Holocaust Memory and the Digital Age with Jeffrey Shandler

Jeffrey Shandler joins us to talk about Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age: Survivors’ Stories and Memory Practices: How Holocaust memory and memorialization is changing in the digital age, the history and meaning of testimony and the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, and what the future holds in store for these memory practices.

Jeffrey Shandler is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous works, including Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History (2014) and Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (2009).

Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age examines the way in which digital technology is affecting memory practices, looking in particular at the Shoah Foundation Video History Archive at USC. He traces the history of the Video History Archive, examines its project, and considers the possibilities and challenges presented by video testimony as a medium and a genre.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

Holocaust Testimony and Holocaust Memory

Jason Lustig: Before we get started, I want to say that when I got this book, I immediate got really excited because as you know I’m a scholar who focuses on the history of archives in my own work. Here we see another kind of archive in the Shoah Foundation the Visual History archive. They store videos and not documents, but still this is part of an area that I find to be so interesting and it’s a driver of my own work. But before we delve into the Shoah Foundation itself, I wanted to start by talking about and thinking about Holocaust testimony in a broad sense. Why do you think that Holocaust testimony is an important part of Holocaust memory, to the extent that it has become this huge project, when you look at the Shoah Foundation or any of the other kinds of archives or institutions that are dedicated to trying to collect survivor testimonies from the era of the Holocaust?

Jeffery Shandler: I think if we look at the trajectory of Holocaust memory, you’ll see that the practice of people writing down their memories starts—it’s actually not even memories—it’s people documenting their experiences during the war. Then as soon as the war is over, there’s a burgeoning of efforts, among many—not all, certainly, but many Holocaust survivors—to record their memories, and this is being done (with) pencil and paper, and some of these get published, some of these remain private documents.

This continues to be an impulse among survivors for decades, then at a certain point the interest in these by other people, as works like this get published, pulls the process in two different directions. One is the idea that instead of waiting for the initiative of survivors to produce work, that organizations start soliciting and gathering and collecting material. And the other is an interest in exploring other media besides writing and publishing, first with audio recording and then with video recording. And video recording actually starts, also, on a kind of grassroots level when video cameras start to become readily available to a middle-class consumer in the 1970s. You have families recording a relative’s story. Shortly thereafter, you have projects that begin in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, in the United States and in other countries, to do this in a more organized fashion.

There’s a very interesting dynamic both of who initiates the project, the kinds of projects they are, if they’re individual efforts or if they’re group efforts, and then the advent of new media, as new technologies come along. And that’s part of understanding the material, because the all these factors shape what you actually wind up with in terms of what people have to say about their wartime experiences or their lives generally.

Subscribe to Jewish History Matters

Subscribe so you can listen to Jewish History Matters episodes on the go, and get updates whenever a new episode is available.

JL: What you’re tracing out here, I think what a lot of scholars will recognize, is that there is a really intense drive to document among those Jews who experienced the Holocaust and then survived, both looking at the events while they were taking place as well as writing down what their experiences were after the fact. What do you think is at stake in in this kind of testimony? Why do you think that there is this drive to document? Is it just that people understand that this is something that needs to be remembered? Or is there something more personal at stake?

JS: It’s interesting. First of all, we should bear in mind that not every Holocaust survivor chooses to do this, and some actually actively resist doing it and just aren’t interested in participating in this kind of work. Among the ones who do, they don’t necessarily all have the same motives. And of course increasingly the motives are external to the survivors.

What I find interesting is that the status of survivors hasn’t always been the same. Right after the war, there wasn’t necessarily a strong interest in what survivors’ memories were, as much as there was looking at a documentary record, in terms of literally documents, paper documents, of the progress of this genocide and looking really from the perpetrators’ side, to try and understand the scope the motives the ways of carrying it out.

That starts to change over time for a number of reasons, including the fact that the survivors, who are to a certain extent a cohort in terms of age—there are people who are younger and older, but the core survivor population are people who are in their late teens to early 20s at the end of the war, those are the people who stood the best chance of surviving for a variety of reasons. And as that cohort aged over time, a number of things happened, including their greater ability to start talking about their story.

Right after the war, their main concern is building a new life in ways that’s hard for most of us to imagine. People who, whatever they knew normal life to be before the war, that was over. You couldn’t go back to that, physically, culturally, linguistically. These are people who had their education disrupted, they had no professional skills, they had no money, they had no resources. They often had no family or communities to turn to. And so their first task is starting life over in a big way. And over time, they start increasingly wanting to tell their stories, first to one another, and we see this in the early postwar efforts of writing memorial books and other kinds of early memorial activities that are internal to survivor community, and later with time an interest in sharing these stories with other Jews, with other people at large, with the next generation. And that drives, a more public approach to the Holocaust memory.

Part of it is a desire to see that their story is told, that it isn’t lost, and for its historical importance, and increasingly that gets taken up and especially in the United States for its paradigmatic importance, the idea that the Holocaust is not only of interest in its own right, but it becomes a model for thinking about other genocides and other large-scale human atrocities so that the motive for telling the story for collecting this material starts to build out from survivors talking among themselves to stories that become of greater and greater interest universally and having a universal importance. In the course of that there’s a rise of interest in the value that eyewitness testimony has rather than seeing it as something that is suspect, subjective, limited, but becoming seen as having a value that supersedes other forms of evidence about not only the Holocaust but other events.

