Notes from the Green Couch

Holocaust video testimonies

Geoffrey Hartman discusses survivor testimony at an event cosponsored by the Writers House, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and the College of Arts & Sciences "pilot curriculum."

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Geoffrey Hartman escaped Germany in 1939 by the Kindertransport. He did not witness the Holocaust. He does not remember being herded into crammed cattle cars; living through complete dehumanization in a concentration camp; watching the smoke from the gas chambers - waiting to be turned into smoke.

Hartman cannot remember, but he is doing everything in his power to make sure the world does not forget.

Notes from the Green Couch

Aside from being a renowned literary scholar and the Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature professor at Yale University, he has emerged as a leader in Holocaust remembrance, working in a multitude of capacities - most notably the Yale Holocaust Survivor Testimonies. Speaking to a live audience and webcast viewers, Hartman discussed the production and pedagogy of these 10,000-plus hours of archived video testimonial footage.

Standing before a backdrop of decorative cobwebs (in honor of the Writers House's Halloween themed Spookeasy), Hartman recalls how he and his colleagues initially undertook this groundbreaking project in 1981; they needed to resolve a list of critical questions pertaining to psychological and representational concerns. What type of an environment will induce the strongest memory? What role will the interviewer play in evoking these memories? What role will the cameraman play in filming the testimonies?

Almost forty years had elapsed between the liberation of the final concentration camp and the Yale Testimonies. Tragically, with the world initially unready and unwilling to listen, and many survivors consequently unmotivated to speak, little to nothing in terms of remembrance had been done in between. Thus, memory became a central issue in collecting testimonies. Hartman contrasts the flashbulb memory - the memory that remained "absolutely clear and cogent" throughout - with the peripheral memories influenced by later experience.

The issue of memory, however, still would have existed to a certain extent regardless of time. To illustrate this point, Hartman showed a short excerpt (a "quotation" from the epic book of testimonies) of Bessie K.'s testimony:

Sitting on a couch next to her husband, Bessie remembers the Nazis ordering her to move to the railway depot - remembers wrapping her baby child in a shawl against Nazi orders and bringing "the bundle" with her. When officers heard the sound of coughing, Bessie was ordered to go left - to the gas chambers, to death - with her child or to the right - to life - without him. Faced with an impossible decision, Bessie handed over "the bundle" and watched her baby thrown in the air and shot.

When she returned to the hospital and a doctor asked about her baby, however, she could not remember any baby; Bessie was so traumatized her consciousness needed to induce self- amnesia to survive. Years later she could remember. She remembered that day as the beginning of a lifetime of loneliness - "I died that die."

Hartman underscores the fact that this trauma is the real story in the testimonies. Horrific incidents become recurring themes after enough stories - the loss of a child, for example. However, Hartman says watching the survivors fight against their own forgetfulness, "the flux and reflux of consciousness," becomes the most impacting aspect of the testimonies. Choosing to live by sacrificing the life of your child is unimaginably traumatic. Yet, it is more significant that Bessie K. cannot bring herself to refer to her baby as a living thing. She can only say "the bundle."

As Bessie K. recalls the ruthless murder of "the bundle," saying she has been alone ever since that day, the camera slowly moves from her, to the empty space in the middle of the couch, to her husband who she has been married to for many years. Seeing his blank facial expression is tragically remarkable, and the cameraman could be praised as expert for knowing to move the lens at the point in the testimony. The timing was perfect - could it have been planned?

No; Hartman says all the camerawork was purely instinctual. In fact, the decision to move the cameras at all was just one of an array of decisions made in filming the testimonies. Hartman and his colleagues also resolved that the survivors would be filmed out of any familiar surroundings, in a room with plain d‚cor, as to avoid distraction. Furthermore, the survivors were permitted to choose the language of their interview, as language was another cultural presupposition that might have affected the interviewee's ability to delve into deep memory.

In remembering the Shoah - the Holocaust - Hartman insists we must observe more than the historical facts. This is why the Yale Testimonies are crucial as the generation of witnesses dies, passing the torch of remembrance to the generation of witnesses to the witnesses. To hear the survivors, to watch them struggle to remember, "has a directness that humanizes" the Holocaust. The survivors that provided testimony were not eminent figures - they were neighbors, friends, and colleagues. They volunteered to speak, knowing full and well the process would be anything but therapeutic.

Paul D. was one of those people who felt compelled, felt it was essential to leave his legacy. In his testimony, he recalls telling a story to his son. His son promised he would remember this story. Let us all make that same promise...