Reframing Holocaust Testimony
Indiana University Press 2016
I serve on a planning committee for the annual Holocaust Commemoration in Wichita, where I live and teach. Every year when we convene, we remind ourselves that we need to invite survivors to speak. With survivors aging, the time is quickly approaching when we will no longer be able to hear about their experiences firsthand.
But of course this isn’t quite true. For more than a quarter century, organizations have devoted time, attention and resources to preserving the memories of survivors. In this way, those of us interested in hearing these stories–whether academic researchers or ‘ordinary’ people–can access the power and authenticity of survivor narratives through recorded video testimony.
All of this is a good thing. But as Noah Shenker reminds us, the appearance of authenticity can distract us from the very real impact of the ways interviews are staged. Previous scholarship has alerted us to the need to consider the dynamics between the interviewer and interviewee in. In Reframing Holocaust Testimony (Indiana University Press, 2016), Shenker presents a compelling argument that we need to move beyond this to include the mechanics and institutional dynamics of the interviews as well. The training of interviewers, the kinds of scripts used in conducting them, the ways in which images are created, filed, and distributed and many other factors shape the way in which survivors recall and represent their experiences. Shenker looks specifically at three repositories–the Fortunoff Video Archive, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Shoah Foundation. He demonstrates that each had different goals, emphases and methods of conducting interviews. And, in a close reading of the testimony of several survivors who gave testimony to each of these institutions, he shows how the differences in approaches created a different kind of testimony. It’s a valuable reminder of the need to honor the memories of survivors by asking the questions necessary to truly understand their testimony.