Growing up in a tight-knit community outside of Philadelphia as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I heard the stories and perspectives of survivors from an early age. I cannot explicitly recall the first time I heard someone speaking about the Holocaust; it was part of a conversation that existed in my life for as long as I can remember, just like the stories we all grow up hearing from our loved ones.
My paternal grandmother, my Bubbe, was born in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains in 1929. Of the seven children in her family, Bubbe survived the camps alongside one sister, and later reunited with a brother who hid in Bratislava and made it to the States before them. My Zayde, my paternal grandfather, was from Ostrykół, Poland. After a stint in jail as a Polish criminal (his crime: attempting to escape the ghetto), he spent time at several concentration camps including Auschwitz, and was liberated from Theresienstadt. Bubbe and Zayde were liberated in their late teens and first crossed paths at a displaced persons camp in Heidenheim, Germany. After falling in love and getting married, they decided to come to Philadelphia together — as Bubbe’s aunt, brother, sister and brother-in-law had already set up lives in the city. Shortly after moving, they opened Don’s Bakery on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, not far from where Bubbe still resides at 92 years old.
This story — and the dozens of interwoven anecdotes that have accompanied it through countless retellings — is a staple of our family history that has and will continue to be relayed throughout generations. It is largely what inspired me to study history and the public humanities in my academic career, to write and study ‘museumifying, memorializing, and educating’ about the Holocaust, and to now continue Holocaust remembrance and education work in my role at the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.
Very few people grow up with survivor Bubbes or Zaydes in their lives; and, as the number of existing survivors decreases over time, any type of access to firsthand Holocaust accounts becomes increasingly rare.
Fortunately, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the “second generation,” i.e. children of survivors — dedicated innumerable hours to collecting and organizing the stories from their parents’ generation. They did an incredible job sorting first-person accounts and primary documents, capturing history that could only be recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Their handiwork can be seen in the many Holocaust museums across the country, as well as the 55,000 video testimonies recorded for the USC Shoah Foundation. But with that work near its final stages, 3Gers, the grandchildren of survivors, now have an imperative to consider their role in promoting remembrance and evolving Holocaust education for today’s youth.
One primary consideration should be the mediums we use to convey these messages and memories. To date, Holocaust remembrance has centered on firsthand accounts whenever possible, and it has almost always been taught in a vacuum of history lessons and social studies courses. As access to survivors dissipates and Millennials play a greater role in Holocaust education, we are tasked with adopting innovative means of reaching younger audiences in a way that truly resonates.
A great example of evolving Holocaust education that is already underway is the use of AI by the USC Shoah Foundation for the ‘Dimensions in Testimony’ project, which allows museum-goers to “have conversational interactions” with the holograms of Holocaust survivors, built using pre-recorded video interviews. In what the foundation calls a “[redefinition of] inquiry-based education,” visitors who interact with the project can ask the AI-powered holograms questions and receive real-time answers, utilizing technology to preserve testimonies of the Holocaust.
Social media has also become an effective tool. Beyond the informative social media accounts of existing educational and memorial institutions like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, there are also accounts taking a more innovative approach, like ‘Eva Stories.’ Launched by Mati and Maya Kochavi, the son and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, ‘Eva Stories’ tells one Holocaust victim’s story to millions of viewers using Instagram’s ‘stories’ feature. This profile provides a key example of how second- and third-generation survivors can work together to present a survivor’s story in a way that resonates with children eight decades after the Holocaust.
Thematically, Millennials in the 3G community are also looking to broaden the scope of Holocaust education, introducing an approach that’s more intersectional and takes into consideration modern examples of bigotry extending beyond antisemitism, including racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, perhaps the most prominent organization in Holocaust education, has been expanding the narrative around Holocaust education in this way for the past few years, weaving in discussions around the white supremacy and bigotry that minority groups continue to face to this day. Teens and even tweens can relate to these ideas and understand the connections between different manifestations of racism.
Groups like 3G Philly — a regional non-profit creating a platform for Holocaust remembrance and education across the Delaware Valley — are zeroing in on the perspective and power of third-generation survivors to advance Holocaust education. The group, which I’ve been a proud member of since its start in 2021, is comprised of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors seeking to honor their grandparents through education, advocacy, and peer support.
As organizations like 3G Philly connect and empower their members, Millennials are beginning to take real leadership roles in the Jewish community, in social, religious, and educational organizations. They are in a unique position to address and promote Holocaust education. Building on the the first and second generations’ decades-long work preserving Holocaust memory, Millennials must continue to give serious thought to what the next era of Holocaust education should look like, amplifying the commemorative and historical work that has already been done while reshaping it for mediums that enable today’s children to learn and become more compassionate individuals.
If we truly want to build a better world, we must not be afraid to openly discuss the Holocaust and the lessons it has taught us, identifying the threads between antisemitism eight decades ago and the antisemitism, racism and homophobia that continue to plague society. This is the only way we can ever truly continue learning from the atrocities of the past. In the absence of these conversations — and evolution in the way of how these conversations are framed — the next generation will never fully understand the moral knowledge that is gained through effective and thoughtful Holocaust education.
This article was previously published in The Jewish Exponent.
Sophie Don is the Senior Manager of Programs & Operations at the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation