Time is not often on the side of remembrance. Fighting against temptation towards silence, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies has been central in pioneering the processes of recording, researching, theorizing and preserving audiovisual testimonial materials. This year marks the archive’s 30th anniversary at Yale. The collection is home to 4,500 testimonies that have been recorded across the globe, from Kansas City to Paris. The conference “Achievements and Challenges: 1982–2012” this Sunday, Oct. 21, will illustrate students’ and scholars’ innovative uses of the testimonials in Yale’s classrooms and beyond. “I wanted people to see how the testimonies are used in so many diverse ways just at this university,” said Joanne Rudoff, archivist for the Fortunoff collection. The conference will also feature presentations by distinguished visiting scholars such as Christopher Browning and Lawrence Langer.
Engagement with the testimonials has gone far beyond traditional methodological approaches. The new hermeneutics invented by viewers, scholars and archivists have been necessitated by the nature of both the video format and their traumatic, sometimes unspeakable, content.
“It was clear from the start that video made such a difference from audio,” recalled Geoffrey Hartman, one of the archive’s four co-founders. “The [original founders] were astonished by the force of speech and general impact of video,” he said. Soon after, they started working towards an organization that would sponsor further visual recordings. Once a sizeable grant had been secured, the archive was officially founded in November 1982.
The testimonials restore the humanity that the Nazi footage so completely denies. The interview process stresses that those who record their testimonials are “agents, not patients,” said Hartman, a Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature. The archive and similar video projects grant viewers access to a “testimony of a thinking and feeling person, rather than of a victim.”
There was a sense back in 1978 among survivors that the movie “Holocaust” released that year had not told their story. They wanted it told realistically and not the way TV was doing at the time, Hartman explained. Without funding but unable to withstand silence, some of the founders went into an empty room in 1979, brought a cameraman along, and started videotaping stories in New Haven.
The archive has since gone on to establish many of the recording standards for other similar projects. Unlike TV journalism, the archive’s interviews focus on careful and sustained listening. This process and its subsequent viewing require a longer attention span. So too does the course of history. It is for this reason that the founders decided not to program topics or direct the course of interviews. They sought to record narratives that would be of use both for the news of that day and the histories of tomorrow.
Hartman said that the archive’s quick growth was unexpected. No one “was doing this systematically” at the time in America — “None of us knew there was a vacuum there.” What was more surprising, he said, was that they also encountered a “totally open field” in need of more archival documentation in Europe.
Today, the collection’s use and number of visitors has been on the rise due to awareness of the archive’s existence. This task was achieved, in no small part, by Rudoff’s outreach efforts.
Each spring, Rudoff combs the course catalog for classes that might be interested in using the archive’s materials as resources. She then sends a personal email to the professor of the class. Jessica Helfand, professor of art, incorporated the testimonials into the syllabus for her freshman seminar, where students created works of multimedia art after watching testimonies. Many of their works are on display at the Sterling Memorial Library exhibit accompanying the conference.
When watching testimonial video, the “distance of documentation” dissolves. The notion that “this all happened in the past” fades as the immediacy of the image breaks down the traditional defenses of the passive, disinterested viewer. “Numbers don’t tell you what happened. It’s important to continue to say 6 million but it also becomes abstract,” Hartman said. “Seeing these survivors on television is a very different experience from reading.” This difference requires a certain amount of preparing the audience: “You don’t want to impose a barrier but you cannot pretend that these are materials that are ready to be presented unmediated. What is on the screen cannot simply be accepted without question.”
By all accounts, mediating interaction with the materials is a tricky tension. Fields of study promise knowledge to those that pursue them, and yet the study of Holocaust testimonials challenges the practices of scholarship and the limits of representation. How can scholars pursue the intelligibility of an event that is, by its nature, unintelligible?
It is this question, among others, that Hartman raises in his 1996 book of essays “The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust.” He writes that there is, historically speaking, an after-Auschwitz, but there is not yet a beyond-Auschwitz. The “anxiety to settle to secure meaning” through extensive historiography cannot — and should not — achieve “closure.” Studying cannot replace the essential contradictions inherent to acts of remembrance and mediation.
