Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Emil Kerenji


Last spring we learned about how instructors teaching about the Holocaust incorporate Yiddish into their work. Teachers wrote of new opportunities and challenges of incorporating Yiddish-language resources in their work, and wrote in praise of institutions making Yiddish-language resources widely available for instructional use. In this piece, Emil Kerenji introduces In geveb readers to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website entitled Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust, which was launched last November. The primary-source teaching tool includes Yiddish sources such as excerpts from diaries of Aron Pik and Jechiel Górny, a deposition of Pesakh Burshteyn, and writing by Moyshe Feygnboym, Leyb Kvitko, Sarah Froiman and others.

In November 2016, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum launched the beta version of Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust, a primary-source teaching tool that aims to bring Jewish sources from the Holocaust to the North American undergraduate classroom. The pilot website featured about sixty Jewish primary sources from the Holocaust, many of them in Yiddish, ranging from diaries and letters to communal documents, newspaper articles, film footage and other materials produced by Jews, broadly defined, during and, in the case of survivor testimony, after the Holocaust. Sources were grouped into thematic collections, and were introduced and annotated for easy integration into teaching at university level. 1 1 The tool has recently been expanded to accommodate other, non-Jewish thematic units featuring primary sources from the Holocaust, and has been renamed Experiencing History: Holocaust Sources in Context. Currently, the Museum is planning to launch a portion of the website entitled “Americans and the Holocaust” by the end of the year, with two collections, featuring around fifteen sources each. The Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust section remains the integral part of the website, with more content coming over the next academic year.

The website project grew out of a publishing series at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, entitled Jewish Responses to Persecution. The five-volume book series, encompassing some 800 primary sources translated from more than twenty languages and embedded in the historical narrative of the period from 1933 to 1946, sought to foreground Jewish sources for the study of the Holocaust, and stimulate new research questions emerging from this vast and understudied source base. Because organized persecution and genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany were primarily an affair of the bureaucratic state, as well as for a number of other historical reasons, premier scholars in the field of Holocaust studies, from Raul Hilberg to Christopher Browning, have typically relied on sources left behind by Holocaust perpetrators and perpetrator agencies. 2 2 Raul Hilberg’s 1961 monograph, entitled The Destruction of the European Jews, is considered the foundational work in the field. It reconstructed the history of the Nazi genocide, from antecedents to practical policies, entirely based on Nazi documents. For the latest edition, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003). For another example of magisterial scholarship utilizing perpetrator sources, see Christopher Browning, with contributions by Jürgen Matthäus, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln and Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004). When scholars shifted the focus away from Nazi Germany and moved to other regional and local contexts, the source base they have traditionally relied on still favored perpetrator agencies, militias, and other formal and bureaucratic institutions. The experiences of the Jewish victims—their contemporary reflections and understandings of persecution, their own descriptions of everyday life and perceptions of dwindling options for escape, hiding and survival—have traditionally been sidelined, as they could not advance the dominant scholarly agenda of reconstructing the timelines and agents of persecution, the mutations of Nazi policy, and the motivations of perpetrators. Until a few decades ago, to the extent historians have been interested in Jewish experiences at all, it was to explore the myth of Jewish passivity in the face of Nazi persecution, and to immortalize armed Jewish resistance. 3 3 For one of the best exemplars of this vein of scholarship, see Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). This trend has shifted somewhat recently, and the aim of Jewish Responses to Persecution was to contribute to addressing this source imbalance. 4 4 Saul Friedländer produced a monumental history of the Holocaust, under the title Nazi Germany and the Jews, in which he attempted to integrate different source bases into the historical narrative, utilizing accounts of individual perpetrators, state agencies, victims, and other witnesses. See Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), and Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination (New York: HarperPerennial, 2008). We offered a variety of contemporary Jewish perspectives which not only testified to the breadth of the range of Jewish experiences of the Holocaust, but which also worked to remove hindsight from our knowledge of Holocaust history, and thereby complicate some key topics of Holocaust research—hiding, rescue, resistance—all the while showcasing the immense archival holdings of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Experiencing History is the digital reimagining of the original book series, based on our better understanding of our audience. 5 5 In order to view the linked examples from the Experiencing History website discussed throughout this piece, readers should sign up for a free account: Since Jewish Responses to Persecution aimed to serve both advanced researchers and student beginners—it was imagined as a research gateway pointing to the richness of the Museum’s holdings, while at the same time providing sources for undergraduate teaching—it ended up serving neither group very well. Researchers tend to look for exhaustive collections, while undergraduate students in Holocaust-related courses—and, not infrequently, their instructors, who are often not Holocaust specialists—tend to be overwhelmed by many hundreds of diverse sources. 6 6 The upcoming volume, a selection of about a hundred sources from the entire series, published in paperback and amenable to assigning in the classroom, will be available this fall. Jürgen Matthäus, with Emil Kerenji, Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933-1946: A Source Reader (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017). We thus decided to leave the research needs to be served by the Museum’s excellent collections catalog, while we concentrated on studying how to improve the value of an online resource for teaching. After surveying the existence and availability of collections of Jewish primary sources from the Holocaust on the web for classroom use, creating a mock-up website on Omeka, workshopping it with college- and university-level instructors, and running a focus group, we zeroed in on our new project: to create a website, designed and coded from the ground up, consisting of interrelated collections of Jewish primary sources from the Holocaust.

The section on the Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust currently consists of a hundred and fifteen sources grouped into ten collections (Artistic Responses to Persecution; Holocaust Diaries; Jewish Community Documents; Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Europe; Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust; Post-Holocaust Testimony; The Holocaust and the Moving Image; The Holocaust in Yugoslavia; Wartime Correspondence; and Wartime Jewish Press). Currently, twenty-six of the sources are in Yiddish. Given the impact of the Nazi genocide on Yiddish culture, we strove to have a significant portion of the documents in this language and have indicated, where appropriate, the political choices and implications that authors negotiated in deciding to write in Yiddish rather than Polish or Hebrew. But because the main goal of the website is to demonstrate the diversity of Jewish experiences during the Holocaust, we have decided not to prioritize Yiddish (or Hebrew, for that matter) in any way that would prevent instructors or students from pursuing their own paths of discovering and engaging with documents. We have anecdotal evidence of use of some of the Yiddish sources in a graduate reading seminar and in an undergraduate language class; however, we will have to wait for more sustained feedback once the website is out of beta.

Unlike most existing primary source collections of relevant sources on the Internet, Experiencing History is neither an online source archive, nor a heavily curated online exhibit that uses primary sources to reinforce a particular narrative. Instead, it is a set of interrelated topical collections of Jewish primary sources. Each collection features a limited number of carefully selected sources (about fifteen), and is introduced by a short essay aimed to orient students to specific issues—of methodology, source analysis, interpretation—that arise with respect to that particular collection topic. In a collection on Holocaust diaries, for example, students might want to think about what constitutes a diary, why and how Holocaust diaries might be different from diaries from other historical periods, what are the differences between a diary and a memoir, etc. Beyond this collection introduction, each individual source is introduced historically, annotated in terms of the circumstances of its production and, if known, the fate of its author(s). Each individual document is also available digitally (as a scanned original document, film footage, etc.), translated into English and annotated.

This, however, is as far as Experiencing History goes. In our many conversations with college- and university-level instructors before developing the final version of the website, we realized that the value we can add to teaching with Jewish primary sources from the Holocaust is not in providing heavy-handed, textbook-style interpretation of the sources. Rather, it lies in our expertise in selecting the sources from the vast and, to students and instructors, overwhelming source base; in making them available in English; and in providing the relevant context for an informed class discussion and effective assignments. We choose the sources we feature on the website aiming, on the one hand, for the elusive balance of representativeness and breadth, while, on the other, privileging lesser-known sources, as well as those that complicate students’ ideas about particular topics. This means that we recognize that sources in Yiddish produced by Polish Jewry have to take a significant place in the resource, as mandated by the sheer numbers of victims from this cultural background; but we also aim to present sources from geographical areas about which students never think in the context of the Holocaust, such as, for example, Benghazi or Havana. And if we feature a document produced in the Warsaw ghetto during the uprising, we prefer a diary describing the travails of “ordinary” Jews stuck in the mayhem of armed struggle to well-known documents speaking to Zionist political organizing and heroism.

We refrain from creating a narrative arc that connects the sources in a particular way, or from constructing a thesis. Instead, we let instructors and students create their own educational experiences, and study the sources and topics in ways they themselves find useful and which make sense to them. Whether through discovering different topical threads through tags or the search function, or by plunging into particular Holocaust source genres via collection introductions, students and instructors can pursue different avenues of methodological and disciplinary approaches. This allows Experiencing History to accommodate users from a diverse range of disciplines and educational goals. Instructors and students in history, literature, or language courses, respectively, will have different approaches in their classes—from different questions they will pose of sources, to different paths class discussions will take, to different learning objectives that will produce different assignments. This flexibility has resulted in the beta version of Experiencing History being used in over two hundred courses across the country, in more than twenty-five disciplines. The courses ranged from predictable Holocaust and Nazi Germany history courses, to literature, language, political science and sociology courses, to a multidisciplinary course entitled “Utopias”; assignments encompassed a range from traditional ones, such as term papers and source analysis reports, to digital projects, such as online timelines and podcasts.

"We refrain from creating a narrative arc that connects the sources in a particular way, or from constructing a thesis. Instead, we let instructors and students create their own educational experiences, and study the sources and topics in ways they themselves find useful and which make sense to them."

A good example of the kind of teaching resource the website provides is one of its featured documents, entitled “The St. Louis is Close to Cuba.” It is a newspaper article from Havaner lebn, a Yiddish-language weekly in Havana. The article—a full front-page lead—was published in the June 3, 1939 issue, and reported on the crisis unfolding just off the coast of the Havana harbor. The St. Louis, an ocean liner that had departed Hamburg in May, with about a thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany on board, arrived in Havana. However, only passengers with valid American visas (twenty-two in total) were allowed to disembark. The rest, even though they were promised U.S. visas, were left to languish at sea, aboard the ship with an uncertain itinerary and with ominous prospects for their fate.

The front-page coverage that the editors of the Havaner lebn accorded the crisis testifies to the sense of urgency this issue incited in the Jewish world at the time. The English translation of the article, available in its entirety and fully annotated for lesser-known personalities and organizations, conveys the fluidity and open-endedness of the situation. This, in turn, complements the well-known story of the St. Louis, and complicates the hindsight such stories necessarily impose on our historical understanding. The source lends itself to a range of possible pedagogical approaches, depending on the discipline and educational goals, and also connects, via the tags, the story of the St. Louis to related themes—bureaucracy, displacement, family, immigration to the US, refugees, rescue. In addition, the students are compelled to ponder the fact that there was a viable Yiddish-language journal in Cuba in the 1930s, and that Jewish readers outside the zone controlled by Nazi Germany hungered for information about Jews directly affected by Nazism.

Experiencing History is available at To use the site, instructors and students must create individual free accounts, as the sources are only available to users who have logged in to the website.

Kerenji, Emil. “Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust.” In geveb, October 2017:
Kerenji, Emil. “Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust.” In geveb (October 2017): Accessed Oct 21, 2017.


Emil Kerenji

Emil Kerenji is Applied Research Scholar at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.