The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Although we work with a dark past, everyone who works in Holocaust education does so because we envision a brighter future. 

Underlying Holocaust education is the belief that a deep and intimate understanding of what happened during the Holocaust can help prevent a future defined by racism, fascism and xenophobic nationalism. 

For over a decade, The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program has been driven by this conviction, connecting thousands of teachers and students with first-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors. By putting a human face on what was lost and allowing readers to grasp the enormity of what happened to six million Jews, these memoirs offer a transformative experience, cultivate empathy and compassion and inspire action against hatred. 

Now we are looking toward the next decade and beyond. We’re focused on what the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer has said is the most important thing in effective Holocaust education: making the topic relevant to its audience. 

How do we continue to connect to better tell our stories?

Making Holocaust education relevant today is about more than just the content of the message — it’s about how that message is delivered.

The success of the Holocaust education mission depends on how Holocaust memory is delivered to a generation who has experienced their whole life through smartphones, constantly connected to the internet.

Close to half of Generation Z — the post-millennial cohort born between the mid-nineties and mid-2000s — spend over ten hours a day online. They live online in a way that can be hard to grasp for those who remember dial-up internet. How today’s generation accesses information, communicates, shares ideas and consumes media differs drastically from what youth were experiencing even ten years ago, and these changes continue to accelerate.

Today, reading and literacy have moved beyond previous practices and definitions. Members of Gen Z are not reading nearly as many books as those in previous generations. (One study demonstrates that the percentage of high school seniors who read a non-required book or magazine nearly every day dropped from 60 per cent in 1980 to only 16 per cent in 2015.)

But reading fewer books does not mean that they are not reading at all. Young people today are just reading differently. Gen Z excels at engaging with mixed-media, at reading in the digital space where multiple modes of text, image, sound and video come together on one surface, one experience. And this new type of reading “necessitates an enlargement of what we think of as literary and indeed, our conception of literacy itself.”

“Once upon a time, reading was as simple and straightforward as decoding words on a page. No more. Digital age technologies have made such an impact on the way we interact with content that the old definitions of reading and books no longer apply.” Annette Lamb, "Reading Redefined for a Transmedia Universe"

The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program is an educational publisher with a history of producing award-winning memoirs —traditional paper pages bound between two covers — but we see the changes in how people read as an exciting challenge we can’t ignore and which we have been determined to face head on. We believe that new online formats for telling the stories of survivors are required. 

Creating Re:Collection was the first major step of our mission to carry survivors’ stories into the future by adapting to the evolving nature of reading. An immersive online experience that is easily accessible on all digital devices, Re:Collection combines interactive storytelling and innovative design to provide a unique journey through Holocaust history. 

Re:Collection provides a mixed-media reading experience by seamlessly and intuitively combining and linking memoir excerpts, archival images, artifacts and video interviews to capitalizes on the new digital literacies and online reading habits of Gen Z. Reading in the digital space is an exercise in “reading” text, image and video all at once. Re:Collection reflects this new multimedia storytelling and creates new ways of delivering the remarkable stories of Holocaust survivors.

On top of reading differently, today’s students refuse to be passive learners. They want to participate fully in the learning process. Effective learning strategies for Gen Z help them connect the content to their own experiences. Young people learn differently because of the ways they’ve consumed media all their lives.

Previous generations grew up with limited options for media consumption. Even when households had multiple televisions, the broadcast content was set by the broadcaster, not the viewers. Because the forms of media distribution were limited and controlled by producers, media was consumed more homogenously. Gen Z has grown up with a diverse and fragmented media landscape, which allows them to consume a mix of media types on multiple devices and at the times of their choosing. Their media is tailored to them, and they in turn are much more selective about what deserves their attention.

Re:Collection’s design provides non-linear, customizable experiences, which encourage individualized exploration. The platform links the mixed-media stories of Holocaust survivors through major themes. The chosen themes speak directly to the issues and ideas that students are passionate about. In a diverse classroom, students can find survivors or thematic gateways that are relevant to them and connect to their lives.

As they explore Re:Collection, users create and curate a personal collection of what is most important to them, whether these are survivor stories that touch on discrimination or the plight of refugees, or focus on the experiences of female survivors. The more stories students collect on the platform, the deeper their understanding of history and their personal connection with these survivors becomes. The design philosophy behind of Re:Collection embraces Gen Z’s desire for participatory learning by providing these non-linear, personalized experiences.

It is our responsibility to continue to bear witness and ensure the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten. We have to adapt to make connections between our traditional memoirs and the new ways that Gen Z students use technology. By capitalizing on the full power and potential of this new digital media landscape, students can connect to history in powerful ways. 

And the urgency of keeping Holocaust memory alive and accessible is greater than ever. The Holocaust is now an event “on the edge of living memory.” Soon there will be no first-hand witnesses to share their stories. How does a generation who cannot provide first-hand accounts bear witness? New ways of sharing testimony through digital technology become fundamental.

Building a brighter future through Holocaust education depends on our ability to preserve the transformative experience of meeting a survivor and delivering this first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust in adventurous new ways — so it can thrive in an ever-evolving digital world.