Using Participant Testimony in History Education

By Jason McDonald, History Teacher

In my 11/12 grade history elective, The World Wars, students are studying how World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust are all interrelated. This work culminates in December, when students present a short skit over Zoom, dramatizing the life of someone who participated in the World Wars in some way. While there were many more class events, here are some of the various ways students engaged with participant testimonies so far this semester. 

Key to understanding the events of the World Wars and the Holocaust is participant testimony. Students are engaged with testimony in a number of ways. We began with the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website. I was a visiting teacher fellow at IWM in the summer of 2015, and I have maintained connections with the museum staff since then. IWM has a rich and varied number of resources for students to access. 

People like Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross, are memorialized by IWM. Lives of the First World War provides multimedia, text, archival sources, and more about his life. Students wrote a short dramatic biography about someone from Lives of the First World War using the resources available.

Khan won the Victoria Cross for actions in October 1914 at the First Battle of Ypres. IWM provides a timeline of Khan’s life from his birth to his death and links to many sources for students to follow up. 

There are thousands of profiles. I picked out fifty of the most famous British soldiers of World War I for the students to consider. This project honed their writing skills and helped them think about how to translate research into dramatic writing. One of the students was so intrigued by Khudadad Khan that she is continuing to research his life for her semester-long project!

Students continued to read about World War I through the memoirs of Ernst Jünger, in his book “Storm of Steel. His public statements are widely regarded as “travelling with the Nazis” and an example of how World War I veterans supported the rise of Hitler. His experiences in the Somme in 1916 glorified war. Students contrasted this reading with critical texts and videos on the book as well as discussion about the actual brutal nature of trench warfare in Western Europe. 

After studying the rise of the Nazis, students visited the USC Shoah Foundation’s website to learn about Kristallnacht. USC Shoah Foundation has hours of video testimony from Holocaust survivors, recounting many events. They have survivor testimony from many people who were children during Kristallnacht. Students listened to survivor testimony and wrote a short reaction paper. This prepared them for a Zoom call with a living survivor. 

Holocaust Survivor Celia Kener Zooms with my class.

Through the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s education program, Grace was able to connect with Celia Kener and speak with her live during our regularly scheduled class time. Celia Kener was born in 1935 in Lvov, Poland. When the Germans invaded in 1941, life totally changed. Her father was drafted into the Russian army while the rest of her family moved into the ghetto. Celia’s mother was selected for a labor camp and was periodically brought in to visit the family on weekends. Her mother found a childless Catholic couple and promised her daughter to them because she didn’t think that she would survive. Celia was eventually reunited with her mother. The family was liberated by the Russians. Her father escaped the Russian army to an Uzbekistan Displaced Persons camp under an assumed name and survived. Celia and her parents came to the United States in 1949. 

Students, their parents, and faculty were invited to listen to her live testimony. It was heartbreaking at times, exceptionally powerful, and difficult to take in for some viewers. But as this is probably the last generation that will interact with living survivors of the Holocaust, it was an amazing opportunity to learn about her incredible will to survive and the luck she had in finding people to help her avoid the Nazis. 

The class is just transitioning into writing research papers based on the sources they have collected, and then, with the help of the Writing Center, will turn their research into dramatic skits. Students are excited about this project, and drama is a wonderful medium to learn and remember history. If you are interested in this event, please check your email for further updates.

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