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What the Dead Have To Say to Us

Yale’s pioneering archive of Shoah testimonies reshaped the way tragedies are remembered. But are we listening?

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Still from Leon S. edited testimony. (Fortunoff Archive, Yale University)

Her grandson, describing this episode, breaks down. He cries, or rather tries not to, contorting his face in a painful, gnawing motion that forces out the words “I’ve seen it.” When he is calm again, one of the interviewers asks him, very hesitantly, whether he could tell what moved him most (or what made him cry at this point in the interview) and whether he had also cried at the time it happened.

The two conjoined questions, though they seem intrusive at first, are, important. The answer to the second question is that he did not cry then, because he was “petrified.” The answer to the first is also simple but strikes me as wonderfully strong, because it comes so close to the agony that preceded it. He cried now because of “the inhumanity: someone asks for help, and that help is expressed as a killing action.”

Leon S. Edited Testimony (HVT-8025): The scene described runs from 3m20–7m20:

Yale’s interviewing protocol calls for not pressuring the survivor/witness and even for giving the initiative to the witness. This stance goes together with other practices, e.g., the testimonies do not show the interviewers on-screen, so that everything remains oriented toward the presence of the witness. All-in-all, survivor and interviewer enter a “testimonial alliance” in which the interlocutor becomes more a partner or exegete than a challenger. All this should go to restore the survivor’s self-image, so relentlessly and systematically debased by the perpetrators. In his near-Manichean poem “Testimony,” Dan Pagis writes that compared to the contemptuous stance of the Nazi Camp’s elegantly outfitted, all-powerful guards “I was a shade./ A different Creator made me.”

The testimonies expect the survivors to engage with an interlocutor, to reach deep into the past, but also to share memories of life after repatriation or resettlement. They contribute to the depiction not only of a macro-historical event but also of states of mind ranging from severe to lesser forms of post-traumatic stress. It is important to understand that what is being videotaped is also the survivor’s presence—a “Here I am” greater than the sum of the words exchanged or the impromptu back-and-forth within each testimony.

At the time Yale was establishing its archive, Claude Lanzmann was close to finishing his masterful film Shoah, not released until 1985. It too depends primarily on survivor interviews. But Lanzmann is not at all concerned with offering psychological support to the survivors. His overriding aim is evidentiality. He interviews even some perpetrators to expose the machinery of the extermination, using a hidden camera as well as canny questioning. But mainly he persuades the film’s survivor-witnesses to testify on the very ground, the site where thousands of their companions were murdered—sometimes twice over, as when corpses were dug up again to be burnt in a hellish effort to cover up what was not incinerated before. This is Lanzmann’s way of making heard the victims’ blood crying from the ground (Genesis 4:10). He is putting a truth, that the Shoah existed, irrefutably on record, sometimes even forcing the survivor to reenact the traumatic scene of their own deepest anguish.

The Yale video testimonies work very differently. Not only are the interviewers trained to be the opposite of overbearing, but what is elicited by them from the survivors is, as historical, factual information, quite limited, especially when it reflects the lowly position of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi camp’s hierarchical system. By 1980, moreover, both the parent-survivors and their present family, the second generation—the latter perhaps expecting children of their own—are in search of a “legacy” that is more than a mysterious wounding that dominated the past and sealed it off.

The testimonies, then, may have the strength to convey into the future what we can bear to remember. They grip rather than freeze our emotions in that we do not have to see and try to absorb animated photos or cinematic recreations of the atrocities themselves; we see and hear those who suffered them, and who still deal with them, as memory returns. The pedagogical and humanizing value of this oral literature includes expressive moments that may not be sustained or sustainable yet often match in their intensity those from our literary and cinematic canons.

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What the Dead Have To Say to Us

Yale’s pioneering archive of Shoah testimonies reshaped the way tragedies are remembered. But are we listening?

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