EHRI Workshop: "Once They Are Engaged, They Want to Know More"

EHRI Workshop
Monday, 27 November, 2017

EHRI Workshop “Engaging New Generations. The Holocaust and Knowledge Dissemination in the Digital Age” - Amsterdam, 9 November 2017

On November 9, the EHRI Workshop “Engaging New Generations” was held at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. More than 30 participants from Europe, Israel and the USA discussed the role that digital media can, or should play in addressing new generations and the way they relate to the Holocaust.

Some speakers represented prominent cultural institutions such as Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Anne Frank House. Others were connected to small and medium-sized creative-digital industries or part of grassroots initiatives that, by building on digital methods and tools, aim to contribute to improving the availability of reliable and properly contextualised Holocaust materials (see the workshop programme).

Characterized by a great diversity of specialisations, affiliations and national backgrounds, the participants of the workshop agreed that the digital age offers important opportunities. As the last witnesses of the Holocaust are about to pass away, our past-present relationship is about to change profoundly. Against that backdrop digital tools can function, according to Michael Haley Goldman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as ‘rule benders’, that need serious testing, not only by professionals but also by audiences.

“Once they are engaged, they want to know more”, was one of the outcomes of the presentation by Susan Hogervorst of the Open University, who talked about her research into the use of video interview portals by young History teachers. Almost the same words were used by Stephanie Billib from the Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen who presented on the tablet application in Bergen-Belsen and its use in educational contexts. There is no lack of interest in the Holocaust with younger people, but first you have to engage their attention. Digital media may be crucial for doing so.

The case presented by Angeliki Gavriiloglou, Christos Chatziioanidis and Christos Panourgias from the International Hellenic University (IHU) and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH) on Jewish students of Thessaloniki during the World War II, showed convincingly that digital tools – that in this case allow the spatial mapping of social structures and the online sharing of spatial visualisations – can stimulate important new insights: the Jews of Thessaloniki were not living in separated neighbourhoods, as is often thought, but were an integral part of the whole city.  

Digital media may have many advantages, but during the discussions and presentations several participants also emphasised the challenges. A question often asked is whether it is appropriate to use various digital media for Holocaust dissemination and education, especially when it involves games or virtual reality. In response, Pieter Van den Heede of the Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (EUR) made clear that games can help to counter fixed images of occupied societies during WWII. The game This War of Mine for example, zooms in on liminal moments, where people have to make decisions without knowing what the consequences will be.

It was in particular the digital/archaeological reconstruction of the extermination camp Sobibor, presented by Laura van Rij of the National Holocaust Museum Amsterdam that triggered discussion. Does a technical reconstruction of a gas chamber have a purpose on its own? Or should we consider it as part of our contemporary event/experience culture and is it therefore, following Shik Na'ama of Yad Vashem, an example of the "abuse of technology"?

Another problem with the use of digital media can be to manage expectations that are too high, on both an institutional and public level. As Gerrit Netten’s presentation about the collaboration of the Anne Frank House with Google Cultural Institute indicated, even when you work with Google, the results are not always impressive. The digital exposition reached far lesser people than expected. At the same time, the audience often expects to find “everything” once they are interested. But that doesn’t mean they know how to search. Often enough people don’t understand how to use the website or search tools.

The discussion was broadened by the valuable input of presentations on the digital and non-digital infrastructure of memory in Srebrenica by Angela Boone, and in Indonesia in relation to "1965" by Paula Hendrikx. Here digital media play different roles. Sometimes they help break silence or contest suppressive narratives. It is important to note however, that the overall presence of new media does not guarantee openness or space for multi-perspectivity. 

In his closing reflections Gerben Zaagsma of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History stressed that when developing new ways of digital knowledge dissemination, places and objects are as important as survivor testimonies, and maybe in the future will become even more important. He also noted our lack of knowledge of the mental effects of new technologies. Here indeed new research is needed, for example in order to prevent traumatising young students  exposed to digital reconstructions of Holocaust-related experiences. 

Petra Drenth and Martijn Eickhoff