(April 20, 2020 / JNS) Sand inspired Rivka Baum to tell the story of the Holocaust. What may sound like an odd comparison became anything but when Baum attended a Holocaust memorial event in Krakow, Poland, where she saw Israeli artist Ilana Yahav expertly handle granules of sand to convey the fragility of life.
The image of millions of grains of sand coming together to show the face of an innocent boy behind barbed wire pleading for someone to save him, as violins played the score of “Schindler’s List” in the background, moved Baum to her core. That performance (along with her extensive background in Holocaust education) convinced her that this was a medium that could not only convey the tragedy of what happened, but inspire empathy across all ethnicities and backgrounds.
“Normally, this is a narrative you tell with words. But I thought this was an interesting new approach. It doesn’t matter what language you speak—being moved by a story that comes to life through sand and music can be universal,” said Baum. “When I saw that performance, you could hear a pin drop. It was just magical.”
Baum is one of seven students working with the University of Haifa’s Weiss-Livnat Innovation Hub for Holocaust Education and Commemoration. The new, one-year post-graduate program encourages students to come up with an idea for a project that would educate the public about the Holocaust with one important twist: It must be a marketable idea that is innovative and would appeal to those outside the ivory towers of academia.
“A large number of our students go on to do museum work, research and teaching. But we are also aware of the need to stimulate innovation in this field, encourage the development of technology and create new opportunities for our graduates,” said Yael Granot-Bein, director of University of Haifa’s master’s program for Holocaust studies.
As such, the university decided to try infusing Holocaust commemoration with a more entrepreneurial spirit. Using design thinking, students rely on market research, constant feedback from their peers and lectures from experts in a variety of disciplines to learn how to bring their projects to scale.
In Baum’s case, she plans to team up with local museums in her native Amsterdam that would present the sand-art performance to students ages 13 to 18. The piece of art tells the story of a Dutch Jewish boy named Simon, whose father encouraged his son to report for work in the East when he was called up by the Germans, not knowing what tragedy would befall Simon, who would never return.
After internalizing the performance, the students tour the outside of the museum and come face to face with the landmarks that were present in the art piece that still exists today.
Since Holocaust education in Amsterdam isn’t compulsory, Baum was eager to embark on a project that would relay history in a way that connects with an audience that is interested and wants to know more, but doesn’t necessarily know where to start.
“I think this is a way to tell this story to non-Jews. In the Netherlands, the Jewish community is not big, and most people don’t know Jews on a personal level,” she said. “People are constantly confronted with this history. But they’re not connected to it on an emotional level.”
‘A human face to the Holocaust’
Finding new ways to teach a complex part of history was what compelled fellow student Eva Hasel to enroll in the Innovation Hub as well.
Hasel, who now lives in Berlin, is developing an augmented-reality app to show the robust Jewish history that existed in Berlin before the war.
“The app will leverage archival photographs to show the inside of buildings where Jewish life was vibrant before the war,” she said.
The Holocaust has intrigued the freelance journalist, who isn’t Jewish, since she was 9 years old.
“I think if you want to understand German culture and society, you need to have a good understanding of what happened here 75 years ago,” she said. “Oddly, in Germany, it’s a very normal thing to grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust, which has this all-consuming presence. It’s everywhere you go, but on the other hand, it also leads to fatigue in the general public who think they already know everything.”
As such, Hasel hopes her project will “present a human face to the Holocaust” and enable Germans to see Jews not only as victims, but fellow citizens who led a full life in their own backyard before everything was taken away from them.
“Nobody can identify with someone in a concentration camp, but looking at someone’s everyday life is easier to grasp. ‘Oh, this was a woman in her 20s working in a cafe in Berlin? That’s exactly like me,’ ” she said.
Esther Renee Selman, who also lives in Berlin, similarly said, “I’ve met so many people over the last decade who have an active interest in the Holocaust, but have no idea where to start. They are scared of being overwhelmed and depressed by the topic, so they stay away from it altogether. I saw the hub as an opportunity to really tailor a project to meet the needs of that audience.”
Aline Pennewaard, another Dutch student enrolled in the program, appreciated the step-by-step reassurance and feedback that she received from mentors and fellow students during the four-month research process.
“We all learned from each other. Everyone came from a different background or perspective,” she said.
Pennewaard, too, is working on leveraging technology to teach teenagers about the Holocaust. Her project involves creating lesson plans centered around short virtual-reality videos in which the viewer would follow a Jewish teenager as they walk together through the years 1942 to 1943. The videos would then be accompanied by an educational program that introduces the events of the Holocaust and puts the videos into context. The idea is to literally walk in the footsteps of victims of the Holocaust.
Granot-Bein explained that while it may seem incongruous to apply best practices in marketing and entrepreneurship to such a sensitive topic, this path is necessary in the field of Holocaust studies, which faces a future era with no living survivors.
“Very soon, there will be none at all,” she reflected. “It therefore stands to reason that as we preach ‘Never Again,’ that credo should adapt to new generations who must understand the valuable lessons of the previous century.”
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