Yale archives preserve survivors’ accounts of the Holocaust
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — To Lawrence Langer, the purpose of interviewing survivors of the Holocaust is not to prevent such a monumentally horrific event from happening again.
History has shown that, to some degree, genocide has continued unabated since Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was destroyed in World War II.
Langer, 88, who lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has conducted 84 interviews for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University and said, “I do not believe knowing about the Holocaust will prevent future holocausts. That’s been proved already.
“I don’t look for moral lessons, but a human being who is determined to know what history is about, what being alive is about, has an obligation to know about history.”
Learning about history through the video testimonies of those who survived, resisted or witnessed the Holocaust has been the mission of the Fortunoff archive since 1979, when it was created as a community effort called the Holocaust Survivors Film Project. According to its director, Stephen Naron, the archive was one of the first efforts to record the raw, unedited memories of those who lived through the Nazi era from 1933 to 1945.
Starting with 183 testimonies given to Yale in 1981, the collection — which is open to anyone who registers and requests to see a specific video — is close to 4,500 testimonies strong, totaling “over 10,000 hours . in over a dozen different languages,” Naron said.
Langer said “the results have been spectacular,” partly because the archive began in 1979, when memories were still relatively fresh, partly because the interviewers are well-versed in the history, so the person being filmed doesn’t feel a need to explain basic facts, and partly because the testimony does not rely on questions that might limit the survivor’s story.
“Our premise is that the survivors know what they want to say . and they need a supportive atmosphere and a sympathetic atmosphere to allow them to say it,” said Langer, who will present a screening at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St., of edited testimonies called “Soul Witness: the Brookline Holocaust Witness Project,” with a question-and-answer session afterward.
“When I interview someone, a certain rapport develops and so they feel more comfortable telling their stories,” Langer said.
“I’ve heard stories that are so terrible that I don’t write about them and I don’t talk about them to anybody,” he said. Langer taught English at Simmons College and has written 15 books on the Holocaust and other subjects.
“I want to hear them and I think audiences need to hear them because otherwise we sentimentalize the Holocaust into the triumph of the human spirit,” he said. While there were such stories, “at the same time there are stories of deprival. They are as interested in talking about the people they lost as much as the people who survived.”
Many suffered unfathomable losses, as the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews, as well as LGBTQ persons, people with disabilities, Roma and Sinti people (once called Gypsies) and others until the Allies defeated Hitler in 1945.
Among those furthering the mission of making Holocaust testimonies accessible is Sarah Garibova, the Fortunoff’s first Geoffrey H. Hartman fellow, named for a Yale professor whose wife, Renee Hartman, was one of the first survivors taped. Geoffrey Hartman, who escaped Germany as a child on a Kindertransport to England, helped launch the original film project.
Garibova is working on an annotated edition of the testimony of Liubov’ K., a woman from the central Ukrainian town of Zvenigorodka, who was born in 1921 and died in 2013 in Haifa, Israel. (The Fortunoff archive uses only first names and last initials in identifying those whom it records.)
The interview was in Russian, with some Ukrainian and Yiddish. “I translated it into English and I also wrote annotations for it, giving it some context and scholarly insight into the big picture, said Garibova, a post-doctoral researcher who specializes in Russian and Jewish history.
In her testimony, Liubov’ K. “talks quite thoroughly about her pre-war life, the war period and then the post-war so you really get 80 years of a person’s life,” Garibova said. The transcript is more than 50 pages long.
Liubov’ “grew up in a very, very poor family. They didn’t own their own home,” Garibova said. “At a certain point her family had to give her and her brother over to an orphanage.” That was during the “Great Famine of 1932-33,” which was a genocide aimed at Ukraine by Joseph Stalin, according to britannica.com.
Liubov’ K.’s education was mostly in Yiddish, Garibova said, but she was then imprisoned in a number of labor camps run by the Nazis and Ukrainian guards. “In the early months of the German occupation, both her parents were shot” at separate times while being confined in a ghetto, she said.
Somehow, Liubov’ survived the war and “was responsible for initiating the construction of three monuments at various graves” in her hometown, Garibova said. She had one daughter and a grandson.
