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Holocaust survivors • a different kind of mentor

When I was fourteen years old, the son of a Holocaust survivor spoke to my 8th grade social studies class about how his mother survived Nazi concentration camps. This experience sparked a deep interest in Holocaust history and human rights that led me to work with survivors and historical eyewitnesses in Europe and the U.S . Through sharing stories, listening and questioning, meaningful relationships were formed and lessons learned to last a lifetime. When young and old listen, ask questions and engage in compassionate conversation, a space is created to process, heal, let go, learn and grow.

Photo of Jennifer Wood
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I’m 42 years old and have spent more than 20 years working with survivors and historical eyewitnesses from WWII. Much of that time has been spent in Europe where I have engaged with the survivors on or near the actual sites where their experiences took place. This is an effective model for learning and understanding:
 
  • Testimony from the person who experienced the event
  • Authentic site where it happened
  • Historical context 

I wonder how this model could be used in different contexts? Are there other communities in the world that would benefit from this approach? In the case of Germany, as described in my recent TEDx talk, service and reflection are also aspects of this model.
 
The obvious learning outcome for young participants was the history – dates, significant events, geography, even language. But we learned more than that. Survivors often shared important life lessons, such as the responsibility to participate actively in our democratic societies – healthy democracies require nourishment from engaged citizens. Of course, there were deep conversations about human rights, hate, racism and tolerance. But we also discussed resource distribution, gender, identity, religion, politics, economics, relationships and education. Topics were endless and relevant, both to the present and future.
 
Personally, I learned to listen, question and speak out. These are the skills I developed from these unique intergenerational relationships – deep listening and questioning, plus beginning to understand what could happen if I do not voice my opinions. Perhaps that was also part of what we learned...how to develop our own voices.
 
Young participants also contributed to the survivors and eyewitnesses. We had time, energy and intrinsic motivation to understand what had happened during the Nazi period. We documented history through projects, research and interviews. They knew that we would carry their stories and memories. Some expressed how sharing their experiences helped them to process and let go. Sometimes we witnessed a moment of reconciliation and healing between a German young person, for example, and a Jewish survivor. 
 
Getting to know the survivors certainly changed how I viewed seniors (elders, maybe is a better word) in my own family, community and the world. I now see older people as treasure chests of experience and wisdom.
  • What insights do they have that I don't?
  • What would they want to share with me if the conditions were right?
  • What can I offer them to make their lives more wonderful? 

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Photo of Coreen Callister

Jennifer, thank you for sharing your valuable experience with the community! I think we can learn a lot about how deeply significant a relationship can feel to both parties when the exchange is truly bidirectional. In this case, it certainly seemed like the younger and older generation held equal roles giving and receiving, teaching and learning, supporting each other towards a shared goal.

I particularly loved this insight: "We had time, energy and intrinsic motivation to understand what had happened during the Nazi period. We documented history through projects, research and interviews. They knew that we would carry their stories and memories. Some expressed how sharing their experiences helped them to process and let go."

This example illustrates so nicely how HUGE part of what motivates us to connect with anyone in a meaningful way. For me, the emotional impact (and what would be my motivation to engage with a project like this) lies within the responsibility and trust to carry forward a piece of history through the eyes of another human. Feels really important to be a storyteller on behalf of the generations before us, and a bridge for those to follow.

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Photo of Jennifer Wood

Correen, thank you! I'm speechless. You acknowledged so much of our work and effort. Thank you! I definitely would appreciate having the opportunity to share what we learned with other historical communities who might want to follow a similar model.

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