Reframing Holocaust Testimony

Reframing Holocaust Testimony

Reframing Holocaust Testimony

Reframing Holocaust Testimony

Synopsis

Institutions that have collected video testimonies from the few remaining Holocaust survivors are grappling with how to continue their mission to educate and commemorate. Noah Shenker calls attention to the ways that audiovisual testimonies of the Holocaust have been mediated by the institutional histories and practices of their respective archives. Shenker argues that testimonies are shaped not only by the encounter between interviewer and interviewee, but also by technical practices and the testimony process. He analyzes the ways in which interview questions, the framing of the camera, and curatorial and programming preferences impact how Holocaust testimony is molded, distributed, and received.

Excerpt

In February of 2007 I accompanied Joan Ringelheim, then the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history department, as she set out by car from Washington, D.C., to a quiet residential neighborhood in Virginia. There, at the home of a cameraman with whom she had worked several times before, Ringelheim prepared to interview Sarah Z., a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. The comfortable domestic space appeared to put Sarah at ease immediately upon her arrival. The living room had been set up as a recording studio, complete with sound padding and a black backdrop. The basement den housed a monitor for Ringelheim’s assistant, Elizabeth Hedlund, who took notes that would later be used for cataloguing the testimony. As the video camera ran, Sarah was composed in recounting stories of having grown up in a small apartment in Warsaw and describing her family life and the celebration of Jewish holidays, all of which were disrupted by Germany’s invasion of Poland.

In the midst of watching her recount her wartime events, we paused for coffee and pastries. During that intermission, Sarah spoke with much more animation about her personal history and her experiences recording the interview with Ringelheim, me, and the crew members, remarking that her memories “stay with you all the time.” Her recollections of the Holocaust were not compartmentalized, only to be revealed at the start of the recorded testimony, but were entangled elements of her life. Later that day we took another break, this time for lunch. Gathered around the table, Sarah recounted in fuller detail, compared to her video testimony account, her son’s car accident as a young man, his subsequent paralysis and eventual death a decade after the incident, and the unbearable pain of burying her own child. Her fluent on-camera performance of the relatively insulated experiences of her wartime childhood contrasted with her less polished and more destabilized expressions of grief off-camera as she recounted to us the story of her son’s death. For Sarah, her process of giving testimony not only concerned reconstructing events taking place during the Holocaust, but also engaged with her own personal forms of remembering that went beyond the wartime era. Whereas she was controlled and confident on-camera, she lost her composure when facing, off-camera, the challenges of her postwar family history.

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