Jewish Journal


August 24, 2010

Teaching Holocaust lessons to YouTube generation


When comic book artist Neal Adams was 10 years old, he swore he would never get involved in anything related to the Holocaust. 

In the early 1950s, Adams was living in Germany, where his father was stationed with the American occupation forces. The military screened three hours of concentration camp footage to the soldiers, their spouses and children “before they showed it to America, so they knew how much people could take,” Adams, now 69, said. “I can tell you, after seeing that, I didn’t talk to anyone for a week.” 

More than 50 years later, those images are still with him.

In 2006, Adams changed his mind about doing anything related to the Holocaust, joining artist Joe Kubert and former Marvel head Stan Lee to create a comic book about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, an Auschwitz survivor who sought the return of her Shoah-era watercolors from the concentration camp’s museum.

While the campaign to reunite Babbitt with her art was unsuccessful, the effort inspired Adams — best known for his work on Batman titles like “Detective Comics” and “Brave and the Bold” as well as “The X-Men” in the 1970s — to reconsider getting involved in other Holocaust-related projects.

Now, Adams and Rafael Medoff, founding director of the Washington, D.C.-based David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in collaboration with ABC News, Disney Educational Productions and Vanguard Productions, are launching a monthly motion comic series this fall titled “They Spoke Out: American Voices Against the Holocaust,” intended to bring Holocaust education to a YouTube generation accustomed to watching videos that are 15 minutes or less.

“Raffi told me there are optimistic stories. There are stories about people who did something or who tried to do something during the Holocaust,” said Adams, referring to Medoff, who first brought Babbitt to his attention.

The initial five episodes focus on topics such as Holocaust rescuer Varian Fry, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s war against Hitler and Anne Frank’s family’s effort to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles set up by the Roosevelt administration to discourage immigration. ABC News plans to release the 11-minute episodes once per month on its Web site, theyspokeout.com, beginning with the start of the school year, Medoff said, adding that teachers will be able to download the episodes for free from the site to show in the classroom.

“The power of this motion comic series is twofold. One ... we’re teaching about a part of Holocaust history that ordinarily is not taught in our nation’s classrooms,” Medoff said. Second, he said, “We’re teaching about the Holocaust in an entirely new way — through the use of ... motion comics.”

Motion comics exist in the gap between traditional comics and digital animation. Illustrations are enhanced with sound and visual effects, film and video footage, as well as voice actors and narration, providing for a more dramatic experience. While many motion comics focus on established superhero titles, the medium can be used to tackle serious issues, like ABC News did with its environment series, “Earth 2100.”

These videos could help make the lessons of the Holocaust more accessible for young students the way Art Spiegelman’s biographic comic, “Maus,” did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. English teacher Socorro Plazola covers a unit on Elie Wiesel’s “Night” in her classes, and she said that a few of her students at LAUSD’s Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School in South Los Angeles had previously read “Maus,” which they regarded as a positive experience.

Plazola, who attended a 2007 Anti-Defamation League Holocaust workshop for educators, said the films she has turned to for supplemental material — the 2008 resistance drama “Defiance” and the 1998 documentary “The Last Days” — take up large amounts of class time, and students can feel overwhelmed and depressed by such heavy content, especially when they have never heard of the Holocaust before. Although she hasn’t previewed “They Spoke Out,” Plazola says that shorter works in motion comic form might be an easier way to get teenagers to connect with the material.

“Students are more receptive to visual media that is comic based. This is especially true of some lower-level readers, who tend to be put off by long, dramatic films that are more narrative and suspense driven,” she said.

In shorter segments, she says, students can watch a film and immediately follow up with a class discussion or group activity concerning the film’s message and its relevance to literature or content discussed in class.

Helping teachers reach YouTube generation students was also the focus of a recent USC Shoah Foundation Institute workshop, held July 26-30. Eighteen educators with the institute’s Master Teacher Program learned ethical video editing and methods for integrating survivor testimony into the classroom lessons.

“The institute is ... adding a layer of training that not only equips teachers with the skills and tools to incorporate video testimony into their curricula, but also provides valuable digital literacy skills to both teachers and students,” said Stephen D. Smith, USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s executive director.

The previous week, at Comic-Con in San Diego on July 23, Adams and Medoff debuted “Messenger From Hell,” one of the first “They Spoke Out” motion comics episodes, which recounts the efforts of Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic who tried to stop the Holocaust.

Stan Lee, whose voice-overs regularly introduced Marvel Comics cartoons, said he was happy to narrate “Messenger” for Adams.

“It was both depressing and triumphant, in a sense, because I was narrating the story of a real hero. But the fact that it was so hard for him to get this message made public, that was depressing,” he said.

Lee said he looks up to Adams for shepherding the “They Spoke Out” project, which features Adams’ own original artwork. 

“I wish I had the social conscience he does, because he takes time away from making a living on his own to do things for other people,” Lee said.

But Adams said that Medoff, who wrote the scripts, deserves a fair share of the credit.

“When he came to me, I didn’t want to remind anybody [of the Holocaust], because I was too hurt by it. But he said these are stories about people who did something or tried to do something. No matter how terrible it is, the hardest thing for us to think about is: How was it done without anybody raising a voice? People did raise their voices, and Karski is not the only one,” Adams said. “It can’t be this big, terrible tragedy. We have to know that people cared.”

For more information about “They Spoke Out,” visit http://www.theyspokeout.com.

For more information about the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s Master Teacher Program, visit http://college.usc.edu/vhi/education/teachernetwork.

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