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Giving new life to old words

This article appeared first in Weak Links, a Fourteen Forty Communications publication.

Is the Holocaust merely a detail of history? This view is rearing its head on the fringes of mainstream political discourse in a number of European countries.

Within a few years there will be no surviving witnesses of the Holocaust.  Second-generation survivors are increasingly feeling compelled to combat the propaganda, hate speech and crisis rhetoric of many leaders today.  The same goes for, those who have survived recent genocides such as those in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia.

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I was introduced, last year, to the family of a truly remarkable survivor of seven Nazi labour and concentration camps, Dr Ernst Israel Bornstein. He went on to serve patients of every creed as a dentist in Munich after the war. His family wanted to draw upon his newly translated memoirs, The Long Night, to connect with new audiences.

As the granddaughter of a refugee from the Holocaust myself, my own family’s historic and present identity is indirectly and inextricably connected to that of the Bornstein family.

So whilst this endeavor has felt personal, I have drawn upon my professional communications and campaigns experience to give new power to this largely unknown testimony. I hope that what I have learnt so far will provide some inspiration to others bringing old ideas to new audiences

1. Going digital

There are thousands of first-hand Holocaust accounts, many of which are already part of an established canon including Anne Frank and Victor Frankl.

We knew we had a unique contribution and spotted a niche to engage time poor readers, digital natives and educators with no budget for books. The result is Holocaust Matters an interactive online tool based on The Long Night which launched in beta on Holocaust Memorial Day 2018.

The website lets you explore the book in bitesize chunks.  It also achieves our aim of highlighting topics that are particular to Ernst’s experience such as camp locations, specific to the Holocaust such as death marches and also universal themes such as bystanders and survival.

2. Audience access

Prior to developing the website we identified several key partners to reach our primary audience of school students.  We sought their guidance on the type of content that they might use.

We’re delighted that the Holocaust Educational Trust has now agreed to work with us to develop educational resources and teaching training materials to accompany our new website.

We have started similar conversations with other experts in the UK and overseas who specialise in teaching the Holocaust and its universal lessons through citizenship, history, politics and psychology lessons.

In engaging educators we accentuated how The Long Night fills gaps in the public understanding of Holocaust. These include a poor awareness of the vast camp system outside of Auschwitz.  There were also hundreds of labour camps, with exceedingly high mortality rates but from which prisoners could survive, if only temporarily.

In the next phase we’d like to find routes into universities and to professional audiences such as charity sector leaders, who are key in spotting and combatting injustice, and those working in law and medical ethics

3. Emotional connection

There is a fascinating body of neurological research and plenty of evidence from recent public communications campaigns that it is narratives, not numbers or facts, that have the power to change opinions and behaviour.

The Long Night has been described by veteran broadcaster, Jonathan Dimbleby, as a “terrifying personal account of an unspeakable clinical horror, all the more powerful for being told with remarkable self-restraint.

No embellishment is required to this one man’s account of raw pain, soul-searching and the misfounded complacency of many of its victims and onlookers.

This is surely a more compelling clarion call in our troubled times than arguments based on universal human rights and international law.

4. Powerful pictures

We were advised that many Holocaust educators avoid graphic images because they serve to dehumanise the victims, thus continuing to deliver a key objective of Nazi propaganda.

In spite of these sensitivities we decided to carefully select photo and film archive images including some of emaciated survivors taken shortly after liberation. Going digital has allowed us to make the most of these pictures and bring the events described by Ernst to life.

5. Living history

Spend one minute with Ernst’s daughter, Noemie, and you will sense that she is still living in the Holocaust’s wake, as we all are to some extent.

The immediacy of this chapter of history is something that my research brought into sharp focus.

It included the shock discovery that Ernst’s revered academic mentor influenced the development of Nazi racial hygiene policy.  It showed this man’s living contemporaries are, to this day, attempting to whitewash the role of the psychiatric profession in politically-driven euthanasia.

We are also encountering resistance to our enquiries in Poland, even from the descendants of characters referred to in positive terms. This may be partly explained by a new Polish law criminalising certain references to the nation’s involvement in the Holocaust.

However, these recent developments do offer fresh routes into this seventy-year-old story that we wish to explore further, perhaps as a hook for a documentary film production. Our Nazi psychiatrist has already caught the attention of this BBC North West Tonight news programme.

Ernst’s family feel the website has immortalised his words.  But there is still work to be done to engage people with his wise and prescient observations.

Your advice and ideas could play a role in helping us to achieve this goal and I would be delighted to hear from you: julie@thinkcomms.co.uk.

This article appeared first in Weak Links, a Fourteen Forty Communications publication.

Julie Kangisser