So the collecting of Holocaust survivors stories becomes more and more valued, and of course at the same time survivors are getting older. As they get older there’s a growing concern that you’re not to be able to talk to these folks forever, and how can the engagement with survivors which is become more and more important for a variety of reasons, how can that be sustained? Part of that is a turn to organizing projects like these recordings and to the medium that listening to people and watching people will have a value that is in some way stronger than reading what they’ve written or what other people have written down that they have to say.

JL: In a lot of ways, I think that you are really touching on a series of core issues that relate to the Holocaust and how we remember it, how we talk about it, how we write about it, and how it’s changed over time.I think that you’re identifying ways in which people always were talking about the Holocaust. But part of your argument is that it becomes a much more intensive process in this period that you’re analyzing. You mentioned some of the technical aspects that relate to this, for instance the availability of camcorders. But going back to title the book itself, Holocaust memory in the digital age, what’s the relationship of technology to memory, and to Holocaust memory in particular? Is this another way of understanding why people began to record their testimonies or life stories, whether we’re talking about in written, audio, video format, in this time period as opposed to just thinking about it in relationship to the production of, say, the Holocaust miniseries (from 1978) or other kinds of public events?

JS: What I think is important to address the set of issues you’ve just laid out is that it’s important to think of memory practices as having a history, and that memory is a relational phenomenon. It is a relationship between what is being remembered and who’s doing the remembering. Which means that it’s always changing. That is key, I think, to understanding the dynamics of Holocaust memory practices, regarding the people involved, institutions involved, the agendas involved, and the technologies involved as well.

This is why I think to understand the Shoah Visual History Archive, which is something that is created in the mid-1990s, it’s happening at a very particular moment in the history of Holocaust memory practices. The 1990s is this decade of explosion of memory practices that are quite rich and that I think informed the project. And it’s also of value to see it in relationship to how Holocaust memory practices developed over time, from the immediate post-war period up to the moment when the archive is created, by Steven Spielberg after making another work of Holocaust media—the film Schindler’s List—in the course of which he meets lots of different Holocaust survivors who start telling him their stories, and he decides to initiate this project. It’s not the first project to videotape Holocaust survivors, that have been going on for at least a decade and half, and before Spielberg starts his project. But he approaches it in a different way, partly in terms of scale, to do something on an international basis, gathering an unprecedented number of interviews very quickly.

Also, the project to me is of interest from a technological standpoint because it is on the cusp between the age of video and the digital age. For example, when they’re filming these interviews, they’re recorded in analog video because that’s what you had, and the possibility of digitizing these and putting them online, which eventually happens, is a projection at the time. I mean, in 1994 you can’t send a photo by email. It’s all text-based, let alone, streaming video. But people who were working on this technology were thinking ahead, that that was going to be something to be enabled, and so the archive was created to both look backward historically and at the same time look forward, especially technologically, to think about how to make this material accessible and what was going to become a very new way of not only preserving but disseminating and engaging all kinds of material, including video. It’s such an interesting project for that reason, because of its place in the larger history of Holocaust memory practices, relating to survivors and relating to technology as well.

The Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive

JL: You’re not the only person who’s written about the Shoah Foundation. There have been a whole bunch of books and articles that have gravitated towards it. So what would you is your contribution? What is it that you’re saying about the Shoah Foundation that hasn’t been said before? And on the flip side, what does the Shoah Foundation add to our understanding in particular of the development of these memory practices and Holocaust memory in particular? As you put it in the book, you say, and I’ll quote, that it’s an “exemplary subject for the study of memory practices and new media in its manifold complexity.” So, what’s going on here? Why do you think that the Shoah Foundation is such a topic of interest for many people? What do we learn that’s new from your work, and what do we get from looking at the Shoah Foundation in particular? It was a just the story of kind of a project of tremendous scale, or is there something more to it?

JS: I wanted to approach it in a way that I didn’t see it being approached by other scholars. I thinkto me, this was very interesting as a cultural work, and I wanted to take it on its own terms thinking about not only its context, which we talked about, but its form and its medium. I was interested in thinking at a certain level in a very sort of venerable way about the form of these performed recorded narratives. I wanted to think about, how does narrative work in these recordings? How does the role of language, since this is all about talk, work in in these interviews? And the fact that they’re visual, well, what actually is the value of a visual history archive, which is as much celebrated—not just this archive, but other video collections—(what is) the importance of video? What actually does the visual contribute? So I wanted to think about those elements, and to think of this as a cultural work—so in a way, not only thinking about it in relationship to Holocaust memory, although that’s clearly very important, but (also) in the way that the elements of these works, how they function.

Also, the archive itself, as you mentioned, it is a memory work itself. You not only have tens of thousands of individual works, but the whole project should be thought of as a work: In the collecting effort, in its scope and also in how it organizes the material, which is really key.

What I started doing, when I first looked at the archive—this is what people do when they research it—is as you actually don’t start by looking at videos. You start by looking at its database, its index. And if you’ve worked with oral histories, that just listening to one oral history or watching one oral history, it’s very labor-intensive. What do you do with tens of thousands of them? How do you make your way through so much material? This very much relies on what has been indexed in the very elaborate database that was created for this project, which not only tells you which interviews discuss certain topics, but where in the interview, so that you can go directly to segments of the interview and listen to somebody discuss a particular topic. You can also aggregate these, which allows you to create in effect new narratives. So, I was really intrigued by the possibilities of the technology for not only preserving and gathering and making the material accessible, but transforming it because of the kinds of engagements that it enables through searching and collecting material.

