A Survivor’s Story: The Importance of Oral History

Lick-Wilmerding History Teacher Eileen O’Kane asked Holocaust survivor Anne Marie Yellin to speak to her senior history seminar, Holocaust and Genocide. O’Kane believes it is  important that her students not only read about past history, but that they have experiences that connect them on a closer level to the actual events.

For many students, it is easy to intellectualize what happened and to get caught up in foreign policy and economics and to understand only at an abstract level.

O’Kane believes that understanding the human experience is what has led her to empathize and connect with history.

She states, “It’s through personal narrative that I find purpose in teaching history.”

Anne Marie Yellin was a “hidden child” during World War II. She was born in 1930 in a town near Berlin.

Anne Marie Yellin photo courtesy of Lehrhaus Judaica

Anne Marie Yellin
photo courtesy of Lehrhaus Judaica

Early on, her parents had the foresight to see what was happening to Jews and the other groups the Nazis deemed undesirable. Although Yellin’s parents themselves hid in an attic, a group of “Righteous Gentiles” sent Yellin to a Catholic convent. She was later hidden in a school for misbehaving children.

When Yellin eventually arrived in the U.S., her mother’s sister-in-law told her, “Nobody here cares about what you went through. The past is the past, just move on with your life.”

Aside from telling her husband and her kids, Yellin didn’t tell her story until the early 90s. O’Kane believes that “It’s really important to see examples of the choices that people make, both for themselves and as those who stand up for other people even though they are putting themselves at risk; it was because of those people that many Jews did survive the Holocaust. I also think that it is really important for students to hear history from people who lived it, to be able to ask them questions, to see firsthand and hear firsthand the experiences of individuals and human beings. Those stories ultimately are what connect us all.”

Gitta Rosenzeig, in 1942, a Jewish child from eastern Poland hidden in a Catholic orphanage photo courtesy of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum gift of Gitta Rosenzweig

Gitta Rosenzeig, in 1942, a Jewish child from eastern Poland hidden in a Catholic orphanage photo courtesy of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum gift of Gitta Rosenzweig

Many students said hearing Yellin speak brought the history of the Holocaust to life; they felt they understood better and were more connected to the history because they heard it from someone who lived it. For Emma Rose Wirshing, “What was interesting about Yellin’s story was that it provided a narrative about the Holocaust that I hadn’t heard before. Most of my education on the subject had focused on the stories of people in concentration camps, and I hadn’t really considered the different ways in which the Holocaust affected people. So, in that way, hearing a story about a hidden child was intriguing. But perhaps the most interesting part of the experience was the attitude with which Anne Marie Yellin discussed her past. In class, we tend to intellectualize events, especially events as horrible as the Holocaust, and only consider them from a historical perspective instead of losing ourselves in their emotional impact. But Yellin didn’t intellectualize. She lived through it, so of course her memories were tied to strong emotions. She talked about her own experiences; she made the events real. Yet, the entire time she was talking, she kept an upbeat attitude, as if she was defying the perpetrators just by talking to us. Her strength astounded me.”

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About Amelia Levin-Sheffield

Amelia is a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and writes for the student newspaper, The Paper Tiger. She also manages the Style section and is one of three co-managing editors of the on-line LWHS community news source, Hyphen. Amelia is a voracious reader and started writing in second grade after getting a flash of inspiration from a gnome sighting in the hollow of a tree in her backyard.

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