Magazine article Tikkun

Holocaust Videography, Oral History, and Education

Magazine article Tikkun

Holocaust Videography, Oral History, and Education

Article excerpt

Holocaust Videography, Oral History, and Education

Geoffrey Hartman, Sterling professor (emeritus) of comparative literature at Yale, has recently published A Critic's Journey: Literary Reflections 1958-1998 (Yale).

I will not try to answer in this essay a crucial question which has been formulated in the following terms: "To what extent should memory, with its powerful and legitimate but inconsistent demands on our attention, be the guiding spirit of historiography?" While recognizing "the need to sort out the tangle of the competing claims of history and of memory ... in the lengthening shadow of the Holocaust," my main purpose is to clarify the importance of survivor videotestimony rather than to adjudicate competing claims.

What was initiated in New Haven and led to the founding of Yale's video archive for Holocaust testimony in 1981 involves the careful use of modern technology to augment historical knowledge and strengthen the collective memory. But it is not primarily the collection or confirmation of historical data for which testimony archives will be important, though this is one of their values. The trained historian, who still, on the whole, distrusts oral history (especially when gathered so long after the event), can consult many other sources, including the records of the Nazi bureaucracy; contemporary chronicles; letters and diaries in the YIVO archive; the reports of those who stumbled on or inspected the liberated camps; testimonies in the Berlin Bundesarchiv collected from 1948 on by the Verein der Verfolgten des Nazi Regimes; Ilya Ehrenberg and Vasily Grossman's The Black Book; the Nuremberg, Auschwitz, Eichmann, and Barbie trial proceedings; and documents and personal accounts that came like a flood in the first years after Liberation. Further sources are still coming to light, from recently opened Soviet archives, for example. There are also a considerable number of audiotestimonies, beginning with Paolo Boder's interviews in the DP camps. Even without the recent use of video to record the survivors and bystanders, our knowledge of the event has become monumental in its scope.

This does not detract, however, from the innovative character of videotestimony. I see the medium, first of all, as an extension of oral tradition under modern circumstances. Pierre Nora connects the appeal of oral, and particularly audiovisual, history ("fragments put before our eyes") with the sense of directness we have become accustomed to through the media. Our taste for the everyday life of the past, and the biographies of ordinary people, displays, he says, "the will to make the history we are reconstructing equal to the history we have lived...." It remains unclear, at the same time, whether this intense desire for a direct, (tele)visual experience compensates for the indirectness of the past (increasing, because history, in an era of transformations, recedes from memory faster than ever) or for the poverty of the present--a rich poverty, related to media that trap us in the false present of simulacra. They oversalt experience, as it were, and so keep us thirsting. Why are we not sated with reality but need to mirror and intensify it this way?

The scandal is increased by the fact that the micro-histories in the Holocaust archive are mainly grim and painful. They are not an escape from the "acceleration of history" into "the slow rhythm of past times." There does occur a significant slowing through the very effort of speaking. But this slowing indicates that terror usurps the real once more, that everything is marked by it, as if narrative time--the very time of transmission--was always about to collapse. There is significant tension between the "rage to transmit" and an "impotence to communicate." The survivor interview often reveals a temporal flaw that threatens ordinary time--a time that has to be extemporized and regained by what I define as a testimonial alliance, that is, an alliance between witness and listener. …

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