That, I think, speaks partly to your question about what makes this a particularly interesting topic, why precisely this archive. It isn’t actually necessarily primarily its scope, although the scope has some interesting elements to it. The Shoah Foundation, looking at what other archives had already collected in doing video interviews with the Holocaust survivors, wanted to get populations that had were underdocumented. So Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe—and of course, this is the done in the mid-1990s, when this begins, so that part of the world is newly opened up to the west. And so the ability to go and interview Holocaust survivors living in Ukraine and Belarus and Moldova and places like that, which really hadn’t been possible before, and wasn’t happening locally, this was an expansion.

Another thing they really tried to do was to gather interviews with members of the Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox communities, Hasidism, and so-called Yeshivish Jews who did not readily participate in projects like this. It hasn’t been part of the way they approach remembering the Holocaust, but they went out of there to get this group.

So, the pitch for a comprehensiveness was interesting, but the main thing to me was to think of it at a particular moment, starting in the 1990s. It’s a very, very interesting period in Holocaust remembrance, and a period that also by coincidence this technological transformation that was happening as the archive was being made, somebody who worked at the foundation told me they said, we kept updating our technology, we were always two years behind. As soon as we updated, things had changed, and that one of course wasn’t their fault. That was the fact that the technology was developing at such a pace that anytime you invested in a new kind of technology, at considerable expense and labor and so on and time, there were already new developments. And so, that that’s part of what makes it to me a particularly interesting project.

JL: I think that that the scope was only one aspect of it, it also has to do with the expansiveness of its vision, the fact that it calls itself a Visual History Archive. It’s not even limited to video, in a certain way. Anything that happens to be visual could fall under the umbrella of what they’re trying to collect and document. What would you say, then, is the importance of visual history as a medium? What would you say is the importance of visual history as something that can be collected or produced?

JS: The visual element includes not only the interviews proper, but at the end of the interviews, survivors were asked if they had a photographs, documents, artifacts that they wanted to have recorded as a kind of addendum to the interview proper. And these were each filmed with a survivor off-camera talking about the items, identifying what they were, if it’s a photograph who’s in the photograph, where and when it was taken; if it’s a document, explaining perhaps in a different language than the document was written in, what the document was and what its significance was in their life story, how the artifacts figure in their life story.

There’s an expansive approach here to the visual, but one of the things that I was struck by, for example in these sequences of photographing artifacts, was the extent to which the visual really is dependent on the verbal, so that what you’re looking at. If I show you a photograph and I don’t tell you who the people are in the photograph, you might have the vaguest general idea of where and when the photograph might have been taken, but as someone starts talking about the photograph, about the people in the photograph, the occasion when it was taken, the life of that photograph as a material object in their own histories—how, for example, with photographs that were taken before the war, how the survivors come by them after the war if they were removed from where they had lived, if property was destroyed or disrupted or disseminated. Those are remarkable stories. Objects that can look very ordinary become powerfully extraordinary from the story that’s told about them.

The visual, to me, was on the one hand, that’s what I think people felt distinguished video recordings from audio recordings, from written documents. But one of the things that I was struck by, working with the material, is the interdependence of the visual on the verbal, and that each reinforces the other, so that when you are looking at the object or the image of the object that the survivor is telling you this remarkable story about, you’re seeing something that the survivor maybe has kept from the war years for a half century later and has it and treasures it. And that, to me, is a powerful part of the presence of the visual. It underscores the story itself, by seeing the object at the survivor has kept and has chosen to share as part of telling their life story.

Personal Memory and Public Memory

JL: This is a really fascinating aspect, and I think we’re going to talk about this in a few minutes, the importance of this kind of spectacle of demonstrating and showing objects, injuries etc. But what I want to press you on here is this fundamental way in which the Shoah Foundation’s collections consist of personal memory on the one hand, meaning what the survivors themselves remembered from their experiences, as well as a site of public memory, inasmuch as it’s an institution in the public sphere where these stories are shared and made available. What’s the relationship here? When we talk about Holocaust memory, we don’t often think about the way in which memory has multiple meanings. It gets even more complicated, I think, when you get into the digital component where we throw around this terminology of “memory,” on a sort of technical level. You have “memory” on your computer, so on and so forth. I guess that’s to say, what is the meaning of memory? What kind of memory are we accessing or making available when we talk about the Visual History Archive?

