Finding Matilda – Teaching and Learning About the Holocaust Through Documentary Creation
Author: Susan Cardillo
Published: June 2021
Can the use of practice-based research, in the form of documentary creation, be used as a tool for teaching and learning the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania?
This project is about a college student in the midst of war. Her name was Matilda. She was Jewish. Myself and four university students travelled to Lithuania in the summer of 2018. We followed a team of archaeologists and geoscientists in the search of both the story and the grave of Matilda Olkin. This project takes the audience on our journey. This story will not only create invaluable learning experiences for the students who helped to create the work, but teach them a history that they knew little about prior. Generation Z were born between 1995-2010. According to Zauzmer (2017), fifty-eight percent surveyed said they believe that something like the Holocaust could happen again and they believe there should be more education on the subject. They also admit that they know very little about the Holocaust. According to Northeastern University’s Innovation Survey, GenZ students prefer more specific hands-on learning which can be immediately applied to their lives (Seemiller & Grace 2017).
In preparation for the journey to Lithuania students began by researching the connections between Lithuania and the Holocaust. We interviewed several local scholars, including Dr. Richard Freund, an archaeologist and expert in Judaism of Lithuania. This gave the students a basis for what they were about to experience.
For the filming of this project, we traveled with Dr. Freund and geoscientists, Dr. Harry Jol and Dr. Phillip Reeder. Armed with Ground Penetrating Radar equipment, maps and the promise of interviews, we travelled to three parts of Lithuania looking for answers. We began in Vilnius and the Great Synagogue. The Great Synagogue was the oldest and most significant monument in Lithuanian Jewry (Seligman 2015). We joined the team of archaeologists as they worked on a current project to unearth the original synagogue of 1633. In preparing to understand the life and heritage that Matilda experienced during her time in Vilnius, the students decided to not only conduct interviews here but also help in the digging. They were able to interview the head archaeologist and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Jon Seligman. This gave the students new knowledge on their quest to learn more about Matilda. Through the filmmaking process, students learned to connect their ideas to real world examples. The objective was to find their voice in the story which leads to better analysis and a stronger understanding of the research they had already done (Anderson 2012). The next location was the University of Vilnius with host, professor and expert of Early Modern Jewish History, Dr. Jurgita Verbickienė. Students were given a tour of the University and heard stories of what life was like for Jewish students during that time.
Matilda also kept a diary that was hidden for years after her death. The diary speaks of the life of an average college girl. Matilda wrote about her feelings and also of her ideas about war and how it was affecting her. From Matilda’s diary students saw that Matilda was similar to most college girls, of any generation. When a student is experiencing the moment or, “real life learning”, understanding is maximised because it is active, engaged, and collaborative. Actual experiences allow students opportunities to connect theory and practice (Ash and Clayton 2009).
The students had the opportunity to interview survivors, historians and neighbours of Matilda. Something serious and unexpected happened during these interviews: The students became aware that Matilda’s murderers were not the Nazis that they were expecting, but her own neighbours who were carrying out the wishes of the Nazis. These people were called white-armbanders and they were considered “unfortunate collaborators” in the war effort. Learning research has shown that the most effective learning occurs when it is embedded in an authentic, real-world context (Krajcik & Blumenfeld 2005). Hearing first-hand accounts created memories for the students that would help them throughout the editing process.
In Rokiskis the students visited Matilda’s home. Through interviews and research, we found that the white-armbanders had rounded up all of the Jews in the area. Matilda, and her family were taken by horse-drawn carriage to the woods, and killed. We know this because there was a young girl who lived on the farm near the edge of the forest and she was a witness. Our students traveled to the killing site. This is where the archaeologists began their work. After days of clearing and mapping out the area, the GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) began. After 3 days, the results were in. They found the bodies. We found Matilda. The students were overwhelmed with happiness, sadness and a sense of relief. They went to Lithuania with the mission of finding Matilda, and they did.
