A Rutgers conference focusing on “the role of witnessing” in response to the Holocaust also marked the university’s newly acquired access to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation archives.
“Testimonies, Personal Narratives, and Alternative Tellings,” an interdisciplinary conference that took place March 27-28 at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, brought together an international group of scholars who discussed how survivors’ personal perspectives of the Holocaust and other genocides have broadened knowledge in disciplines as diverse as business ethics and women’s studies.
Sponsored by Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, the conference also featured the announcement that the university has become the 30th institution worldwide to have access to the Visual History Archive at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute. Established by the famed director of Schindler’s List, the archive houses the testimony of 52,000 survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust filmed in 56 countries.
“This is a really important tool for both students and faculty,” said Bildner executive director Yael Zerubavel. “It is already being used for teaching courses in Jewish studies, sociology, and others.”
Among the conference participants were those who have studied the lingering effects of victimization on Holocaust survivors and the impact of testimonies recorded by survivors and ways such studies can be extrapolated to enhance a wide variety of fields. Also attending were scholars who have studied other later 20th-century persecutions, including the infamous Soviet gulags, the massacres in Rwanda, and the genocidal atrocities of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
Douglas Greenberg, dean of the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, said the conference and access to the archive were “a long time in coming and a long time in dreaming.”
Greenberg, who served as Shoah Foundation executive director prior to coming to Rutgers in 2008, said such an event would not have been technologically or intellectually possible 10 years ago.
Except for a public lecture the evening of March 27, the program was open only to faculty and graduate students; NJJN attended the opening luncheon and program.
Noah Shenker, a postdoctoral fellow and coordinator of the Virtual Museum of the Holocaust at McMaster University in Ontario, said there are “distinct yet intersecting” features among institutions gathering testimonies.
Shenker has studied the archives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the USC archives, and those at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. “You get to go beyond this crisis; you get the immediacy of hearing a survivor tell their story.” Surveying the testimonies, he said, “gives you a much more nuanced and complete reading of history.”
The vast and accessible USC archives are “an incredibly valuable resource” to Holocaust scholars. However, Shenker said, “to its credit,” its officials were seeking out scholars of other genocides, such as in Darfur, to provide them with “a useful framework.”
Christopher R. Browning — the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — gave the keynote address on Holocaust History and Survivor Testimony: The Case of the Starachowice Factory Slave Labor Camps, based on his book Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, which records the testimony of 292 Jewish survivors.
Studying those Polish labor camps, he said, provides lessons for business ethics courses by offering a stark backdrop of an extreme case of letting profit margins overcome a sense of morality.
“The Germans took over Polish property, but stole Jewish lives,” said Browning, who called the factory owners “parasites of the Holocaust.” “They didn’t plan the destruction or persecution of Jews,” he said, “but they were perfectly glad to participate.”
Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC archives, said other institutions have used it “thousands of times” in researching Yiddish language, labor movements, the effects of trauma on women, migration, the health aftermath of genocide, and the role of violence on the human psyche.
In the opening program, Leo Spitzer of Dartmouth College and Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University delved into “the vulnerability of lives on the verge of catastrophe,” using as an example his aunt, Ella Wolfinger, who died in 1941 at age 23 in La Paz, Bolivia. Spitzer was told that she died of blood poisoning caused by an infection, but at the age of 10, his grandmother confessed to him that her daughter had committed suicide.
Spitzer also heard rumors of Ella’s being “loose” and possibly dying of a botched abortion. Interviews with family members and other refugees were contradictory so he attempted to reconstruct her situation and state of mind through examination of her journals, photos, and poetry.
Ella had fled Vienna in 1938 by sneaking across the border to Switzerland, where she met and fell in love with a young man. Her family was later caught trying to cross the border and imprisoned in a Swiss interment camp.
A former boyfriend who had made it to La Paz and obtained valuable visas offered to help — if she married him, said Spitzer. Being a “dutiful daughter and sister” Ella left her real love behind to save her family, but less than a year later left her husband and lost the community’s respect.
An examination of her journals, Hirsch said, revealed that Ella “seemed displaced and at loose ends”; she engaged in two love affairs, including with a married man. Her journal indicates that she felt betrayed and was victimized, first by the Nazis, but in her new life by others’ “loose tongues.”
In the program synopsis, Hirsch and Spitzer said that discovering “an alternative telling enables us to highlight the vulnerability of lives on the verge of catastrophe.”
Studying such a case, Hirsch said, is useful for those dealing with others who have suffered such psychological trauma. “What if instead of trying to read forward to what brought Ella to this threshold, we read backward to discover the life she possibly envisioned for herself?”