JS: One of the things you see in this project is the extent to which the personal memory and the public memory projects aren’t separated, but that they bleed into one another. When someone is interviewed for a project that they know is a big project like this, that their interview is going to be part of an archive to be accessed broadly by future generations, that makes one think differently about how to tell the story of one’s life, different from say talking about it to a fellow survivor, talking about it to family members or local community. This vision of a larger audience, but also of being part of a larger project…

When I first started looking in the index and the database of the Shoah Foundation, there was a heading about where survivors talk about films and television programs. I thought, okay, that’s interesting. And then within that, one specific film was indexed—that film being, not surprisingly, Schindler’s List. So I thought, okay, that could be a place to start. There were about 100 interviews in which the film is mentioned, according to the index So I listen to all the ones that were in English. And it was quite interesting to see how it came up in the course of telling one’s life story that you start talking about a movie. In some cases, the interviewees were assuming that their interviewers had seen the film, because film opens in 1993. They’re being interviewed within the next five years, most of these folks, and they know the project is tied to Spielberg and because of his making of this film and so they’ll sometimes compare an event they’re describing, and they’ll compare to Schindler’s List, and they’ll say, “you remember that scene in the movie where X happened? Well, it was kind of like that.”

You have people who were on Schindler’s list, Jews who had been saved by Oskar Schindler, and that’s especially interesting because they have their own story. Their own story exists in relation to this extremely well-known narrative in a film and a number of those folks talk about the film, mostly to point up disparities between their own experience and what the film shows. That was particularly interesting to me: people would say, they didn’t show this and they didn’t show that and the perspective was from so and so, and they had lots of—not necessarily accepting the film at face value, but needing to place their story in relationship to the film.

One woman talks about that she’s not in the film, and her family is very upset. Why isn’t she in the movie? And she has to explain it away. She says, that doesn’t matter, the story is there. So there’s “her story” and then there’s this thing called “the story.” What is that? It’s really quite interesting to think about the implications of that.

The other thing that happened, probably most intriguing for me, was survivors as they’re talking about the film start having these very impromptu thoughts about the difference between lived experience and this representation. A number of survivors say, it’s a very realistic film but it’s only three hours long. I was in the war for five years. How do you put five years into three hours? Meanwhile, this person has just told his life story in two hours—so that level of awareness isn’t there. But thinking in this very spontaneous way about (how) there’s experience in then there’s representation, and there’s a disparity there. A number of people talk about what you couldn’t show in the film—partly things that they said, it was too horrible and you couldn’t show it to audiences, other things. One guy says, the film doesn’t capture that while you were there, you’re living in terror for your life. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and the film doesn’t convey that—how coulda film convey that? There’s these really, really interesting moments where you see survivors making part of their life story a kind of meta discussion of what does it mean to represent the past, doing it not in terms of their own efforts—that would require a very high level of self-reflection and especially in the course of an oral interview where it’s unfolding in real time—but in relationship to this other narrative. So to me that was one of those intriguing things that I came across, to think about the way that from the interviews themselves, information emerges that helps us think critically, think analytically about this memory project itself and the workings of memory more generally.

Memory in the Digital Age

JL: We’ve talked a lot about Holocaust memory, but the other half of your book and the ideas you’re putting forward in it has to do with how things have changed and are continuing to change in new formats, new technologies, and so on. What would you say, then, is the importance of new media and new kinds of delivery formats, storage formats, like the Internet, when we talk about the Holocaust and when we talk about Holocaust memory? In what ways would you say that Holocaust memory, and just memory practices in general, are changing due to new technologies?

JS: One of the things I find interesting is to think about this in, again, a historical trajectory of how people think about the impact that a new medium is going to have on memory. There’s a tendency for divergent responses: either this is some sort of great transformative breakthrough, or there’s the sense of real panic, that this is going to undercut memory. And this goes back to ancient times. In the Phaedrus, this Platonic dialogue, Socrates warns people not to depend on writing because it’s going to be like a drug and it’s going to destroy your ability to remember, which is quite remarkable thing to think about especially since the reason we know this is somebody wrote it down! But also, to think about a culture in which the memorization of information and of text—and this is much more orally dependent culture than ours—that writing was this newfangled thing, and that there’s this awareness that it changes the way you remember.

There are similar impacts discussed about the impact of print, the impact of photography, and film. One of the things I found interesting with the arrival of the Internet is a group of psychologists who were studying this question said that people are remembering information less. What they are remembering now is where to find the information, because when something comes up and you can’t remember, you go online, you look for it somewhere, and that is where memory has gone. That’s one interesting facet of this.

With this material, the ability to share, to disseminate material, is at an unprecedented level. The inability or the limited ability to control material, to restrict how it’s used, how it’s commented upon, how it’s juxtaposed with other material, because of the very open nature of the Internet. That’s another distinctive challenge. The vastness of information poses challenges of the ability to locate things, which is why that becomes a special skill, and the fact that as much as it’s out there, not everything is—so what happens to the works of memory that don’t get somehow incorporated into this vast repository of information?

I think there’s a lot of very interesting issues that we’re just beginning, I think, to think about as you have not only new technologies but you also have new social practices around the technologies, which are even more important. And there’s a whole different configuration of sociability on the Internet, generally, and that I think it is already shaping a lot of memory practices that are in some ways unprecedented.

JL: I think that the Internet really changes the game in a lot of ways, when you talk about individual memory. On the one hand, I like to say that the Internet is a kind of a prosthesis. The other day I wanted to find the area of a circle. I don’t remember the equation from high school. But I knew I could just look it up. I typed into Google, what is the area of a circle, however large, and I could get it—so there’s this way in which these new technologies that allow us to store tons of information actually allow us to forget on an individual level.

