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A Need to Remember: The Importance of Survivor Testimony

Holocaust survivor Siggy Weiser watches as Jewish youth visit former concentration camp Auschwitz, where he had been 75 years before. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

“What is important in life is not at all what you have… The value of the human connection [is] above all else.” Many have heard some variation of this message before, but Jewish Holocaust survivor Elena Nightingale’s words hold a special type of wisdom: her belief is backed by years of experience that is unimaginable to many. 

Nightingale’s story is immortalized in her interview with the USC Shoah Foundation. She describes the hardships she faced when her life was uprooted by the Holocaust, and the antisemitism she experienced and witnessed around her. The world has failed to protect millions like Elena Nightingale, and we have the responsibility to learn from those failures. 

Organizations like the USC Shoah Foundation, Kigali Memorial Centre, and United Nations recognize the role testimonies of genocide survivors play in protecting our future. These groups aim to preserve the stories of genocide survivors because of the often-overlooked value that they hold. 

Survivor testimonies provide perspectives that are not often represented in popular media. Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah uses testimony narrative to challenge “many of the images and ideas normally presented in films about the Holocaust, especially myths that uphold the idea of Europe’s Jews as passive victims, or even collaborators in their own demise.” (Smith, Hyperallergic)

Testimony teaches empathy and moral messages. From hearing another person’s life story, viewers learn to be more aware of others’ suffering. Further, many survivor testimonies include themes that help us recognize that genocide is not only an issue of the past: it is still happening today. 

This recognition needs to occur among the youth. Events of genocide are included in school curriculums, however, the shortcoming prevalent in modern American education is the failure to effectively humanize those affected by genocide for students. Events are sometimes reduced to numbers and facts, which may be memorized for assessment and later forgotten. 

No text or documentary shown in class can mimic the impact survivor testimony has on students. Watching and listening to survivors recall their life stories powerfully reminds viewers that these are real people, not just words in a textbook. Schools that have not yet included testimony in their curriculum need to make changes for their students to better understand the true weight of genocide and the importance of its prevention. 

Tutsi survivor Kizito Kalima stresses this importance in his own testimony, “…make sure that people are educated enough. They know exactly the cause and the consequences of genocide. And that’s what I want everybody to know and to learn because the way the whole world acted during the genocide – it kind of bothers me until now… people could have stopped it easily… and I want to make sure that this thing, if it ever happened to anybody anywhere, we should act.”

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