The project utilised a number of practice research and experiential pedagogic approaches:
Practice-Based research is a research method where the creative work produced is a result of the research. The project is not only the contribution to knowledge because of the contents within the film but also in the making of that film. Practice-based research in new media arts emphasises the creative process and the works that are generated. In this, practice and research together operate in such a way as to generate knowledge (Candy & Edmonds 2018).
Teaching and Learning About the Holocaust
Rather than call it Holocaust Education the term ‘Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust’ will be used. Foster, Pearce & Pettigrew (2020) developed this term as they began to distinguish the many practices and principles connected to this field. Until recently the main contribution to learning about the Holocaust has come from survivors. These survivors have played key roles in the education process (Gray 2014). Teachers and scholars are now looking for new ways to teach the Holocaust in what will soon be the post-survivor era. One way of doing this is to find stories that resonate with the generation doing the learning. According to an Anti-Defamation League report, Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust (2015), students demonstrate a higher level of interest in the subject of the Holocaust when they can identify with something in their lives. In Jeffrey Glanz’s article, Ten Suggestions for Teaching the Holocaust, he reviews the following different strategies to teaching the Holocaust: hands-on learning, reflection, use of video, survivor accounts and firm knowledge base of historical events. Bowen and Mandernach (2015) believe that student engagement can be defined in 4 related ways: (1) engagement with the learning process through participation activities, (2) experience-based learning, (3) focus on the real-world context of study, and (4) engagement with the human condition. This thinking informed our project most specifically in the real-world context and engagement with the human condition aspects of the journey. Students identified with Matilda and how she had to deal with the horrors of war. Students could put themselves in Matilda’s place as they walked around her campus and talked to professors about what life was like for Jewish students at that time.
Through creating a documentary about a 19-year-old college student who found herself in the midst of war, students put themselves into her situation to research, film and edit Finding Matilda. When a student is experiencing “real life learning”, understanding is maximised because it is active, engaged, and collaborative. Actual experiences allow students opportunities to connect theory and practice. Experiential Learning Theory is defined as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb 1984). This theory draws from the work of scholars such as, Dewey, Piaget, Jung and others who insist that experience takes the central role in human learning and development. Through the work of Dewey (1959), we understand that students will develop personal investment in the material if they engage in real, meaningful tasks. Learning research has shown that the most effective learning occurs when the learning is embedded in an authentic, real-world context (Krajcik & Blumenfeld 2005). Learning and understanding does not happen through experience alone. It also requires thinking about what you have experienced and reflecting on it. Schön (1983) emphasises that there is a link between reflection and action. It is the interweaving of thinking and doing that creates the best results. Critical reflection creates deeper learning.
Learning Through Creating Digital Media/Film
Digital media/film is a powerful tool which both enables and empowers students to become storytellers, historians, cultural theorists and researchers. In the State of Video in Education report by the Huffington Post, 500 educators from 300 institutions agreed that video has the potential to create a real impact on education. These scholars noted that video can change the way students learn, boost attendance, increase success and influence outcomes. Forrester Research estimates that since 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual and it is processed much faster than text, and concludes that video can improve learning and increase retention (Tsur 2014). The digital format transforms students’ capacity to synthesise, interpret, theorise, and create new cultural and historical knowledge. (Weiss 2002). Through the digital/film making process, students learn to connect their ideas to real world examples. They find their voice in the story and this adds to better analysis skills and a stronger understanding of research (Anderson 2012).
Prosthetic memory describes how people acquire a memory of an event that they have never experienced. The term was coined by Alison Landsberg, an American cultural historian and it is normally applied to media studies. Landsberg (2004) defines prosthetic memory as “memories which do not come from a person’s lived experience in any strict sense”. Because most people living today do not have a first-hand memory of the Holocaust, we get these memories from film, photos, digital media and stories. As Landsberg explains, to create the memory one must “tell an absorbing personal story against a background of great historical events”. In order for a memory to be considered prosthetic it must engage with media representations (film, digital media, a television, internet multimedia).
One of the main outcomes here is the completed film, but there have also been several learning outcomes for the students. The finished project is 20 minutes in length (Generation Z attention span). Since we were also using archival footage the ratio of footage to final cut is approximately 6:1. The students reviewed 320 minutes of historical footage in order to complete their 20-minute video project. This means that students were learning six times more then the normal lecture/reading scenario. The students gained knowledge and respect through this transformative experience. Upon returning home we needed to look at the editing process as both historical and the story of a college girl. We decided to have the students, who were on the trip, create the narration themselves. We asked of their experience and how it affected them. This was all brought into the script. Learning through critical reflection has been evident throughout this process. Each of Jeffrey Glanz’s strategies cited above was used to enhance teaching and learning about the Holocaust; hands-on learning, reflection, survivors and knowledge of historical events. This project also incorporated Bowen and Mandernach’s (2015) ideas that true student engagement happens through project-based learning, experiential learning, real-world context of study and engagement with the human condition.
The final stage of this project is to share it with others. Finding Matilda has been presented at several film festivals (listed below) and is being made available to high schools in and around Connecticut, USA, in hopes to create prosthetic memories. Prosthetic memory describes how people acquire a memory of an event that they have never experienced through media and, in this case, should never be forgotten. Future work will be done to follow this project, as it is shared, to give a more specific understanding of the working of prosthetic memory.
2019 Sightlines (Melbourne, Australia).
2020 Fiorenzo Serra Film Festival (Sassari, Sardinia, Italy).
2020 Southeast Regional Film Festival (Jacksonville, Florida, USA).
2020 Golden Tree International Film Festival (Frankfurt, Germany).
2020 International Rovereto DOC Fest (former Rassegna Internazionale del Cinema Archeologico – Rovereto) This international archeological film festival celebrates producers, film directors and cinema and television authors who have made films with the aim of preserving and enhancing cultural features and the world cultural heritage. (Trentino, Italy).
2021 UFVA Conference Screening (online).
Smithsonian Magazine article on Finding Matilda: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/young-jewish-poet-words-provokes-soul-searching-lithuania-holocaust-180970540/
Through Practice-Based and Experiential learning students were able to learn history through the creation of a documentary by experiencing the life of someone who lived and ultimately died for their beliefs. Through Prosthetic memory the audience receives the benefits of this knowledge, learning history through the life of a student and keeping the memory alive forever. This is demonstrated by the following quotations from student participants:
“It’s was always hard for me to understand what war meant on a personal level until I became involved with this project and learned of young women, just like me who went through it.”
“ I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank when I was in school and thinking about what it would be like if that had happened to me…I don’t know that I could have handled it. I mean, locked up in an attic for two years, only to be caught and sent to a concentration camp… And then there’s Matilda…..she was my age…going to college, just like me…..”
“We visited the University of Vilnius, where Matilda went to school. It was a beautiful campus and it really made you think….Matilda was just like me.”
“When you read Matilda’s poetry and diary, you can see that, before the war, she seemed happy. I mean, she was like the rest of us, sometimes didn’t get along with her siblings, had lots of friends and hated to study, but she did seem happy…..”
“Holocaust survivors described to us how the Jews in the Rokiškis region were attacked, gathered into temporary “ghettoes,” humiliated, starved, and subsequently shot by Lithuanian opportunists and special German detachments. Jewish property having useful value was distributed by the opportunists. The three synagogues on Rokiškis’ Synagogue Street were burned, as were many others in other shtetls throughout Lithuania. It was difficult to hear.”
Anderson, J. (2013) Active learning through student film: a case study of cultural geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 37(3), 385-398.