JS: Well, I would say, we are remembering and not remembering differently. I think that is also true for the impact of writing. As you think about a culture in which people are expected to memorize long sacred works or epic poems, and that that’s just something one does. When writing comes along, the imperative to have all remembrance of a text—because otherwise it’s not remembered—recedes, because you’ve got the document. Of course the document creates advantages and disadvantages. What if there’s a mistake in the document? What if the document gets lost? What if the document in copying has variations, what’s happened to that narrative? Meanwhile, there are still people who do remember it orally, so what’s the relationship of the oral to the written?

So this is a this is an ancient problem, and it has a new iteration that we are really on the very beginnings of a thinking about. It’s something that is important for all of us because of the extent that we do rely on this in our daily lives, as you just described in your story about looking up a math equation. That’s something I’ve been struck by, that when an issue comes up in conversation, and someone doesn’t know the bit of information that people are wondering about, the conversation stops so that someone can whip out their phone and start looking for it. I’m interested in also how this then transforms social interactions, and as well as just individual or group remembering and forgetting—the acts around remembering and forgetting, and the expectations of remembering and forgetting and how you incorporate them in your life, those are all in the process of changing and we’re watching it unfold as we speak.

What Happens When There Are No Living Survivors

JL: I think that when you talk about the Shoah Foundation, it’s also part of these changing expectations and changing possibilities of remembering and forgetting, because in a certain way all of these life stories of Holocaust survivors are destined to be forgotten—inasmuch as we will reach a point in time when all the Holocaust survivors will have passed away, just like any other kind of historical event or experience passes from living memory into the past, into history. What’s interesting about what the Shoah Foundation has tried to do, in a certain way, is to try to push back against this, to push back against the harsh reality of what is coming over the next number of years. And they’ve ridden a wave of new technologies to try to relate to these kinds of issues. What I wanted to asked here, going back to the Shoah Foundation, is in what ways would you say that what they are doing is interacting with these new possibilities and new technologies, in order to deal with sort of these changing realities that we are living in?

JS: Part of the motive for creating this archive was this response that actually been building for some time that survivors are aging, eventually they won’t be here. How can we preserve what they have to say? And this turn to video was seen, starting in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, as the answer. What I find interesting is, all new media eventually become oldmedia. Video is already beginning to show signs of its age. That doesn’t necessarily reduce its value. It can actually add to its value, because then it becomes part of the history of the artifact, the way that, if you have a sepia tone photograph, whatever might be in that photograph, the kind of old-fashioned mid-nineteenth century carte de visite kind of photograph, provides a certain kind of information. Or you see a handwritten document with beautiful calligraphy on parchment from the eighteenth century, the seventeenth century, above and beyond what’s actually written on that piece of paper, the medium that it is adds information.

That’s a process, I think, already happening with video. And so, on the one hand, these interviews were created, to preserve memory. And to a certain extent, preserving memory is very important, but I think of it as preserving—I think it’s a false friend, because memory keeps changing. The value of these recordings, even if they are physically maintained into the future, their valuable be changing over time. They won’t necessarily be forgotten, but their significance will alter.

That’s what’s happened with previous eras of history, where we no longer have living witnesses, but we have whatever they have left behind, in terms of memoirs or other kinds of documentation. We still engage these subjects in a very powerful way, but differently than one could if one could have a conversation with people.

If you think about the American Civil Warno one’s alive anymore who was caught up in the Civil War, and they haven’t been for some time. But it maintains a powerful grip on millions and millions of Americans. We have not forgotten the Civil War. We have a very powerful engagement with the Civil War, in part through all the different forms of remembrance and documentation and artifacts that we have from that event. And we engage them very much on our own terms that’s different from the way people in the immediate post-war period engaged the Civil War, or at the turn of the twentieth century or in mid-twentieth century, because there are different motives, there are different agendas, there are different appreciations of what you’re looking at in relation to one’s own experience, into how things change over time, how things are perceived over time. The same thing is going to be happening with the Holocaust. The idea of videos or any other medium preserving memory, we want to think critically about (how) what may be preserved is the document, the video, but how we engage it and even just how we perceive it will change over time.

JL: To pick up on that, in a certain way do we need survivors in order to connect with the event, whatever we’re talking about, whether the Holocaust or anything else? You pointed out how there are no veterans of the Civil War that are still around, but we still remember it. It’s still contested memory in American culture. But we also live in an age in a way, the way you talk about it, with “seeing as believing,” this kind of spectacle of the viewing a Holocaust survivor testimony or talking to a survivor. I think we live in an age where certain young people might say, “you have show me pictures or it didn’t even happen.” And so I think it raises a series of issues. Do we need to talk to a Holocaust survivor, or view their testimony, for people to have a personal connection with the events? What is this shift of the Holocaust from living memory to historical events, what does it hold in store for an age when ultimately there won’t be any more Holocaust survivors?

JS: What will be interesting to see is how memory practices change. We already are beginning to trend in that direction because the ability to talk to Holocaust survivors directly is already less than it was even a few years ago, because we’re talking about a population of which there are fewer people still alive and who are able to come and speak to people. The people who are alive, who were among the youngest survivors who will have first of all atypical stories, as hidden children they had a distinctive kind of experience that’s not typical for the older Holocaust survivors whose stories really have been much more central to Holocaust memory practices. So it’s already a shift that’s taking place in Holocaust remembrance.

I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen next, because I don’t know. I can tell you that Holocaust memory isn’t going to stop the day that the last living Holocaust survivor passes away. But it will become something different because of its relationship to this extensive amount of documentation, not only from Holocaust survivors, but all different kinds of documentation—memory projects, representations, imaginative works in art and visual art and performance, and film and so on. I mean, this is a huge amount of material that people will continue to engage with, and they will engage in it in ways that are relevant to their particular time, place, and circumstances, which of course we can’t predict. What’s it going to like?

We know, for example, that people who are survivors of more recent genocides have been watching some of these Holocaust survivor interviews that are in the Shoah Foundation, in part to think about the stories they have to tell, and also to see what’s it like to be revisiting this a half-century out, whereas their experiences are much closer, where their post-war circumstances are different. Most survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, the genocide in Cambodia, and other recent genocides, are still living in the same place and side by side, victims and perpetrators living side by side. And the Holocaust is different in that there’s relatively less of that, where Holocaust survivors did not return to where they were before the war and moved to different countries if not different continents.

So it’s a very different kind of post-war configuration from more recent genocides. And yet, there’s this interest in thinking comparatively, about not only just the genocides themselves, but how people live with those experiences over time by looking comparatively at stories.

This is the kind of thing that people should be watching for as Holocaust memory moves beyond the age of the presence of Holocaust survivors. It will be different in the same way that it’s different with any other historical event. It shouldn’t only be viewed in terms of loss, because I think that can obscure the ability to see what is there, if all you’re looking at is what isn’t there. I think that’s very important for people to attend to.

The “New Dimensions in Testimony” Project

JL: Right, right and it leads us towards I think some of the ways in which we can see some of these new projects. For instance, you mentioned how the Shoah Foundation is both backwards looking, they’re interested in history and in memory of historical events, but also they from the beginning have been thinking about how this would be used in the future. It brings us towards this really exciting and fascinating project that the Shoah Foundation has been developing for the past few years, what they call “New Dimensions in Holocaust Testimony.” It’s an effort to develop a new way to interact with testimonies. instead of just watching a video, it’s a kind of a computer-generated hologram where individuals can ask questions and interact with it in a more direct way. It goes back to this question of, what do we do when there are no Holocaust survivors who are still alive? The Shoah Foundation has been trying to develop this technology to make it so that even when there are no more living survivors, people can approximate that kind of an experience anyway. I’m curious what your take is on this whole thing.

JS: So this is holographic videography that uses voice recognition software, so like what happens when people ask Siri on their phone a question, that same kind of software to allow people to ask this holographic recording a question. And the database of answers that survivors pre-recorded, then offers what hopefully is an apposite response.

I have seen this in action just once, I’m hoping to see more of it. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, there has been an exhibition where you can see two of these interactive holograms that were made by the Shoah Foundation. There are other or organizations working with this technology as well. You can go into a room and ask it questions. So, I was very interested both to ask some questions myself, but also to see how other people engaged with it.

My takeaway is that it’s an effort to simulate a conversation but it’s not a conversation. What was striking to me was how it highlights the difference between a conversation with a living person and engaging a database which is fixed. So in advance of putting this installation in place, the survivors who are recorded are asked hundreds and hundreds of questions to which they give discrete answers. So, basically, it’s a retrieval mechanism where you ask a question, say, where were you born, and the hologram recognizes the question and says, “I was born in the town of X.”

It relies on, first of all, the ability of the person asking questions to ask a question that matches an answer that already exists, which doesn’t always happen. It was interesting to see what happened when people asked a question that didn’t get recognized properly or was probably a question that hadn’t been asked, and therefore couldn’t be answered, which of course is different with a live person. So one thing I wanted to see, just to see what would happen, was to ask a question I knew the Hologram couldn’t answer. I said, “there’s a lot of concern today about the rise of fascist ideologies in the United States and in Europe, do you think that this is similar to what happened in the Nazi period leading up to World War II?” I knew the hologram couldn’t answer this, because the hologram had been recorded earlier. And the answer that came out was talking about the rise of fascism during the 1930s, not what I had asked. I knew it couldn’t ask answer that. But a living person could.

Another thing, because this is asking discreet questions, it gets discreet answers. You can’t do what you would normally do in asking somebody who’s telling a life narrative, they tell you something and then you say, then what happened, right? You can’t do that with this because it’s not set up to offer continue with the narrative in that way. It’s set up to give you discrete answers to discrete questions. So, it’s a different kind of encounter from an actual survivor.

And also, it’s obviously not a real person. It’s an unfamiliar technology. It’s very interesting, some people look at it and think it’s really cool and some people think it’s really creepy and, it’s unfamiliar. That’s for sure. Perhaps this will become a more familiar technology with time, but the encounter is distinct to itself. It’s not the same as watching someone else ask a survivor questions, which could include questions you would never think of asking, which could include saying, oh and then what happened? Could you tell me more about this, and so on, but in which you’re not active but also you don’t have the burden of thinking what to ask, which was I think a challenge for a lot of people, is not knowing what to ask.

It’s a different kind of engagement with the survivor, and the information the survivor has to share. I think what’s key is the place that it puts the audience, rather than the survivor, that is what’s novel. My hope is, because what I saw and watching people come in as they ask a couple questions, they find it challenging or confusing or frustrating, and then they leave. And I thought, well, I don’t think that’s the desired outcome necessarily, maybe because it’s still a new technology. But my hope is that whatever people do benefit from an encounter with an interactive hologram of a survivor, is it will compel them to learn more about the subject, whether it’s watching videos or reading a book or going to a museum exhibition or some other kind of encounter that it will serve as a point of entry to further pursuit.

JL: I might want to just mention, for disclosure, I guess, that I moderated a panel on this whole project, the “New Dimensions in Testimony” project, at a conference at the Shoah Foundation in 2017. At that time I also had a chance to experiment with it and it’s really fascinating. It really indicates some of really interesting things we can do now, but also the limits. Like you said, they’re always trying to be on the cutting edge, but their are always new developments. Who knows what will happen within the future. But what really strikes me, when we think about it, is really two things, the first one being that in a certain way, this is a new approach, right? That’s why they call it a “new dimension” in testimony. But it’s still trying to approximate the old experience of encountering, of meeting with and talking to, a Holocaust survivor.

JS: Yes, it’s trying to link the newest technology, the newest form of communication, with the oldest, which is face-to-face conversation.

JL: That’s exactly right, and it raises this question of, are there limits to our imagination of what memory might be like? Are we limited by the fact that we have had so many survivors who people can talk to? What that means, then, is that we can’t think of new ways for people to engage with this material, so we’re trying to recreate and to perpetuate the old one. That’s the first thing, and the second aspect of this which is interesting, I was reading something a while ago about new artificial intelligence technology that would allow people to take in a stream of audio and then you could write whatever you wanted and what come out approximating that voice. So for instance, I think the article was talking about, if you took in the entire archives of the radio program “This American Life,” one hundred years from now you could have Ira Glass’s voice narrating a radio show even though, obviously, he himself probably by that point will have passed away. It raises questions about what are the possibility as technology gets better, and also ethical issues about creating things that approximate the survivor experience, the experience of encountering a survivor, where you could create a more advanced system where you could ask this question, “oh and what happened next,” and they could generate a “made-up” answer—it wouldn’t actually be a recording of the individual, but it would tell the story that the person would tell if they happen to be there. It raises a lot of major ethical questions about all of these things.

JS: Yeah, well, the thing is we already do that in fiction. We do that in feature films. So, the role of the imagination in imagining your way into these experiences, that’s been going on for a considerable amount of time. I’m less anxious about the technology of simulation becoming a replacement.

I think there will always be a gap. I think it will always be apparent to an attentive audience and that what we should be doing is, rather than sort of worrying about questions of what’s ethical and what’s authentic is to think about how we educate people to be critical thinkers about all representations of the past, all memory works, that you should think about what exactly you have and how it is constituted so that you understand that you don’t take it uncritically as an immediate engagement with the past, but that it is a mediation of the past and that that mediation is a defining factor. And that’s true for reading a book, and it’s true for listening to an interactive hologram and whatever else might come our way. I think that is, that is that’s the ongoing project here.

JL: Right, right, it raises this question of what is “authentic,” so to speak. I think that perhaps part of what is going on in this whole development, not just this one individual project of this “new dimension in testimony” but broadly speaking, is this urge not just to document and to collect but also to maintain these kind of so-called “authentic” experiences. If this idea that seeing is believing, right, that when one watches a Holocaust survivor talk about their experiences—whether in person or on film or whatever—I think this is a popular perception that this is “more authentic” in one way or the other than with these digital technologies.

JS: Wait, wait wait, more authentic than what? Here’s the thing. You have to stop and really interrogate the assumptions behind expectations of authenticity. That’s really key, because it’s very easy for that word to elide critical thinking rather than enhance it. To me, again, that’s the answer, to think about what are the assumptions about the value of different kinds of mediations of the past that you have.

And those change, by the way, over time. People used to be very dismissive of eyewitness testimony, and that (was) really of little value. And now it’s considered a nonpareil. That’s something that changed with time. I think that it’s important to be aware that assumptions about the authentic are constructed so that rather than just saying, “oh is this going to be more authentic,” and stop and wait a second. What am I worried about in the first place? What am I assuming is the problem in the first place? That needs to be probed here very much.

JL: That’s exactly what I’m saying, or trying to say. When I’m discussing this idea of “authenticity,” that’s not my perspective. I’m talking about a more popular idea. And this is something I think we see with a lot of kinds of new media. So if we talk about photography in the nineteenth century, when it was invented, there was an assumption that many people held that photography was more “objective” than a painting. You see this with film too, even the video testimonies at the Shoah Foundation. The whole framing of the interviews, right, that the camera does not move, this really reflects this idea that they were trying to remove any kind of subjectivity of the cameraman. But part of what I think is baked into this whole project from the beginning, like many other archive projects, is this idea to try to capture the “objective reality,” so to speak, of the past, and that this will provide some kind of authenticity. Now, of course, as you’ve discussed, and I think about this a lot of myself in terms of my own work, the dream of authenticity, that dream of authenticity is a noble dream but it’s one that ultimately does not bear fruit.

