The Legacy Project began as a pursuit of answers to some fundamental life questions that pushed buttons about our personal limits and responses: What would life be like it you grew up next door to a concentration camp? What if your family member, friend, or neighbor disappeared one day, never to return? What if you had grown up under apartheid, as a black or as a white? What if you were forced to give up your traditional culture? What if you lived in the midst of total economic devastation? What if you were witness to genocide itself? Or a participant in it?
Further to that, how might your life be different in each of these circumstances? How would you behave if a group that had always oppressed your people was suddenly vulnerable and under your control? How would you reconcile with the perpetrators of violence? What if you had to live next to them after the fact? Would you seek vengeance, or uphold a higher standard? Most of all, in any of these situations, would you be able to escape the memories of the past that surrounded your home and transform them, finding a way to live in the present, hopeful for a better future? And how would you do that?
Those questions were accompanied by philosophical and pedagogical underpinnings, explained below:
A New Legacy: Understanding and Transforming our Relationship to Violence
—from Greg Bennick, co-director
I had always dreamed of visiting Poland and seeing for myself what was left there of the legacy of the Nazis. Having grown up in a Jewish family, I had been raised on stories of the brutality, hearing from relatives about others in our family who had died in the camps. The legacy of the Nazis had haunted me throughout my life.
In spring 2006, I was in Poland to show a film I had co-written and co-produced called Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality at an arts center in Warsaw. The film deals with human fear of mortality, and how anxiety about that fear on a subconscious level inspires us to act violently towards one another. The day after the film screening, I decided to take a train to visit the former German extermination camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau. While touring through the camps, with local friends guiding the way, I stopped for a moment at the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria. While I stood there with my friends looking upon a spot where hundreds of thousands of people had died, I experienced a profound moment of wonder.
I thought about the immense horror and history around me. I thought about what motivates people to act violently, even genocidally…ideas which are explained in the Flight From Death film. I thought about the profound sadness and regret that surrounds the physical place occupied by the camp, an almost living legacy of the experience of decades ago. But then I thought about the people with me, young people who had grown up in sight of the camps. Certainly they had been able to experience beauty and meaning even with the fact that these things had been discovered in such close proximity to overwhelming sadness and death. “What wisdom about survival,” I wondered, “do the people near the camps have that could inform the rest of the world about how to survive and thrive in the face of horror and war and evil?”
I realized, due to the conflicts in Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Darfur, the Balkans, etc, that we are currently caught in a cycle of violence from which we need to extract ourselves psychologically – or at the very least, find some new perspective on – if we are to survive and thrive as a people. I thought that I needed to bring both the film and other people back to Poland to concentration camp cities, in order to see if we could inspire conversations with local people in order to tap into that wisdom, and maybe even share what wisdom we ourselves had. From there, the idea of The Legacy Project developed, growing beyond Poland to include other conflicts, historical events, and methods and means of survival and reconciliation and resolve in other parts of the world.
A New Legacy: Engaging History, Engaging Students
—from Dave Whitson, co-director
Frequently, I am asked why The Legacy Project includes students. Obviously, many of our goals could be achieved without students. We could visit historically significant locations, speak with people who have survived terrible violence, and film it all as we go. But, if we did that, only half the story would be told.
The Legacy Project is fundamentally devoted to examining the ways that the past directly influences – if not shapes outright – the present and the future. While there is truth to the cliche that those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it, that assigns a certain degree of passivity to the past. History is not a dustbin, a relic of what once was; it is an active character in the drama of today.
In Poland, I was surprised by the ways that the Holocaust and World War II have been remembered. Over and over again, particularly in the older generations, we witnessed evidence of a martyr-like complex. A number of Poles challenged the heavy attention paid to the Jewish plight; the Jews, they argued, only suffered for a few years. The Poles, however, languished under decades of Soviet oppression. Over the years, bitterness begat troublesome theories. For instance, one claim runs, the Jews intentionally manipulated the stories surrounding the Holocaust to overstate their tragedy, at the expense of Polish international status.
We arrived in Poland with the goal of understanding the resurgence of anti-Semitism. While it’s essential to note that our Polish friends were models of tolerance and open-mindedness, the prominence of this martyrdom complex in certain circles exemplifies the imposition of history – and specifically an unresolved history – on contemporary Poland.
This phenomenon is by no means limited to Poland. In recent days, discussions in the US Congress regarding official recognition of the Armenian genocide as such – an event that took place 90 years ago! – resulted in the Turkish government recalling its ambassador and over-blown rhetoric on both sides. In China, every new generation is reminded – quite explicitly – of Japanese atrocities in the Nanking Massacre, while the Japanese government refuses to apologize. Eminent historians speculate that an apology in Japan would be met with an assassination of the person providing it.
To rewrite the refrain, those who leave history unreconciled are condemned to be subconsciously influenced by it – or by their leaders’ deliberate manipulation of it.
The Legacy Project aims to engage in those acts of historical reconciliation. Our goal is not just to document first-hand accounts, but also to process them, intellectually and emotionally. After the interview, the real work begins, thinking through the issues raised. Our group of students and adults must approach these matters with openness, honesty, and bravery. What matters is not so much how Greg, or I feel individually about these events, but rather the process by which we interact with them directly. That is the Legacy Project.
For more information on some of the socio-psychological ideas and philosophy behind The Legacy Project, visit:
Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality: This is the official site for the film that inspired The Legacy Project. A multi-award winning exploration into the movitations of human violence and aggression, Flight From Death examines human fear of death as a primary motivator for our most violence and brutal behaviors.
The Ernest Becker Foundation: A clearinghouse for all things Becker-related, including the most recent academic studies. Publishes a newsletter six times per year, both online and in print.
Interview with Dr. Sheldon Solomon and Dr. Tom Pyszczynski: Introduces Terror Management Theory, a practical application of Becker’s theories.