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audio-visual testimony

Since the Eichmann Trial in 1961, Holocaust Studies has existed in what historian Annette Wieviorka and others1 refer to as the "era of the witness." 

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This is not to imply that prior to 1961 survivor voices either did not exist or were wholly ignored.2 What one can say, however, is that post-1961, the survivor voice became more prominent—and certainly more widespread—amongst the general population. If the Eichmann Trial afforded the first opportunity for survivor voices to be widely and publically heard, then since that time, we have been privy to a deluge of voices, resources, and projects that reflect the ways in which survivors have become, in the words of David Roskies, "messengers from a planet of destruction."3 While the Eichmann Trial gave survivors a public voice and a public forum, other cultural phenomena also contributed to the rise of archival testimony projects. The 1978 four-part NBC miniseries, Holocaust, with its star-studded cast that included Meryl Streep, James Woods, John Houseman, and others, is largely credited with bringing this history into American living rooms in ways that had not previously occurred. Drawing on the success of other, similar efforts (like the 1976 miniseries, Roots, that dramatized the history and legacy of slavery), Holocaust—while panned by survivors like Elie Wiesel and historians alike—brought the destruction of the Jews into public conversation in the United States and abroad.  

On the heels of this miniseries, and in the wake of broader American interest in ethnic identity and history, Holocaust testimony and survivor projects began to emerge. Among the first was what would become the Fortunoff Video Archive of Yale University. Founded in 1979 by television journalist Laurel Vlock and child psychiatrist and child survivor, Dori Laub, Fortunoff began what was then the Holocaust Survivors' Film Project. Under the consultation of Professor Geoffrey Hartman, the project was among the first of its kind. The archive, which moved to Yale University in 1981, now has 4,500 testimonies in twenty-two languages.4

Alongside this archival effort, beginning in mid-1970s, French filmmaker and wartime Jewish resistance fighter Claude Lanzmann began research and filming for his landmark documentary, Shoah. In this 9.5 hour film, Lanzmann interviews survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders involved in the process of mass murder. Over the course of filming, Lanzmann conducted over 300 hours of original interviews, the outtakes of which are now housed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In the mid-1980s, the then fledgling United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also began its Oral History project under the direction of Joan Ringelheim. The Museum sought to include Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Polish Gentiles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and political prisoners in its work. Testimonies of liberators, non-Jewish witnesses, and rescuers were also collected. Some of these interviews were conducted in conjunction with the Museum's core exhibition. Others, however, were taken to form part of the Museum's archives.

While other projects blossomed in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, it would not be until the 1993 release of Stephen Spielberg's film, Schindler's List that another large-scale testimony project emerged. On the heels of this film, Spielberg formed what was originally called the Shoah Visual History Archive, today it is the USC Shoah Foundation. Currently comprising 52,000 digitized testimonies, the Foundation is now branching out to include other genocides, including Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Armenian genocide.  The Shoah Foundation’s work has also recently expanded to the Nanjing Massacre, as well as Guatemala.

These are only some of the video-based projects that have emerged since 1961. Together, these and other projects comprise approximately 100,000 visual interviews that constitute the core of recorded survivor interviews worldwide. As the witness generation passes away, these recorded interviews become both more important and more laden with questions, issues, and problems. Each project has its own methodology and techniques that greatly impact the final product. Only when we critically examine the nature of these interviews—and the archives which created them and in which they are stored—can we begin to understand the nature of video testimony as a resource, as well as the potential complications and questions that it creates.

Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

On the contrary, the work of Hasia Diner and David Cesarani among others proves otherwise: see Hasia R. Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence, 1945-1962 (New York: New York University Press, 2009) and David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist, eds., After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence (New York: Routledge, 2012).

David Roskies. Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 7

 

Several studies of this unique collection have also been undertaken, see for example Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991) and Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1991).