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Arizona Jewish Historical Society turns to TikTok to educate about the Holocaust

By Phil Latzman
Published: Friday, January 27, 2023 - 4:46am
Updated: Friday, January 27, 2023 - 10:25am

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Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Oskar Knoblauch speaks in person to Holocaust Museum visitors.

Oskar Knoblauch is now 97 years old.

But he celebrates two birthdays. The other is the day he was liberated from a Nazi death camp in 1945.

As one of the last survivors of the Holocaust, the longtime Valley resident has devoted his life to educating the next generations about what happened to him.

“There’s one question I’ve found in every school, ‘can it happen again?’ And without hesitation, I say 'of course it can,'” Knoblauch said on a recent visit to the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in downtown Phoenix.

“But I always add, if it is going to happen, it isn’t going to happen against Jews, because there are so many other people. And this makes them think," he said. 

The Arizona Jewish Historical Society has been thinking of mediums to communicate that fading message to young people to carry on that cautionary tale.

And they’re doing it through TikTok.

“I have sort of an idea of what it is because my grandsons browse through it every day,” said Knoblauch.

Many young people also say they get much of their news from a TikTok feed.

He isn’t surprised.

“I might be old, but I’m not old-fashioned. And I know that if this is what they want to see, they’re going to get it, one way or the other,” Knoblauch adds.

Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Oskar Knoblauch (from left), Rabbi Jeffrey Schesnol and Anthony Fusco at the Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix

Anthony Fusco is a history professor at Estrella Mountain Community College and the Historical Society’s Education Coordinator.

He helped create the first Oskar Knoblauch TikTok Competition open to Arizona high school students.

“We want the students to be able to learn from these and hopefully be creative to teach others the local survival story as well as their call to action," Fusco said. 

Rabbi Jeffrey Schesnol is associate director and curator at the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in downtown Phoenix.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to deliver a positive message and with the high degree of activity that goes on on TikTok, we expect to see this viewed by a lot of people," Scheshnol said. 

But is it really the proper medium to tell a story about genocide?

Knoblauch believes it can be, if used properly.

Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Oskar Knoblauch in front of his virtual exhibit at the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in downtown Phoenix.

“I can say maybe in the '40s and the '30s in Europe there was such a thing as TikTok used on the young, because I witnessed it and it’s easy to change their minds. We hope to do the same thing, but in a positive way," Knoblauch said. 

Eight decades later, Knoblauch says he sees similar signs in the current zeitgeist.

“Hitler, in order to succeed, needed people to hate someone. It worked for him to increase the membership of the party. They’re doing the same thing now," he said. 

Meanwhile, as of 2021, a new law mandates Holocaust and genocide education in Arizona schools at least once in both middle and high schools.

“It’s a great start, but it certainly doesn’t end there.” said Schesnol. “Not only can the student read about it in the classroom, but they can also experience the emotional arc of what went on by coming to this new Holocaust Education Center and Museum.”

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the center is offering free admission to its exhibit, featuring Knoblauch and others re-telling their stories from an ever-dwindling population of survivors in Arizona.

The deadline for submissions for the high school TikTok contest is March 28.

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