JS: Right, it’s always it’s always constructed and with conventions that signal the authentic. The camera that doesn’t move, there’s a zero degree aesthetic in filming these interviews. Well, a zero degree aesthetic is an aesthetic. This is why in some countries, photographs can’ be used as evidence in a court case. Because there’s an awareness from the get-go, and this is before the ability to digitize and invent images from whole cloth, that a photograph is not a reflection of an actuality. It’s a construction related to what the camera was pointing at that can also be manipulated, that was manipulated in the earliest days of photography.

At the same time, there are compelling concerns and very valid concerns to know what actually happened in an event, to be able to identify, in the case of the Holocaust, thinking about who’s culpable for various acts that are crimes. There are all kinds of issues at stake that are very real. And what they wind up doing is bringing to the surface of discussions assumptions that sometimes are not reflected upon about what is and isn’t considered as authentic. The ability of people for example to establish that property was theirs that they would like to get back has a whole very interesting range of discussions about this that have very real legal implications, where people go to court and either they can or they can’t get back property that was looted from them during the war. What emerges in looking at these cases is how authenticating provenance is constructed and how people can variously make the case for or against, depending on what their interests are.

It’s a really important issue that I think is really best approached as a set of questions rather than set of answers. Anybody who works in any archive, paper archives as well as video archives, the first thing they have to think about is what are the assumptions about what kinds of truth-telling resources the archive is preserving so that you can work both with and against those assumptions. It’s really key for any thoughtful researcher to be aware of the protocols surrounding an archive. For me, the test of any archive is not just finding what the creators expected you to find, but how you can find stuff that they didn’t expect you to find. Because that’s where, I guess it’s not only a test of the archive, it’s a test of the researcher, the ability to think critically about the resource itself.

Holocaust Memory and Comparative Genocide

JL: One thing you mentioned early on in our conversation was the role of the Holocaust, how it has become a paradigm for other kinds of genocides which have taken place in the twentieth and now in the twenty-first century, that they continue unfortunately. Anyway, one of the things that’s so interesting about the Shoah Foundation is the way in which they have tried to utilize its technology and its approach for the documentation of other genocides, like the Rwandan Genocide. I’m curious here, as we start to move towards the end of our conversation, what is it that we learn by looking at the Shoah Foundation and the history of Holocaust memory, what does it teach us about the development of historical memory broadly speaking, or the relation of people with historical events like genocides in particular?

JS: Part of what’s interesting about looking at the Shoah Foundation as it’s developed over time is you can think about it in relation to other Holocaust memory endeavors and research endeavors, including other interviewing projects. They’re not all of a kind. They have different not only protocols for what to collect and how to collect it and how to organize it, how to make it accessible, but understandings of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

One of the things the Shoah Foundation has expanded from its original mission into is the archiving and recording of interviews with people who are victims of other genocides, not only more recent genocides, but also earlier ones. One of the things that they’ve added to the archive are filmed interviews that were originally recorded on film, not on video, because it predates video, I think it dates from the 1960s, of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. So putting them not only in the archive but incorporating them in the database, in the index, so that it can facilitate comparative research on aspects of genocide, which is in the field of genocide studies, much of it is comparative, to think about the origins of genocide, the outcomes of genocide, the responses to genocide, to what extent there are patterns.

The word genocide itself is conceived paradigmatic by Raphael Lemkin, who was a Polish Jew who survives the Holocaust, but his thinking about this term and this concept began before World War II in thinking about the persecution of Armenians during World War I. For him, it was understood as not a singular event but as an event that sadly has been repeated in human history and that we need to look at that pattern in order to see what could be done to break the pattern. That’s something that the Shoah Foundation has embraced over the years, whereas other organizations are very specifically focused on the Holocaust and are not interested in its paradigmatic value but its singular value.

And it’s not that one is right, and one is wrong. But each one will shape not only what kinds of resources they make available, but how they orient any kind of user, any kind of visitor, to the significance of the materials that they have, and suggest thereby what are the questions that should be asked about the material, they point you in different directions as a result. And part of what makes studying Holocaust memory so interesting is that because you’ve got these multiple approaches in different locations, with different agendas, you have this opportunity not to think of one approach as being inevitable, but to think about them in relation to one another and how each one is both enabling and constraining in engaging the subject.

How Digital Technologies Affect Holocaust Memory

JL: One thing that I noticed, looking at the book, when I first got my hands on a physical copy of it, was the cover. And I know that the cover is not your thing. This is the marketing department., but I noticed something really fascinating about it, so striking. The book is titled “Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age.” And this is in the very large font, big words. And then the subtitle, which mentions that it’s going to deal with the Shoah Foundation in particular, is very small. So this prompts this fundamental question, how is the digital age affecting Holocaust memory a large beyond, sort of just the story of the Shoah Foundation itself? Is this something that maybe you want to say something about briefly?

Jeffery: I think what’s interesting for me about the Shoah Foundation in this respect is that it is work created in the midst of the turn towards the digital, and that the mechanics of the archive ride that turn starting in pre-digital media turning into digital media, and really pushing their thinking about how to engage digital media. So, compared to some other collections of similar recordings, they’ve been more adventuresome thinking about ways to make this material available, especially in digital formats and online. For me, it is very useful for thinking about where things are headed and using digital technologies for memory practices going forward because it is in a way at the vanguard and some of the things that they design for putting the archived online our patented because they really were innovating technologies that no one had done before. To me, that’s the way to think of this as the beginning of a story that will continue to play out.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: