Between 1979 and 1981, the original stock of what would become the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University was created by television producer Laurel Vlock and child survivor and psychoanalyst, Dori Laub. Vlock and Laub began by interviewing 183 Jewish Holocaust survivors residing in and around New Haven, Connecticut. Geoffrey Hartman, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, soon joined the effor. In 1983, a conference entitled "The Educational and Research Use of the Yale Video Archive" took place in New Haven, with renowned Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg delivering the keynote address. As the archive continued to grow, new interviewers were trained by Vlock, Laub, and others, and the project expanded abroad. Literary scholar Lawrence Langer's book, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, brought further attention to the archive and its work, and analyzed several interviews at length.1 Today, the archive comprises over 4,400 testimonies from around the world.
In describing the work of the archive, Hartman has pointed towards the self-directed nature of these interviews over and above interviewer interventions. He noted in his “Monna and Otto Weinmann Lecture” for the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1995:
It is the entire person who is asked to speak, not only the one recalling terror and time and trial. In this, above all, the historical or sociological value of the testimonies is clear. Yet we refuse to 'program' the interviews, declining to guess what special interests future generations might have. The welling-up of memories is crucial, rather than the imposition of a particular research interest, however important the latter may be for the overall picture. We will not claim that the interviewers do not have their own strong motivation and therefore an agenda. They too, after all, belong to a specific milieu de mémoire: they create, in effect, a bridge or channel of transmission between generations by this timely, communal work. But in preserving a memory based on memories, on individual and multiple narratives, they renounce an omniscient perspective and allow the testimonies freer impact.2
In addition to their exemplary status as one of the first video-testimony projects, it is the interview methodology behind the Fortunoff project that sets it apart. Spearheaded by a psychoanalyst, journalist, and literary critic, the interviews are psychoanalytically inflected (although Hartman is careful to note, not therapeutically based). These interviews last anywhere from two to twelve hours, and contain questions that are a combination of factual questions, psychological questions, interviewer interventions, and other forms of inquiry. The videography itself also reflects the interview method; survivors are often framed in tight close-up, without the context of a room, or a home. In this model, survivors themselves are meant to be the guiding force of the testimony, taking it in whatever direction they so choose. Since these interviews were among the earliest video recorded testimonies, survivors are much younger than in later projects; indeed, most are aged forty through sixty. In keeping with the project's highly personal tone, the survivors' names are all anonymized (although some have since become widely known through the scholarly work of secondary sources on the archive).3
The testimony of Menachem S. is typical of interviews conducted by the Fortunoff project. Menachem S. was a child survivor of the Krakow Ghetto, as well as the Plaszow labor camp. Menchem S. spends much of his interview discussing the psychological aftereffects of his wartime experiences and subsequent survival.