Growing up as a Jew in the United States, I was constantly reminded of the global Jewish experience, centered on the idea of “never again” in reference to the Holocaust. In Hebrew school, at family gatherings, at services, my elders were always talking about the resiliency of the Jewish people, despite facing genocide and antisemitism, and the importance of preserving Jewish culture because of our collective past. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey revealed that I was not alone in this experience. In fact, the survey revealed that 76% of Jewish Americans consider “remembering the Holocaust” to be central to their Jewish identity, while 72% cited “leading a moral and ethical life” as essential. These tenets of Jewish identity have stuck with me into adulthood.
Recognizing the need to preserve and honor this history and to share survivor testimony with new generations, in 2005, Learning for Justice (then known as Teaching Tolerance) interviewed Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein in support of One Survivor Remembers, an award-winning documentary from 1995 based on her testimony. In both the documentary and interview, Klein joins the chorus of Jewish elders as she shares her message that we must be willing to understand and confront the past to pave the way for a more inclusive future.
Understanding Jewish Identity and the Context of Antisemitism and the Holocaust
When teaching and learning about the Holocaust and antisemitism, it is important to frame Jewish people and culture in a historical context and cultivate a broad understanding of what being Jewish means. Being Jewish can be described as an ethnic, religious and cultural identity—some Jews identify with all three of those types of identity, others with just one or two.
While Jewish culture and history is connected to the region now known as Israel and Palestine, Jews are also considered a diaspora people, forced to migrate and spread out around the world because of their long history of being “othered” and persecuted in many countries throughout Europe and the Middle East (or West Asia). The Jewish diaspora has thus resulted in a rich diversity of Jewish ethnicities. There are currently roughly 7 million Jews living within the United States, but as Jewish Studies Professor Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, Ph.D., notes, other “Jewish ethnic groups include Eastern and Western European and Russian (Ashkenazi); Middle Eastern, North African, Central Asian, and Balkan (Mizrahi); Ethiopian and Ugandan (African); and Spanish and Portuguese (Sephardi).”
Antisemitism—broadly defined as prejudice and hatred toward Jews—often “supports the belief that Jewish individuals are a separate race, making it a form of racism in itself,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. And though the term “antisemitism” is more contemporary, antisemitism, the practice, is often called the oldest form of hatred.
To comprehend the events of the Holocaust, young people need to know the context of centuries of discrimination and othering of Jewish people. And we cannot understand antisemitism today without knowing about its origins and how they contribute to many of the myths and stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated about Jewish people.
Often, educators limit teachings of the Holocaust to the actions of Nazi Germany between the years of 1938 and 1945. But a crucial first step in engaging young people in conversations about the Holocaust is to recognize that antisemitism neither began nor ended with the Nazis. In fact, in 2023, Jews account for just 2.4% of the U.S. population (and just 0.2% of the global population, approximately) but are currently the targets of 60% of religious-based hate crimes in the United States. So while the period of the Second World War is indeed a crucial time to study—a grave lesson about the impact of centuries of antisemitism and racist ideology—learning about these events and understanding their implications for the future would benefit greatly from added context, both past and present.
One Survivor Remembers: Learning from Survivor Testimonies
Using survivor testimony is one way to help combat antisemitism and the conspiracy theories of Holocaust deniers. As years pass and the population of Holocaust survivors dwindles, having access to documentaries like One Survivor Remembers becomes even more essential to teaching future generations about the Holocaust from a first-person perspective.
In One Survivor Remembers, originally released in 1995, Gerda Weissmann Klein recounts her early years growing up in Bielsko (now Bielsko-Biała), Poland, and how her childhood was stolen with the Nazi invasion in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. She tells of her experiences in various work camps and the importance of friendships and a mindset of survival. Gerda’s liberation came only after a 350-mile death march through the freezing winter to Volary, Czechoslovakia; she credits her survival to the ski boots she had on, given to her by her father in one of his final directives before he perished in the Auschwitz extermination camp. In May 1945, U.S. troops rescued the few survivors who remained in Volary. One of the rescuers, Kurt Klein, was a German refugee who had enlisted to fight against the Nazis, and he became Gerda’s husband. They were married 56 years until his passing in 2002. Gerda reflects in the documentary, Kurt “opened not only the door for me, but the door to my life and my future.”
Gerda and Kurt spent the rest of their lives sharing their story openly, knowing that education and firsthand accounts were key to advocating for a future in which all people never again experienced the horrific events that Gerda and millions of others did at the hands of the Nazis. After years of passionately and fervently telling her story, Gerda Weissmann Klein passed away in April 2022. Her legacy lives on in her memoirs and One Survivor Remembers—resources that honor her memory while also helping young people understand the Holocaust, use its lessons to fight against hatred today and advocate for a more just tomorrow.
Testimonies like Gerda’s are essential because they build empathy and understanding in ways that historical facts alone do not. In history, as in life, personal connections matter.
Using One Survivor Remembers in the Classroom
To begin learning about the Holocaust, Learning for Justice offers a complete film kit for One Survivor Remembers, including a Teacher’s Guide with lessons and suggestions for bringing this documentary into the classroom, as well as an interview with Klein entitled “Here To Tell My Story.”
In the documentary, Gerda candidly discusses the horrors she encountered—even how she grappled with the idea of escaping them through suicide—as well as the importance of her legacy as a survivor to continue to fight for hope and peace. Because its content can be difficult at times, we recommend this documentary for young people in upper-middle grades and above, though certain clips and materials may be used for younger audiences. (See below for ways to begin dialoguing about this critical topic using LFJ’s Let’s Talk! guide.)
