors and their audience. The responses attesting to the impact of the survivor educators are often poignantly expressed by visitors at the museum galleries or by the students and teachers  to which survivors speak in schools and other forums. The encounters with the victims of atrocities allows the listener to hear, see and feel in an unmediated way their lasting pain, their fear, their desperation at the time of their persecution, and also the ways in which they coped with their horrific losses and managed inconceivably difficult situations. This powerful meeting with living witnesses activates a level of engagement and emotional resonance which gives personal meaning for the lessons learned from the survivors. Students and teachers following the participation in the programs often express the value and relevance of the meeting with the survivors as sources of real inspiration and resilient models they can identify with in coping with their own past and current struggles, especially when there are traumatic circumstances or experience in their own lives. This kind of felt participation in the audience is unique to the meeting between survivors and audiences, and cannot be achieved by other forms of documentation of the Holocaust, not even through reading texts describing individual people’s experiences or viewing photographs and artifacts. The impact of the encounters of the survivor with students and visitors creates an experiential, living testimony that is transmitted from the last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust, to the next generation of witnesses-to the witnesses.

The existence of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust is a concrete symbol of the place given to the Holocaust in the shared, public space and in the communal memory held by the surrounding society in which survivors live. The Educators Program gives the survivors a prominent place within the museum and its mission in the telling of their own personal stories, how they will be remembered by the listeners, and how these individual experiences will become part of recorded history. This has not always been the way society treated survivors of the Holocaust. In the initial years following the end of the Second World War the survivors were actively discouraged from speaking of their ordeals (Felsen, in print). Several prominent survivors described the feelings of alienation and instances of re-victimization experienced upon their re-entry into society, and the world-wide “conspiracy of silence” with which survivors of the Holocaust were met in the early years (Dasberg, 1991; Krell, 1997). In “A Jew Today,” Wiesel poignantly expressed his perspective on the experiences of survivors in the re-entry phase: “They were convinced that to make amends, to clear their conscience, people everywhere would treat them as important visitors, guests of honor. That they would try to console them, heap kindness on them. Appease them. To restore to them, however partially and foolishly, for one day or one night, that which had been taken from them; their zest for life, their faith in man. The disappointment came almost at once. As they reentered the world, they found themselves in another kind of exile, another kind of prison. People welcomed them with tears and sobs, then turned away. I don’t mean parents or close friends; I speak of all kinds of men and women who treated them as one would sick and needy relatives. Or else as specimens to be observed and to be kept apart from the rest of society by invisible barbed wire. They were disturbing misfits who deserved charity, but nothing else” (Wiesel, 1978, p. 171).

Keilson, a survivor and a psychiatrist who worked with Holocaust survivors in the Netherlands, divided the traumatization experienced by survivors into three distinct phases (Keilson & Sarphatie, 1979). The “prelude” were the early prewar years in which increasing antisemitism, discrimination and fear were experienced. The second phase was the breakup of families and traumatic separations, the uprooting and transfer into concentration camps, hiding with Christian families or in monasteries and forests, when survivors were exposed to the terror of persecution, dependent upon strangers, suffered extreme deprivation, were often subjected to extreme cruelty and witnessed atrocities. The third phase was the re-entry into post-war society and the nature of experiences that the survivors faced in this encounter. Keilson emphasized the re-entry phase as the most decisive to the outcome of the entire traumatic sequence. Similarly, in Israel, Dasberg, a child survivor, was one of the early psychiatrists to advocate for the critical importance of social re-integration in the recovery of the survivors of the Holocaust (Dasberg, 1992). He emphasized that the re-working of the story of the trauma, that which occurred “there and then”, with all its discontinuities, fragmentations, distortions and dissociations, was, in fact, subservient to the re-integration of the person into society and to restoring their sense of belonging. This social perspective focused on the paramount importance of addressing the secondary trauma in the “here and now”, the trauma of alienation (Catherall, 1989) that followed the re-entry into society after the end of the original trauma. This view emphasized that what was most necessary was to restore the sense of profound estrangement that followed the uprooting, the severance of social links, the massive personal losses, the loss of social and cultural connectedness, and the deficient re-entry into society (Keilson and Sarphatie, 1979). The therapist role in this perspective was as a representative of society, a bridge for the victim to come back into feeling a part of society, to facilitate social re-integration through the feeling of being accepted, listened to with respect. The museum dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust and educating about it constitutes a much more significant representative of society, providing the survivors a more public sense of their place in their social context while providing opportunities for many segments of society to engage with the survivors, to learn from their personal experiences not only about the Holocaust but to also integrate the lessons they take from it about discrimination, persecution and resilience into their own lives.

