Never forget - Museums Association

Never forget

The Holocaust will soon be beyond living memory, but museums are rising to the challenge of keeping the survivors’ stories alive to shine a light on this dark chapter of history. Geraldine Kendall Adams reports
Holocaust
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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A still from the promotional film for the Forever Project, an AI initiative by the Beth Shalom, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum to keep survivor testimony alive for future generations Beth Shalom

This January marks the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, when leading figures of the Nazi regime met at a Berlin villa to discuss the “final solution to the Jewish question”, formalising plans for the systematic mass murder of the Jews in Europe.

That bleak milestone is a reminder that Holocaust history is in a moment of transition. With the youngest survivors now entering their ninth decade, the genocide will soon be beyond living memory. As that moment approaches, institutions that curate the history of the Holocaust are giving serious thought to how they will ensure the memory of the atrocity is kept alive for future generations.

This focus will be central to developments over the coming decade, such as the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre being built in Westminster, London.

When the last Holocaust survivor leaves, that puts every Holocaust organisation in a really different position. It will change everything.

Aneesa Riffat, Beth Shalom

Existing museums and heritage sites, too, are updating their content and interrogating long-standing narratives and approaches. London’s Imperial War Museum recently unveiled its new Holocaust Galleries with an interpretive vision far removed from its previous exhibition.

This past decade has been a race against time to gather as much testimony and evidence as possible. “All this contact time that we’ve had with survivors, we’ve been so blessed with it,” says Aneesa Riffat of Beth Shalom, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

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“When the last Holocaust survivor leaves, that puts every Holocaust organisation in a really different position. It will change everything. You can have all the plans in place in preparation, but the reality will be very, very different.

“We’ve seen that certainly over the last 18 months – we’ve lost quite a big part of our survivor family,” she adds. “It’s just having them available to work with you and having that time to talk – they’re like a living artefact almost – we’re slowly losing that.”

Survivors differ widely on how they want their legacy to be remembered. Many who lived through the Holocaust are keen for their narratives to continue being told by second and third generations, but others feel strongly that the story is theirs alone to share.

“Organisations can make the assumption that survivors want the museum to pick up the mantle, to continue telling their story,” says Riffat. “Some want their children to carry on the story, but others want to call it a day and say, ‘look, I need that story to just stop with me because if it doesn’t, then when does it end?’ They almost want the Holocaust to die with them.”

Museums have explored different ways of enabling future audiences to share in the experience of hearing testimony at first hand. For the past six years, Beth Shalom has been working on the Forever Project, an interactive virtual reality experience that uses AI technology to enable audiences to engage in a question-and-answer session with survivors, even when they’re no longer alive. The project focuses on a small number of testimonies in order to be able to delve more deeply into the detail of the narratives.

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Staff at Beth Shalom are also mindful that future educators and curators won’t have had the privilege of knowing survivors personally – of having the “anecdotal, cup-of-tea-type conversations” that have proved so critical. “We’ve had to ask, what are we handing on to them?” says Louise Stafford, the centre’s director of learning.

Over the years, Beth Shalom has kept an informal photographic record of survivors who have visited the centre, documenting everyday events, such as birthday parties, that show who they were as people and the lives they went on to lead after 1945.

This is also a key mission of the Lake District Holocaust Project, which commemorates the lives of the 300 child and teenage Holocaust survivors who were flown to recuperate by Lake Windermere after liberation.

The project, which runs a library and exhibition space in Windermere, takes a different approach to many other Holocaust organisations, focusing on how the survivors rebuilt their lives after the atrocity. It was the subject of a 2020 BBC drama and documentary, The Windermere Children.

An image from the Lake District Holocaust Project, which commemorates the lives of 300 child and teenage Holocaust survivors who were flown to recuperate by Lake Windermere after liberation

This focus provides a valuable entry point to the history of the genocide, particularly for younger audiences. “We lead people back gently into the Holocaust,” says Trevor Avery, director of the project. “It’s a hard subject for many. We take them up to the gates of the camp and no further.”

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Powerful testimony

Avery is acutely aware of the power of hearing directly from eye-witnesses and the often unexpected anecdotes that can happen as a result. “There’s a crackling of energy when a survivor is in the room. We’ve got to somehow keep that energy with us when they die.”

There are now just a handful of Windermere survivors left and the project is having to adapt to this new reality. Avery says he has been particularly inspired by one survivor who treated his testimony as if it was a scripted performance like a “form of theatre”.

“He never really left his script – he perfected it,” says Avery. “We might look to replicate that after he’s gone.”

Combining oral history with factual archive material is crucial, he says. “One without the other is diminished but the two together create a dramatic energy.”

Another image from the Lake District Holocaust Project

Along with finding a larger exhibition space, the project plans to offer more guided tours to expand on the content. “We want to keep it real, have real interpreters there – it has to be a living legacy,” says Avery.

As organisations move their focus away from capturing testimony, they will have more resources to look at some less explored aspects of Holocaust history. At the Lake District Holocaust Project, Avery is hoping to examine the impact the Windermere children had on the then-emerging field of child psychology.

Managing this moment of transition is an enormous responsibility. Those working in the field are keenly aware that the loss of living witnesses and first-hand testimony will mark a dangerous new chapter in the telling of the Holocaust, one that will be open to exploitation by far-right groups. Already, antisemitism is resurgent and taking on insidious new forms in the age of social media.

Museum narratives can sometimes be twisted to those ends. The Lake District exhibition was used by one far-right blogger to argue that positive stories about the lives of survivors were proof that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

“This subject attracts attention unlike any other museum and that calls for a different strategy,” says Avery. “We’ve got to be forever on guard against complacency.”

The project takes extreme care not to stray into conjecture and to verify every detail. “We have to make sure everything did happen, because otherwise in 100 years’ time it could be used in Holocaust denial,” he says.

This subject attracts attention unlike any other museum and that calls for a different strategy. We’ve got to be forever on guard against complacency.

Trevor Avery, Lake District Holocaust Project

At a recent symposium exploring how cultural institutions can confront this issue, Dariusz Stola, a historian and the former director of Polin Museum of the Jews in Warsaw, Poland, described Holocaust distortion fanned by online platforms as “the most dangerous form of antisemitism”.

This is part of a wider crisis of the authority of expert knowledge that is leading to a “collapse of the truth”, said Stola. “There are too many witnesses in this part of Europe to deny it completely,” he said; but through distortion of recorded facts, like that experienced by the Lake District project, antisemites have identified a powerful and convincing way to spread their message. Holocaust organisations have found this far more difficult to challenge because in many cases it comes from academic sources.

Banned from traditional media, antisemitic groups are also flexible, tech savvy and quick to adopt and exploit new digital platforms. “We can’t allow the antisemites to be more innovative than us,” said Stola.

Fighting back

According to reports, antisemitism is reaching record levels in many countries. In the past year, vandalism and desecration have been reported at numerous Holocaust museums and memorial sites, including Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial, where nine barracks were spray-painted with antisemitic slogans last October.

Stola said he believes the best approach for museums is not to target those who already hold deeply entrenched views, but to focus on children and young people in order to “inoculate” them against the disinformation they will inevitably come across.

The pandemic has exacerbated these emerging forms of antisemitism, says Stafford of Beth Shalom. “We’ve had feedback from teachers that during lockdown students had so much more access to social media, and those really robust conversations haven’t been able to happen in the same way, so there’s been an increase in exposure to tropes, stereotypes and misinformation.”

Future-proofing programmes and exhibitions against this will be essential. “It’s absolutely down to research,” says Stafford. “The more we can prove someone’s story, the less room there is for denial.”

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