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Let the biography speak for itself

19 Sep 2016 - by Flora Suen

International conference on interculturalism in historical education POLINMuseum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

The guiding question of the conference was how cultural diversity can inform learning about the past, in order to stimulate individual reflection in the present. A broad range of themes linked to this question were debated by scholars, educators, museum professionals, representatives from NGOs and cultural institutions.

Karen Polak from the Anne Frank House asked me to be a participant observer in her conference workshop >>Historical biographies and multiple identities: setting the stage for intercultural historical learning<< of the method of using biographies for intercultural historical learning. The thirty or so participants were then divided into five small groups for a hands-on approach to learning the method. Each group was given five or six historical and contemporary life stories. The common factor in all of the biographies was the experience of discrimination. The groups had a brief amount of time to skim through each biography and were instructed to each select one that they would like to find out more about – albeit without telling the others.


One wears floral prints; the other one is named after flowers: Karen and Flora hang up the biographies that were introduced at the workshop. Photo: Alicja Szulc


So it was with pricked ears that I listened to the reasons given the small group with whom I was facilitating the method. The group members were all educators who worked in Poland, Germany, Latvia or Norway. Surprisingly, the participants gave reasons that on the surface were not directly related to their own personal biographies! Instead, the motivating factors included interest in the complexity of the multiple forms of discrimination faced.

The conference was co-organised by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the European Wergeland Center in Norway, with the support from the Council of Europe. Flora Suen works for the Anne Frank Zentrum in Berlin.

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