How do we ensure the future of Holocaust remembrance in the new millennium? More than 70 years have passed since the end of the Second World War, and those who survived or witnessed the Holocaust’s atrocities are becoming fewer in number. How do we preserve the existing and unique testimonies of tens of thousands of individuals, and at the same time present their stories collectively as a period of history that should never be repeated, as a paradigm of genocide that will always be relevant?
Jeffrey Shandler’s thought-provoking book, Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age, asks these questions from within the context of rapidly developing media practices. In particular, he looks at the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive (VHA), which was set up in 1994 and has by far the largest collection of videotaped Holocaust testimonies in the world, amounting to more than 50,000 interviews and 100,000 hours of footage. These interviews, originally recorded on video, have since been digitised and are available online. More recently, the VHA has added audiovisual testimonies of survivors of other genocides, including those in Rwanda, Armenia and Nanjing, “enabling researchers to examine common topics among survivors of different atrocities”.
Users of the VHA access its holdings through index and search functions which divide the extensive material into categories and sub-categories, such as ghetto daily life, pre-war life, school anti-Semitism, messages for the future, early aspirations and use of Yiddish. They can draw on these themes to cross-reference different interviews, but they can also narrow their search into specific areas such as gender, language or location. Shandler’s point is that the very nature of these archiving categories determines our understanding and knowledge of this history. Crucially, the VHA reveals from the outset what it considers worthy of indexing, so it is only rarely that a researcher will uncover something not already anticipated by the archive’s creators.
Related to this is a fascinating discussion around form. The VHA views its collection of interviews as historical documents that should be as unmediated as possible. There are therefore very strict guidelines as to the structure of the interview, the choice of language, the camerawork, the order of the questions, the type of editing, the use of lighting and so forth. Several of Shandler’s case studies include interviewees who have gone against the grain of these formal strictures, for example by switching languages, or spontaneously displaying an injury on the body, forcing the camera to move away from the face, and have thereby revealed something unexpected about their past. These interviews disrupt the standardised “‘zero-degree’ aesthetic” and display the contradictions of the VHA as a project that asks its subjects to recall painful events, but in a very controlled environment that is perhaps inimical to the frequently random process of remembering.
This contradiction by no means undermines the work of the VHA. Shandler’s book reminds us, though, not to take it at face value as a straightforward collection of testimonies, but as a complex artefact of Holocaust memory; one that also needs to be studied and analysed in and of itself.
Giulia Miller is the author of Studying Waltz with Bashir (2017) and Reconfiguring Surrealism in Modern Hebrew Literature (2013).
Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age: Survivors’ Stories and New Media Practices
By Jeffrey Shandler
Stanford University Press, 232pp £70.00 and £20.99
ISBN 9781503601956 and 9781503602892
Published 20 September 2017