Misko Stanisic, a co-founder of Terraforming, shared his experience in developing educational methodologies and teaching materials about the Holocaust. Terraforming is an NGO based in Novi Sad (Serbia) aiming to empower cultural remembrance by combining best practices in contemporary pedagogy with new-media technologies.
Misko is from Sarajevo, and as a refugee from the civil war, he fled to Stockholm in 1993 and has been based in The Netherlands since 2012: Misko started his presentation by showing a picture of his kitchen in Amsterdam and a little ashtray he has put on the wall. Before leaving Sarajevo, he took his grandmother’s ashtray just because it fitted in his pockets, and not because it was representative of his past or particularly valuable. For many years, he didn’t pay much attention to it:
“Only recently I realised this was the only thing I had originally that I took from my home when I escaped. I’m showing this because it means something to me, this quite insignificant object, that was not even representative of my life, but it is now. We remember through so many different ways and we even use artefacts and stories. We need it. There is an inner need for a person to remember, to keep the memory. That’s why I put it on the wall.” – Misko Stanisic
Misko is aware that his personal experience might not be the same experience for other people and for this reason, he invited the audience to reflect upon the question “who owns the past?”. He explained why it is vital that students learn about the Holocaust and recommended looking at “Recommendations for teaching and learning about the Holocaust” developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Together with the Historical Archives of Belgrade, Misko started to do historical research about the Sajmište concentration camp, where nearly the entire Jewish population of Belgrade and the surrounding areas was murdered – specifically from 8 December 1941 to the end of March 1942. At first, they wanted to find real people who were protagonists of this history so that they could tell their personal stories, but then they realized that they couldn’t: there were only very few photos. For this reason, they decided to illustrate stories instead. They were also faced with the question: is it okay to dramatize history?
“Our protagonists were killed in the camp, so we could not ask anyone to tell us about the details and we were facing the fact that we need to dramatize parts of it, which is why I’m not sure if it’s easy to say whether our graphic novels are fictional or not fictional. They are certainly based on historical facts and all protagonists presented in our novels are real, but not all the details we represented in our novels are based on facts, they are mainly based on dramatization.” – Misko Stanisic
What is Ester?
- Ester is a collection of educational graphic novels and teaching material;
- The stories are about Jewish victims killed in the concentration camp Judenlager Semlin at Staro Sajmište near Belgrade at the beginning of 1942;
- The novels are based on true historical events and people, focusing on young victims and their families, the pre-war life;
- The novels are specifically developed with the purpose to be used as teaching material and thus suitable for students.
The objective is also to help students to understand how we know this history and to address this phenomenon called ‘distortion of history’ which is propagating falsified or distorted facts about the Holocaust. Misko wanted indeed to demonstrate that the novels are based on a huge amount of historical documentation and that illustrations in the novels depict history accurately. Real historical places are drawn in a realistic way so that students would recognise streets and buildings, and the historical photographs are available next to the illustrations as proof that what readers see in the illustrations is accurate. In addition to that, there are hundreds of investigating tasks for students that teachers can choose from, so that pupils can research online available digitised archival records and other sources about the context and daily life. A very useful exercise is, for example, stimulating a comparative analysis of the same locations at different times.
Behind the scenes: creating a novel for educational purposes
Misko shared his experience in creating educational graphic novels and explained that there are two main streams going in parallel: history at a global and local site. The base of everything is historical events, but also people. Whilst creating the novel, they are selecting what part of already well-known history and events they will use, but they are also looking for personal stories. At some point, there is no more data available about a particular family, so the work proceeds by assumptions and only when something is plausible or probable it can be added to the story. Then they start developing the dramatization, interviewing survivors, drawing from historical newspapers, working very closely with historians and other experts in Jewish traditional culture. Only then, they invite illustrators. Every graphic novel is illustrated by a different artist: by choosing to use different illustrators, they choose to highlight that there are many different, equally valuable ways of looking at history and making sense of historical events.
Why is this important?
In 2017 the current Jewish community contacted Misko, asking for permission to use the illustration from their graphic novel as the cover page of their book about the history of the community, as they didn’t have any other visual representation. Oddly enough, the real community recognised their illustration as a representation of their own history and memory, and it is now the cover of their book.
Another time, Misko was called by someone who claimed: “you created a novel about my family”. Misko recalled how shocked he was, as they thought that all the members of that family were killed. He also started wondering whether they made a terrible mistake by creating the novel, as obviously not every detail can be accurate, not everything is absolute and real truth, so he apologised. Nevertheless, the person said: “I had nothing, now I have a story”. Misko concluded:
“A need for memory is such that even when we are creating educational material, a dramatised story, it fills the void, the need of people to have a memory, to visualise it and I am very proud that we contribute to it.” –
Novels on Ester
Written by Giulia Verdini
The next workshop on creative teaching methods will be about strategies for using counterfactual history in the classroom.. Join us on Thursday 28 October at 2:30 pm CEST. Click here to register!