An important part of teaching about the Holocaust, as with other critical issues, is considering the question of “Now what?” Now what can we do as a result of learning about this? The One Survivor Remembers Teacher’s Guide addresses this question in the section Applying the Film’s Themes. The included lesson “A Call to Action: Service Learning” can be a great way to get young people thinking about how they might give back to their communities after reflecting on themes of the documentary like hunger, belonging and injustice.
We recommend pairing One Survivor Remembers and its supporting resources with two of our other guides, Let’s Talk! and Speak Up at School. Let’s Talk! helps prepare adults and young people alike to engage in critical conversations. Use this guide to establish safe and brave spaces to dialogue about honest and often difficult topics—conditions that are essential to ensure all participants feel supported and valued.
Not all spaces in schools or communities are set up to safely engage in critical conversations, and even when they are, sometimes things might be said that could have a negative impact on community members. Using the four key strategies outlined in Speak Up at School—interrupt, question, educate and echo—can help you react when biased and harmful remarks are made.
“Never again” is now. Ensuring “never again” is a reality for all people starts with having critical conversations that build understanding and empathy. Sharing survivor testimony with young people can hone the listening skills that help people communicate across lines of difference. As Gerda Weissmann Klein reminds us: “Do something you believe in or care about. When you get to the end of your day or your life, you must answer to yourself, to be able to say, ‘If I saw something wrong, I spoke up.’”
Toolkit: Laying the Groundwork for Conversations About One Survivor Remembers
(Adapted from Let’s Talk! Section I: Laying the Groundwork for Critical Conversations, On Your Own, pages 5-11 in the PDF version of the guide)
As an educator, parent, caregiver or community member, beginning the conversation about critical topics like the Holocaust and antisemitism starts with an honest assessment of one’s own personal comfort level. The first section of Let’s Talk! provides four steps to gauge your own levels of understanding and comfort regarding a critical issue, along with practical strategies for evaluating how to reflect and work through areas of inexperience or discomfort. The following excerpts are adapted from these four steps, with notes about how they might look if you were to show One Survivor Remembers in order to engage in dialogue about the Holocaust.
Every critical conversation has its own context and content, but many touch on identity and injustice. Pinning down a few key terms can help you and young people think and talk about critical topics such as the Holocaust and antisemitism more clearly.
Aside from identity and injustice, consider clarifying terms such as bystander, perpetrator, antisemitism, Holocaust, genocide and white supremacy.
Consider your own identity.
When you identify with a more dominant group within a society, it can lead to thinking of your experiences as universal and to overlooking or downplaying the experiences of others. These kinds of biases are often unconscious. Thinking carefully about your own identity and the ways it has shaped your experiences and influenced your assumptions can help you recognize unconscious biases before you engage with critical topics in your classroom.
Similarly, when you don’t share the identity of a community that you are discussing in a critical conversation—for example if you are not Jewish and preparing to discuss antisemitism and the Holocaust—be conscious of how your own identity and experiences influence your perspective and recognize and address biases before the conversation.
Evaluate your comfort level with different critical topics.
Because we all bring a range of identities and experiences to any given conversation, we’ll likely all bring a variety of comfort levels as well. Be open to disclosing your comfort level(s) with young people or peers.
To evaluate your comfort level, consider asking yourself questions such as: Does this topic affect me? Does it affect the young people I engage with? Do I feel comfortable talking about this topic? Why or why not? What gaps may I have in my knowledge about this topic, and how can I seek answers to close those gaps?
If you feel uncomfortable discussing the Holocaust, you can use your evaluation to explain the reasons for your discomfort to the audience you are working with. For example, you can address the gaps in your knowledge and maybe how your identity has affected your level of comfort. Showing young people that you are working to learn more and that you find value in open dialogue about the topic is important. In fact, in that discomfort can be where the most growth happens.
Figure out what’s holding you back.
War and conflict continue to affect communities around the world. Studying history in its full context can be a guide and way to strengthen the call for the liberation of all people. As the article “‘Never Again’ Starts With Education” explains, “[I]nadvertently or not, teaching the Holocaust in isolation tokenizes the suffering of millions by ignoring the realities and the social context within which this genocide was allowed to happen.”
You don’t have to be an expert in every topic; no one is. If you’re afraid you don’t know enough about a critical topic, commit to learning more. Study history, follow current events and familiarize yourself with anti-bias work on the issue. Be prepared to dive into the content you’ll need to learn more about.
You may be concerned that you will say the wrong thing out of ignorance or frustration, that you’ll respond poorly to a student’s question, or that your students will reduce you to the spokesperson for an identity group. Identifying your fears is the first step to developing a plan to address them. The organizer “Difficult Conversations: A Self-Assessment” on page 11 of the Let’s Talk! guide is a useful tool for getting started.
One Survivor Remembers:
For more about Gerda and her incredible story, consider checking out these resources:
- All But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein
- Gerda’s interview with the USC Shoah Foundation
- Gerda’s Biographical Profile from Echoes & Reflections
- A Boring Evening at Home: A Collection of Stories and Memories by Gerda Weissmann Klein
- One Raspberry by Gerda Weissmann Klein
- Promise of A New Spring: The Holocaust and Renewal by Gerda Weissmann Klein
- The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath by Kurt Klein and Gerda Weissmann Klein
Additional resources from other organizations to consider for using survivor testimony:
- The USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness testimonies and lessons
- Retro Report’s How Saba Kept Singing
- Teaching With Testimony collection from Facing History & Ourselves
- Guidelines for Teaching With Holocaust Survivor Testimony from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
To read more first-person accounts of the Holocaust, check out these titles:
- Chocolate, the Taste of Freedom: The Holocaust Memoir of a Hidden Dutch Child by Maud Peper Dahme
- Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival by Clara Kramer with Stephen Glantz
- I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems From the Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, edited by Hana Valavkova
- The Night Trilogy by Elie Wiesel
- Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust by Alexandra Zapruder
- Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank