UNCG Campus Weekly

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Roy Schwartzman works to share Holocaust survivor testimonies

Portrait of Roy SchwartzmanUNCG Professor of Communication Studies Roy Schwartzman is focused on the power of the word and its consequences. A major portion of his research career has been devoted to Holocaust communication, beginning with Fraktur-font Nazi documents but going far beyond the propaganda of the perpetrators.

“If we’re looking for answers, one of the best ways we can learn is through listening to survivors,” said Dr. Schwartzman. “Not just their words, but by looking to their deeds, and not just through a chronological timeline, but by getting a sense of how they emotionally experience inhumanity. They have unique things to say that we have to heed very carefully.”

Through grants from the Alfred and Anita Schnog Family Foundation, Schwartzman and his colleagues have facilitated several UNCG-based education and outreach projects related to Holocaust testimonies.

One of those projects is a campus performance of the world-touring play “Etty,” with Susan Stein. The one-person play brings to life the diaries and  letters of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who witnessed the Nazi occupation of Holland and was killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp at age 29. The Nov. 8 performance is sponsored by the Communication Studies Department, the Religious Studies Department’s Jewish Studies Program, and the UNCG Holocaust & Genocide Studies Research & Teaching Network.

The AfterWords Project is another UNCG project supported by the Schnog Family Foundation as well as several other grants.

It is a collection of resources focusing on Holocaust survivor testimonies, focusing on life after the Holocaust. This work deals especially with cultural adjustment, reshaping personal identity and re-crafting group identity in the United States. Another resource supported by the Schnog Family Foundation and the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust is the North Carolina Holocaust Education and Outreach (NC HERO) project, which addresses Holocaust and genocide prevention through the sharing of educational resources and research. NC HERO resources are connected to Holocaust education that involves survivors who relocated to North Carolina.

Schwartzman is teaching the “Voices of the Holocaust” course this fall at UNCG, as he has done in the past, but his investment in Holocaust education extends beyond the campus. He has worked with the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching to offer continuing education workshops for K-12 teachers. North Carolina was the first state in United States to require that Holocaust education occur in K-12 schools, and the historic commitment is taken seriously by the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, and by teachers.

For his UNCG courses Schwartzman often works with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive (VHA), the world’s largest video testimony of Holocaust survivors, which was founded by Steven Spielberg. The 52,000 video testimonies can reveal different narrations of the same events, showing how events affected people differently. Although it is chiefly focused on the Holocaust, the collection has expanded to include testimonies from survivors of the Cambodian, Rwandan, Nanjing, Guatemalan and Armenian genocides.

“Each testimony is a new angle,” said Schwartzman, explaining that the diversity of recorded experiences allows a researcher to move beyond iconic representations of genocide survivors often seen in popular movies. “It’s the everyday lived experience in all of its facets, how people deal with major life traumas and how they creatively respond.”

Schwartzman negotiated an agreement for UNCG to become one of approximately 50 sites in the world with full access to the Shoah Foundation Institute’s VHA.

At UNCG, Schwartzman creates opportunities not just to experience events, but for students to get involved in projects, engaging in research and creative activity that builds a connection to survivor stories. Several years ago he founded the UNCG Holocaust & Genocide Studies Research & Teaching Network, an interdisciplinary support network for curricular offerings, co-curricular activities and public events at UNCG that deal with the study of genocides

“There are great opportunities here for various groups that have specific concerns with survivors of collective traumas,” he said. “Given the nature of the UNCG community at large, we take our commitment to each other very seriously, as well as our principles, and we can practice vigorous, active listening to voices of people who have faced dangerous powers. If you’re doing that type of work, this is a great place to be.”

By Susan Kirby-Smith