Through the lens of the Shoah: the Holocaust as a paradigm for documenting genocide testimonies

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Author: Noah Shenker
Date: Spring-Summer 2016
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Report
Length: 12,752 words
Lexile Measure: 1810L

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No longer able to devote itself exclusively to testimonies of the Holocaust, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute has branched out to house interviews from other genocides including those perpetrated in Armenia, Rwanda and Cambodia. After examining the distinctive features of the Foundation's testimony methodology, this article considers its implications for the collaboration with the Documentation Center of Cambodia regarding the testimonies of Khmer Rouge victims. In exploring the transfer of methodologies developed for recording survivors of the Nazi genocide to the Cambodian context, this article argues that while the Shoah Foundation's mediations of testimonies can obscure the historical and cultural specificities of the Cambodian genocide, they nonetheless have the potential to contribute to the documentation of that event.

Keywords: Holocaust; comparative genocide; testimony; archives; trauma


Since the late 1970s there has been an expansion of major American audiovisual history projects that record and curate survivor accounts of the Holocaust, most notably the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC, and the USC Shoah Foundation--The Institute for Visual History and Education at the University of Southern California. Yet, as the survivor community dwindles, these institutions have reached an impasse. No longer able to devote themselves exclusively to collecting testimonies, they must decide how to expand their missions. How can they preserve and circulate survivor testimonies of the Holocaust for future generations in ways that are socially relevant to those who will have had no exposure to living witnesses? In what ways can archives and museums harness these testimonies for transformative, interventionist purposes, including raising awareness of contemporary genocides, while remaining attentive to the textures of individual traumas and to the specificities of historical experiences?

This essay addresses those questions by focusing on the Shoah Foundation and its work consulting with and housing the collections of archives documenting other genocides. It argues that in order to understand the comparative turn by the Shoah Foundation, it is essential to analyze the myriad, often unexamined ways in which its history and methodologies shape the possibilities of how their holdings are produced, preserved, accessed and interpreted.

Whether in the case of the Shoah Foundation, the Fortunoff Archive or any other repository, interview methods are never neutral; rather they are embedded in particular sets of institutional histories and methodologies. In calling attention to those mediating factors, Geoffrey Hartman, the preeminent literary scholar and project director of the Fortunoff Archive, has noted: "While the video testimonies have an unusually direct emotional impact, they are mediated by frame conditions." (1) According to Hartman, these include having survivors speak in languages other than their mother tongue and being interviewed at a time and place that are far removed from the historical events. I expand upon Hartman's concept of frame conditions to analyze how testimonies are created by the particular institutional cultures of archives, working in conversation and often in conflict with individual witnesses. (2) However, those frame conditions, while crucial to shaping testimonies, cannot guarantee that particular...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A447636822