Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age
Survivors’ Stories and New Media Practices
Jeffrey Shandler

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Introduction

On any given day, individuals around the world sit before computer screens to watch and listen to videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors. More than seven decades after the end of World War II, many people approach this resource with some expectation of what they will encounter, reflecting their various intents: Descendants of deceased Holocaust survivors view these recordings to learn about their ancestors’ prewar lives and wartime experiences as well as about relatives killed during the war. High school students are exhorted to listen to survivors’ narratives as morally galvanizing exemplars. Historians screen these videos to research instances of Nazi persecution that are otherwise undocumented. Psychologists scrutinize survivors’ storytelling for insights into how people cope with trauma. Victims of more recent genocides listen to these recordings to discover how, decades after the Holocaust, its survivors articulate their memories.

At the same time that screening these videos addresses an array of established objectives, the accounts survivors offer are full of surprises. For as much as these interviews are shaped by the protocols of the projects that produced them and by decades of accumulating tropes of Holocaust remembrance, each video documents a singular encounter with an individual who takes a distinct approach to the task of recalling the past. What, then, are viewers of these videos to make of moments when, in the course of describing his or her experience of the genocide, a survivor bursts into song, starts speaking in another language, or exposes bodily scars of wartime injuries? What is the significance of survivors’ comparing their own experiences during the war to how the Holocaust is portrayed in a novel or feature film? What might be the value of videos in which interviewers prompt survivors’ answers or argue with interviewees? How should one understand those moments when survivors can’t recall the past or resist doing so? Moreover, what do these moments reveal about the potential significance of the videos generally, above and beyond the value invested in them by their creators and advocates? And how do these moments elucidate the efforts to record, preserve, and share these memories with this choice of medium?

Video recordings of Holocaust survivors recounting their wartime experiences have become a mainstay of how the most notorious genocide of the modern age is documented, studied, and memorialized. There are now tens of thousands of these recordings in archives and libraries around the world. Museum exhibitions dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust show excerpts of these interviews, filmmakers include them in documentaries, and, thanks to the availability of these recordings on videotapes, then on DVDs, and, most recently, through online streaming, students around the world examine them in classrooms or access them on laptops and tablets.

The practice of videotaping survivors arose at a strategic convergence of the dynamics of Holocaust memory practices and innovations in communications technology. During the 1970s, the Holocaust became an increasingly prominent fixture of public culture in the Western world. Holocaust survivors were elevated to a new stature, hailed both as witnesses of unrivaled authenticity to a defining event of modern times and as models of tenacity in the wake of unspeakable persecution. This rise in survivors’ prestige correlated with their aging. A growing attention to their mortality heightened the sense of survivors’ importance and prompted concerns to preserve survivors’ memories in the face of their imminent passing. Though Holocaust survivors had been relating their personal histories since the war’s end, the increased sense of urgency to document these recollections prompted the search for new means to do so.

Concurrently, video cameras and videotape players, previously an expensive technology used mostly by professionals in the broadcasting industry, became readily available to middle-class consumers. Video quickly replaced Super 8 mm film as the preference for making home movies, given the newer medium’s increased flexibility for recording and facility of viewing. The ease with which videos could be taped and watched greatly expanded amateur filmmaking, especially in the “home mode” of recording family life1—only to be surpassed in the early twenty-first century by the advent of digital video cameras and smart phones, which have made recording, viewing, and especially disseminating moving pictures even easier. In addition to individual recordings of survivors’ memories, typically made by their family members for private use, a number of organized efforts were undertaken to record collections of videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, more than a score of these archives were established in the Americas, Europe, Israel, and Australia; some recording continues to this day.2

In 1994 the project that would come to be known as the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive (VHA) was initiated. Within a few years, it became the largest and most widely available collection of video recordings of Holocaust survivors’ life stories. The beginning of the VHA coincided with an unprecedented level of attention to Holocaust remembrance in the American public sphere, in the form of official days of remembrance, widely seen feature and documentary films, the inauguration of high-profile museums and memorials, a proliferation of education programs, and increased scholarly attention to memory practices centered on the Holocaust. At the same time, the Holocaust loomed large as a paradigm for other genocides as well as an array of large-scale atrocities, even as some works of Holocaust remembrance provoked public controversy.

Though the VHA set out to use state-of-the-art technology to preserve the memories of survivors as this cohort’s passing approached, the Archive is itself evidence of how mutable memory practices are and how quickly the media they employ have changed. The VHA was initiated shortly before analog videotape yielded to digital media as the choice for recording moving pictures. The Archive’s goal of preserving memories was also challenged by the growing realization that newer media are less stable than older ones. At the same time, the advent of the Internet marked the start of a new era in media practices, transforming the ways in which information could be stored, inventoried, disseminated, and engaged. Digital and online technologies soon became central to the Archive’s agenda, facilitating the preservation, indexing, and access of its collection of videos. Thus, as it straddles the temporal boundary marked by the loss of living witnesses to the Holocaust, the VHA also bestrides the transition from the “video age” to the “digital age.”

The VHA’s conjoining of new media and Holocaust memory practices at this convergence of threshold moments exemplifies the new possibilities and challenges now being addressed in the digital humanities, even as the issues at hand are often specific to the concerns of Holocaust remembrance. Examining the Archive as a subject of interest in its own right engages multiple, interconnected issues: What are the implications of using video to document someone’s life history? What impact does using digital media to catalog, index, and disseminate these videos have on the ways they can be engaged? From watching and listening to Holocaust survivors tell their life stories, what can be learned about memory practices, both old (telling stories) and new (screening videos, searching digital databases), as well as their interrelation? How is each video simultaneously a singular account of an individual’s personal history and part of a large-scale effort to preserve Holocaust memory? What are the implications of recording these life histories at the turn of the millennium, centered on an event that took place a half century earlier and that has been extensively documented in a variety of media for decades?

Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age addresses these and other questions by exploring the VHA’s holdings and scrutinizing the Archive as itself a work of Holocaust remembrance. The first chapter, “An Archive in Contexts,” provides an overview of the VHA’s conceptualization and situates the Archive within a set of historical trajectories and contemporary contexts that inform its content, form, and agenda: Jewish ethnographic projects, dating from the late nineteenth century; the efflorescence in the final years of the twentieth century of public memory projects and new thinking about memory practices, especially those concerning the Holocaust; and the interrelation of media and memory, as shaped by the cascade of new communications technologies of the post–World War II era.

The subsequent chapters present a series of case studies that read the Archive “against the grain”—that is, they use the VHA’s rubrics for searching its holdings to examine issues of Holocaust remembrance other than those that are central to the Shoah Foundation’s mission. Doing so reveals the Archive’s potential as a resource for subjects beyond the vision of its creators, offering insights into Holocaust remembrance and personal narratives more generally, and revealing how the apparatus of this resource is an exemplar of digital humanities. These case studies examine selected interviews to understand how Holocaust survivors relate their life stories within—and sometimes against—the Archive’s parameters. This approach demonstrates how the VHA’s indexing and search functions both facilitate and constrain researchers’ inquiries into its holdings and thereby inform the meaning of individual interviews.

The case studies in Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age approach these interviews as cultural works that are complex in form. They are simultaneously autobiographical narratives, collaborative performances, works of video, and archival documents. To analyze their multiple aspects, each case study addresses a different key issue for understanding the VHA and its holdings. By no means do these case studies strive to offer a comprehensive approach to the VHA; rather, the approach is meant to suggest additional possibilities for further study of this and similar collections. Nor are the interviews selected for examination meant to be viewed as representative of the Archive as a whole—an impossible prospect, given the wide-ranging diversity to be found within the VHA’s extensive holdings. In fact, many of these interviews were chosen because they are in some way exceptional, and they offer insights into the larger subject at hand by virtue of their distinctions.

The case studies are grouped according to three basic elements of these videos: narrative, language, and spectacle. As three of the six elements of drama enumerated in Aristotle’s Poeticsmythos, lexis, and opsis—they are venerable categories of formal analysis. This approach situates VHA interviews within the extensive history of performed narrative works, rather than confining them to a particular genre (such as oral history or wartime memoir) or treating them as exceptional phenomena. In addition, these categories invite analyses of the VHA that look beyond established notions of the interviews’ value or of how they should be studied, in particular challenging methodologies that neglect the interviews’ mediated nature. Each case study within these categories takes a distinct approach to its subject of inquiry, defined by the scope of material selected from the VHA, which varies from a single interview to selections from among thousands of possible segments, and by analytic approaches apposite to the particular topic.

Chapter 2, “Narrative: Tales Retold,” challenges the widely held notion that video interviews with Holocaust survivors provide eyewitness accounts of unrivaled immediacy by analyzing how these life histories are informed by other narratives, whether storytelling encountered in the mass media or a survivor’s own prior accounts. In addition, this chapter examines how survivors incorporate reflections on the practice of recalling the past within the telling of their personal histories. Though speech is fundamental to these videos’ creation and reception, their analysis often disregards survivors’ choice of language as a topic in its own right. Chapter 3, “Language: In Other Words,” considers distinctive examples of survivors’ engagement with language that reveal their investments in its symbolic value, focusing on the role of Yiddish in hundreds of these videos. Chapter 4, “Spectacle: Seeing as Believing,” probes the visual aspect of video interviews with Holocaust survivors, which, though much acclaimed, has received relatively little scholarly discussion. To ascertain how spectacle informs the videos’ creation and reception, this chapter examines exceptional moments in VHA interviews that disrupt the Archive’s austere visual aesthetic of “talking heads,” including survivors’ display of wartime injuries, prisoner tattoos, and religious artifacts.

Together, these case studies address tensions central to the VHA. Though each recording is a singular work, all these interviews are shaped by the larger project of the Shoah Foundation, which enabled their creation, provided guidelines for their recording, and facilitates their preservation, storage, cataloging, dissemination, and access. As extensive as the Archive is, its interviews present the recollections, thoughts, material relics, and performances of only those survivors willing and able to offer their personal histories, each related on a certain day to a particular interviewer. These tensions do not diminish the value of the VHA’s videos but inform their significance and are emblematic of memory practices in the digital age.

As is true of any archive, a test of the VHA’s value lies in what can be found within its holdings above and beyond what its creators envisioned. By probing the Archive in this manner, Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age explores the possibilities of working both with and against the matrices that structure digital humanities resources. Thus, as this book addresses issues that are particular to recalling the Holocaust, it considers larger questions about the interrelation of media practices and memory practices at this threshold moment in their respective histories. Indeed, the VHA’s conjoining of new media and memory, at a time of heightened concern about both the transformative potential of digital humanities and the future of Holocaust remembrance, exemplifies the new cultural possibilities and challenges now being addressed in digital humanities.

Notes

1. See Richard Chalfen, Snapshot Versions of Life (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), 8.

2. For information on survivor oral history videotaping projects, see US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “International Database of Oral History Testimonies,” http://www.ushmm.org/online/oral-history/ (accessed September 17, 2015).