As educators who are formally associated with the museum, the survivors are indeed finally sharing a common space with the larger community and society around them. As witnesses to the history that they lived through, the survivors tell their own stories in their own words, as opposed to the story being told by “experts” who had not lived it. Wiesel stated: “Auschwitz negates all theories and doctrines; to lock it into it is to distort it” (Wiesel, 1978, p. 175), and while even between the survivors own memories and words there is an “unbridgeable gulf”, the survivors feel a duty to testify. Participating actively in opportunities for a dialogue with many audiences, younger and older, provides the survivors-educators with a sense of inclusion in a common experience and a sense of meaning and purpose in channeling their past suffering into educating and influencing social change for future generations. The emotional response and appreciation received from the audiences is also a powerful source of support for the survivors, a belated social rehabilitative measure which has a tremendous value especially as survivors age, since extreme traumatic experiences in prior phases in life have been shown to constitute a particularly high risk for late-onset of post-traumatic reactions in older age. The experience of integration and respect, the acknowledgement on an individual and social levels, of their traumatic histories, of their resilience and of their achievements in rebuilding lives and participating in society is ever more important for survivors of trauma as they age and face the inevitable new losses that come with the late part of life.

The Educators and the Speakers Bureau programs are a model of social activism and social advocacy not only for the survivors of the Holocaust, but for survivors of other traumatic events and circumstances.  The inclusion of survivors in such a central way in the mission and in the actual functioning of the museum as a living memorial to social trauma and its victims, as well as to the resilience of the survivors, is a powerful message on the social level. The Educators claim and exemplify through their participation the place of their experiences, and the place of social trauma more generally, in social memory. This model counters the problems of marginalization, minimization and denial which are the hallmark responses to genocide (Smith, 2014) and to trauma. (Felsen, 2017; Laub & Auerhahn, 2017; Laub & Hamburger, 2017; Oppenheimer, 2104; Solomon, 1995). Laub and Hamburger state: “Historical events of extreme traumatization elicit powerful emotions on an individual and collective level. Every genocide- the Armenian, the Jewish, the Cambodian, the Bosnian, the Rwandan- has been accompanied by steadfast denial, even though the facts have been readily available” (p. 2). The Educators and the Speakers Bureau programs, in addition to its focus on the history of the Holocaust, also aims at promoting awareness to the perils of discrimination and the importance of human rights in our own time and in current society.

As president Obama said on Monday April 23, 2012 in the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington D.C.: “Democracy needs community to pay attention to one another’s story” (Obama, 2012). The story of the survivors of the Holocaust is the story of a watershed event in modern history. It is a monumental story to tell, because it tells of the collapse of modern civilization into the worst form of industrialized, bureaucratic barbarism, led by intellectuals and professionals who appreciated Beethoven and Brahms. It changed our understanding of human nature and of social behavior. It also showed, by way of contrast, the unimaginable resilience of the human spirit, and the capacity not only to endure extreme and prolonged trauma but also to live and love after all had been lost. The personal stories of the survivors provide living lessons about the value and perils of democracy, about the importance of fostering civil courage, about the role of individual ethics and morality in any social context, even the mundane environment of everyday life at school or in the college dorms. When there is no acknowledgement of stories of trauma by the collective, when trauma is denied its place in social memory, there is a breakdown of intrapersonal symbolization, mental representation and narrative, as well as interpersonal communication. When such a breakdown occurs, trauma finds its way into expression, in individual and group re-enactments, re-experiencing, transferences and counter-transference phenomena that are divisive and destructive.

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