As educator at the Museo del Holocausto in Guatemala, which is part of the educational program of Yahad in Unum, it is my job to develop educational programs which teach people about mass violence, its causes and its consequences, in order to prevent mass violence in the future.
To work with Yahad on a research trip to Poland and be able to listen to the witnesses, visit the places where the mass shootings took place and locate the mass graves was an important learning experience for me as a Holocaust educator. It is completely different to hear from the witnesses who were there and saw what happened to their own neighbours and communities than to read about these events in a book.
During this trip over 45 witnesses were interviewed in 26 different towns. These testimonies can be shocking; mass shootings, concentration camps, forced labour and death. When you hear these testimonies it is difficult not to ask yourself if there was any humanity and solidarity in a climate of death.
Some witnesses talked about how they or other people tried to help the victims, sometimes giving them food or water or even hiding them for one or several months in their homes, despite the danger this brought. One witness in the town of Bialobrzegi told the team about the existence of a ghetto in the town. The witness was born in 1932 and was still a child, but he remembers how he and other children would go to the street that separated the ghetto from the rest of the town to play with the children in the ghetto during winter.
The children from the ghetto would form a line on one side of the street while the witness and his friends would line up on the other side and they would throw snowballs at each other. The Germans guards would watch them and laugh.
The witness only told the team about this at the end of the interview but this small part of his testimony shows that despite the harsh realities there was also a human side. Innocence and solidarity can be found in the middle of chaos. The Holocaust and other genocides are not abstract events that happen to “somebody somewhere” or in “another time”, genocide happened and still happens to people who have as much right to live in this world as we do. Those children from the ghetto having fun with the others polish children are an example of this. The most important lesson when you work, teach and learn about the Holocaust comes from stories like this: tolerance, coexistence and respect for others despite our differences. The lesson is life and not death.
As an educator of the Holocaust it is my responsibility to learn constantly. The knowledge and experience gained in this trip helps me to develop better and more efficient educational programs for students and anybody interested in the Holocaust, and to learn from its lessons.