Garibova said it isn’t easy listening to the tragic stories of Holocaust survivors. “I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It’s difficult and it’s very depressing to work with these materials. I can’t say it makes me a more optimistic person, but, as a scholar, it’s really enriched my perspective on Soviet-Jewish history,” which included “economic crises, social crises and famine after famine.”
However, Garibova said, “I think working with testimonies gives you access to both the very dark side of human nature and the positive side. Everybody who survived owes their life to at least one person . almost always a non-Jew. And they owe their survival to their own creativity. I’ve been blown away by the spur-of-the-moment things that have saved someone’s life. ... You can think of 10 ways where it could have failed.”
Another survivor, Maria G., “was being taken to Babi Yar to be shot” when she was about 13 but a Russian or Ukrainian civilian pulled her out of line and saved her life,” Garibova said. “Why he did that I don’t know. We never learned his name.” Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine, was a site of several massacres.
Naron said the Fortunoff’s testimonies are conducted in a specific way that enables the survivor “to tell their story the way they want to tell the story. . We don’t ask a lot of questions, so the narrative can be convoluted, jumping back and forth in time and space.”
Recording the testimonies is a vital part of understanding the Nazi genocide, Naron said. “You can’t just write the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of the perpetrators. You need the voices of the survivors and the voices of the victims in order to understand the complete picture, the complete history of this period.”
In addition to scholars being able to access the interviews, “their children, children’s children, children’s children’s children will be able to come” to see and hear what their ancestors experienced, he said.
“Collectively, this archive also serves as a warning to the present and the future about the danger of certain ideological extremes: Nazism, racism, fascism, extreme nationalism,” Naron said. “To say ‘never again’ is foolish because it has (occurred) again and again and we haven’t been able to stop it. Testimonies won’t stop it.”
Some of the testimonies relate to genocides occurring at the time they were recorded, Naron said. In 1979 and 1980, some Holocaust survivors “talk about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and what was happening there,” he said. “Whatever’s happening in the world at that time when the testimony is being recorded impacts how the survivor tells their story.”
All the interviews are conducted in a studio in New Haven or at one of the Fortunoff’s affiliate projects spread around the world, including Israel, Argentina and Slovakia. Many of those have stopped taping, which makes collecting the testimonies more difficult as the survivors age, Naron said. Last year, just two testimonies were taken at Yale. But some interviewers at Yale have been doing the work “for decades . They’re experts in what they do,” he said.
“You need to have a great deal of historical background knowledge to understand what transpires in these testimonies,” many of which are in German, Polish or Ukrainian.
“It’s very emotionally challenging for the survivors to come and give their testimonies,” Naron said. “People think it’s cathartic. It’s not cathartic. It’s . emotionally challenging for survivors to give testimony.”
As the World War II generation ages, grows more feeble and dies, “This is a new issue for us, and we don’t know how to deal with it because we don’t have the resources to send a team out,” Naron said.
One advantage now, however, is that “99 percent of it has been digitized for preservation and access and is being made available to researchers . and the public here at Yale and at partner sites around the world,” Naron said. One is at the University of Hartford.
Since the Fortunoff archive was launched, film director Stephen Spielberg in 1994 founded the USC Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which has collected 55,000 testimonies, Naron said. In 1993, Spielberg directed the movie “Schindler’s List,” about a German businessman who saved hundreds of mostly Polish Jews by hiring them to work in his factories. “We’ve just signed an agreement with them to have closer cooperation,” Naron said. “We traded access to each other’s collections.”
Debra Bush has been an archives assistant since 1989 and said that, as a black woman, “I could understand some of the survivors’ thought processes,” knowing that skin color or ethnicity can put someone in danger. “If we allow that to keep happening again, who’s next? It can happen again. People think it can’t but it can . especially in the way the climate of the world is now. I think it can very easily.”
Christy Tomecek, a project archivist, works with the descriptions and cataloging of the videos. “In our access system you can watch the video in one pane and then in the side pane there will be transcribed notes. . It’s a lot different when you are watching someone talking about their experience and not this sanitized information.”
The Fortunoff archive is part of the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department and can be accessed at https://web.library.yale.edu/testimonies . Registration is required and the viewer must request a specific person to watch the entire testimony, but there are several edited testimonies on the website.
Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com