At the same time, the alternative to this drive for closure doesn’t need to be an incomprehensible abyss. Or worse, silence. Rather, Hartman suggests possibilities for positive forms of representation that connect history to memory: “We become, in Maurice Blanchot’s words, ‘guardians of an absent meaning.’”
The video format is one way of expanding the avenues of expression available to survivors. Hartman situates the video testimonial between documentary and oral history, general history and personal trauma. The testimonial format is not always the strictest recorder of facts, he writes, but is often the most sensitive register of their psychological and emotional effects.
To help cue students into these new ways of seeing, Rudoff often gives seminars and workshops to classes using the materials. “Tapes are often deeper and richer, but you have to know how to read them. How to read for posture, body language, tone of voice,” she explained. “The transcript often can do great injustice. Words like ‘10-second silence’ and ‘30-second silence’ are so lame compared to watching a person decide whether to speak, or chew words, or just resting because they can’t go on at the moment and need to take a break. If you can’t see those silences, you can’t read them.” She recalled a recent interview with a man who was often so physically active — “standing and sitting down, acting things out” — that it seemed the mike on his lapel would fall off altogether.
Ironically, the instruments of preservation and dissemination themselves are one of the archive’s biggest threats to preserving public memory. The archivists must not only fight against denials, but also against the decay and disuse of their videotapes and playback machines.
Four flights down from the archive’s main offices, in a chilled basement room in Sterling Memorial Library, Frank Clifford, the Video Archive Project Manager, has been working for over two years to prevent the disappearance of memory. Along with the support of the archive staff and the Yale University Library information technology department, Clifford makes sure that the tapes will be available not only for the 30th anniversary but for the 40th and 100th. The entire forward digital migration is expected to be completed by 2014. Even then, the need for technological, in addition to cultural, vigilance will remain.
“When people think digital, they think forever. But digital is not forever,” Rudoff said. Clifford added that some of the playback and cleaning machines were no longer being made, and neither were their replacement parts.
Clifford sits in front of three monitors, day in and out, making sure that not a single bite of information is uncopied, unpreserved, unknown. Around his chair play videos of testimonials in the process of being transferred, or readied for transfer, by the machines. “Emotionally, it can be overwhelming at times,” he said of his eight-hour days surrounded by videos. “But it’s also an honor to be the one preserving memories and words.”
Technologically, the process — to anyone who hasn’t been a video engineer for 30 years — seems equally overwhelming. Just as new techniques of seeing have been invented in response to the testimonials throughout the years, so too has new technology. The library’s IT department built much of the testing and feedback software themselves.
A series of graphs and charts displaying the video’s audio, speed and color sit in tall stacks beside and on his desk; elsewhere on campus, computers double-check this information to ensure quality control. In short, each tape goes through layers and layers of testing to prevent any signs of corruption. Copies of the tapes are stored in geographically separate locations, and copies of these copies are made. As of now, 5435 hours of footage, or 2200 tapes out of the 6220 total, have been restored.
The end goal of this complex migration process is not only to preserve, but also to provide better access. More than 50 percent of current guests to the archive are visiting scholars. Universities can acquire the tapes through a loan process, and at a cost. But once the digitization is complete, users anywhere around the world will be able to log in through their partnering research institution or university and apply to use the testimony for up to six months. Their video will be streaming, not downloadable, and it will be marked with a time-coded finding aid, to help them locate specific sections.
Hartman emphasizes that preservation is important in both the physical sense and also with respect to “keeping memory and all the discussion that goes with it alive.” In his essay about the Yale Testimony project, ”Learning from Survivors”, Hartman discusses the universal aspects in the narratives of the “heterogeneous chorus of voices.” Each testimony, while original and deeply personal, also emphasizes the larger structure of injustice itself. An injustice that is both specific and completely impersonal, individual and “disastrously” alike.
Correction: Oct. 25
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the Fortunoff Video Archive was developed and is supported in part by Yale ITS and “the IT Department at Yale.” In fact, the Fortunoff Video Archive was developed and is supported by the Yale University Library’s information technology department.