Jewish scholar re-examines Holocaust survivor videos

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University Jeffrey Shandler delivered the annual Dr. Maurice Sitomer Lecture, entitled “Seeing As Believing: Watching Videotaped Interviews with Holocaust Survivors,” in Taylor Hall.

Shandler, one of the leading experts on Jewish studies, Holocaust remembrance and cultural ethnology, is the author of such books as “Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory,” “Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust” and most notably, “Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History.”

In the lecture, which was sponsored by the Jewish Studies Department, Shandler shared his research of the video recordings of Holocaust survivors and witnesses, and explained how a close examination of the details of these historical testimonies can provide a more intimate understanding of their stories and experiences.

Shandler remarked, “What I’ve been doing is looking through the [University of Southern California] Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which contains over 51,000 videotaped interviews of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, making it the world’s largest collection– longest by a long shot.”

The archive at the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation was created in the mid-1990s at the initiative of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who had been talking to many Holocaust survivors and witnesses in preparation for his 1993 feature film “Schindler’s List.” Over the course of the last ten years, the archive has digitized their holdings and make them available online for those with a commitment to, or a curiosity for, Holocaust remembrance.

“I’ve studied these videos for multiple reasons. First, as part of my ongoing interest in works of Holocaust remembrance, and looking at what these interviews reveal about how survivors recall this past and examining the agendas behind the documenting of their recollections. Also, as a project of digital humanities, I’m interested in how visual history art relies on digital media to preserve, to inventory, to index and to disseminate these holdings, and then how these media in turn shape the ways that this extensive resource can be used.”

The lecture was highly well-received by members of the community, who were pleased to witness not only Shandler’s mastery of his subject, but the nuanced approach he took in demonstrating it.

Professor of English and Director of Jewish Studies Peter Antelyes commented, in an emailed statement, “Ordinarily, Holocaust interviews are viewed through the lens of documentary evidence; as Professor Shandler’s work reveals, though, that lens is also the lens of media, and so we need to examine the role played by that media in constituting and conveying those evidentiary (and humanly moving) events.”

Abigail Johnson ’17, like many others, echoed this sentiment. “[Shandler] offered insight into a part of this history that I’ve never really considered,” she wrote, in an emailed statement. “He also told us about objects that were documented by video that survivors carried with them during the time period of Holocaust.”

She continued, “One particular survivor had a rosary which had saved his life as having the rosary allowed him to hid his Judaism from the Nazis and then there was a discussion about what that might mean to him, to us, to history that it was a religious object, but not a Jewish object, that saved his life.

“[F]or viewers of these videos, the act of seeing is tied to acts of believing, whether it’s in a human system of justice or in divine authority,” Shandler remarked. “The signifying power of these exceptional moments redounds onto the general value of watching Holocaust survivors tell their stories. Like a scarred limb or a rosary, these people too may well look irdinary until we watch them tell their extraordinary stories.”


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