Anti-Defamation League, (2015) Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust. Retrieved from:https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/education-outreach/guidelines-for-teaching-about-the-holocaust.pdf
Ash, S. L. & Clayton, P. H. (2009) Learning through critical reflection: A tutorial for students in service-learning. Raleigh, NC.
Bowen, S. (2005) Engaged Learning: Are We All on the Same Page? Peer Review. Available from: https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/engaged-learning-are-we-all-same-page. [Accessed 1 February 2019].
Candy, L., & Edmonds, E. (2018) Practice-based research in the creative arts: Foundations and futures from the front line. Leonardo, 51(1), 63-69.
Dewey, J. (1910) How we think. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.
Foster, S., Pearce, A. & Pettigrew, A. (2020) Holocaust Education: Contemporary challenges and controversies. UCL Press.
Glanz, J. (1999) Ten Suggestions for Teaching the Holocaust. The History Teacher, 32(4), 547-565. doi:10.2307/494162
Gray, M. (2014) Contemporary debates in Holocaust education. Springer.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency. (2017) Lawmakers from 20 states pledge to mandate Holocaust education. Available from: https://www.jta.org/2017/04/24/news-opinion/united-states/lawmakers-from-20-states-pledge-to-mandate-holocaust-education [Accessed 1 February 2019].
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Krajcik, J. & Blumenfeld, P. (2005) Project-Based Learning. In R. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 317-334). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511816833.020
Landsberg, A. (2004) Prosthetic memory: The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture. Columbia University Press.
Mandernach B. J. (2015) Assessment of student engagement in higher education: a synthesis of literature and assessment tools. Int J Learn Teach Educ Res. 12(2):1–14.
Schön, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Seemiller, C. & Grace, M. (2017) Generation Z: Educating and engaging the next generation of students. About Campus, 22(3), 21-26.
Seligman, J. (2015) The Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf of Vilna. Available from: http://www.seligman.org.il/vilna_synagogue_home.html [Accessed 1 February 2019].
Tsur, M. (2014) State of Video in Education. Available from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/michal-tsur/research-confirms-video-i_b_5064181.html [Accessed 1 February 2019].
Weis, T. M., Benmayor, R., O’Leary, C. & Eynon, B. (2002) Digital technologies and pedagogies. Social Justice, 29(4 (90), 153-167.
Zauzmer, J. (2018) Holocaust study: Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/12/two-thirds-of-millennials-dont-know-what-auschwitz-is-according-to-study-of-fading-holocaust-knowledge/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.93d44c6de41f [Accessed 1 February 2019].
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Invite resubmission with major revisions of written statement.
This is a well-produced film adding diversity to the filmic representation of the Holocaust by focussing on the story of a lesser-known victim of the event, Matilda Olkin, a young Lithuanian-Jewish poet and university student who lived in Vilnius. As the film reveals, Matilda and her family were executed in 1941 by ‘white armbanders’, Lithuanian nationalists collaborating with the Nazi invaders. The film is structured as a present-day expedition to Lithuania, undertaken by a team of American academics and university students, to locate the graves of Olkin and her family.
In addition to recovering Matilda’s story, the film captures some of the history of Lithuanian Jews, the complex unfolding of the second world war in Lithuania, and documents both resistance and collaboration on the part of the local community in relation to the Nazi regime. The film includes a range of different voices, is engaging and well structured, and makes effective use of archive. The students on the expedition are part of the filmmaking team and participate in the telling of key parts of the film’s narrative. The film provides fair evidence of how this participation in filmic storytelling and more broadly in the process of actively recovering a forgotten story from the Holocaust, animates the students’ imagination and conscience. This is in line with the aims outlined in the accompanying statement, which position the film as an example of ‘project-based, experiential field-study’ designed to ‘help Generation Z better understand the Holocaust’.
While this stated aim of using documentary film as a context for project-based and experiential learning in relation to the Holocaust connects suitably to the content of the film, the theoretical context supplied in the statement needs to be significantly enhanced. As it currently stands, the theories around experiential and reflective learning included in the statement are too general and do not focus specifically on the complexities arising from the very particular context of the Holocaust; consequently the originality and value of the knowledge advanced by the work is not defined with adequate theoretical and analytical sharpness. The theoretical and analytical quality of the argument advanced in the statement could be enhanced by engagement with the extensive literature on the challenges of teaching and engaging with the Holocaust and relatedly on the role and value of filmic representations in the development of the social and cultural memory of this defining historical event.
Engaging in a deeper and fuller manner with the pedagogic literature focussing on the specific challenges of teaching the Holocaust would help provide a more robust and theoretically sound rationale for the aims of the project. For instance, it would help make clear the value of the specific approach employed by the project such as its use of personal narratives combined with historical contextualisation, and the much needed broadening of the focus beyond overrepresented narratives such as that of Anne Frank (see Lindquist 2006 for a useful review of challenges and strategies pertaining to the teaching of the Holocaust; also Foster, Pearce & Pettigrew 2020; Short & Reed 2017 as more recent edited collections on the subject).
Similarly engagement with literature from the field of cultural memory studies would help in provide greater theoretical underpinning to the argument around mobilising empathy and identifications based on personal connection-making and enabled by filmic processes in relation to learning from violent and difficult pasts. The concepts of prosthetic memory (Landsberg 2004, 2009) and transcultural memory (see Crownshaw 2014 for a good collection of essays) in particular could be usefully mobilised. Memory studies literature would also help strengthen the argument more broadly about the value of the film as a medium of mediated learning from the Holocaust (as an introduction see Levy & Sznaider 2006).
As a final point, claims for the success of the project in terms of enabling ‘learning through critical reflection’ on the part of the students could be better underpinned by some clearer evidence and discussion in the statement. This could be through the analysis of testimony and reflections from the students involved in the project and making suitable connections to some of the theoretical frameworks suggested above.
Overall, greater theoretical engagement would help improve the quality of the argument as well as its expression which at times tended to be quite broad and imprecise. A lot of the statement is currently descriptive and this theoretical engagement would provide a sharper analytical framing to the writing.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of written statement.
This is an engaging and important piece of work which explores pedagogic approaches to uncovering the lesser-known history of fate of Lithuanian Jews in the Second World War, through the lens of Matilda Olkin. Olkin, herself a student and poet, provides a compelling focus for an excavation of these hidden histories and a “way in” for the student participants who become part of the storytelling. Olkin’s poetry is itself woven into the document, illustrating her unique Jewish Lithuanian voice commenting on the social and political upheaval during the war. The film makes the process of its making visible, including the voices of the students, showing how their involvement in the project has enabled them to engage with and understand the Holocaust. The project is part detective story – searching for the lost burial site of Olkin – but it is also becomes an act of memorialisation, as the lead academic Freund states, moving beyond “scientific objectivity” to a celebration of Olkin’s life at her newly discovered graveside. However, the documentary avoids sentimentalism, always situating Olkin’s story within the wider historical context and foregrounding the impact of this historical journey on the participants. However, by framing this investigation through the lens of participant academics/students/filmmakers, the film and the supporting statement claim to be adding new knowledge through praxis and experiential learning, but more needed to be done – particularly in the statement – to bolster this with a firmer theoretical grounding, both in terms of pedagogical theory, and in terms of wider theories around cultural memory and holocaust studies, in order to speak to a broader field. For example, Anna Reading’s book The Social Inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, Culture and Memory would be a useful jumping off point. It would also add weight to the claims of the transformative pedagogic process to back this up with more reflection on and evaluation of evidence (e.g. student feedback), demonstrating how the project has impacted on their learning and further – some of this is interwoven into the film itself, but there needed to be more discussion and contextualisation of this impact in the statement.
Overall, I would encourage publication of this project, but with substantial reworking of the statement to address the above concerns.