Wednesday, 23 October, 2013
Beginning in the late 1970s, Holocaust archives began videotaping the oral testimony of Holocaust survivors. Housed in these archives are uniquely authored accounts of traumatic memory: thousands of hours of unconstrained recall from individuals who lived through extended atrocity. These archives then document the recall of personal experiences in the context of larger historical events.
As a psychologist, I study oral testimony of Holocaust survivors to understand memory for atrocity and its aftermath and to characterize the persistent influence of such memory on the lives of the survivors. Unlike the topographic summaries of trauma in large correlational studies or the distant approximations in the laboratory, qualitative study of Holocaust testimony discloses what resides within each person: the phenomenology of the tormented. One goal of this research is to generalize the findings on the psychology of Holocaust survivors to other groups of people, including the survivors of widespread atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Guatemala.
Drawing on close observation of more than 130 Holocaust testimonies at the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University, this presentation outlines how atrocity is remembered, how it shapes the lives of the survivors, and how it is communicated to others. Notably, the testimony reveals two levels of representation: core memory and narrative memory. Core memory consists of representations of the original phenomenalexperience " vivid perceptual images, deeply-felt emotions, and bodily sensations " which are then integrated into episodic narratives, creating memory’s second level. The core memories of atrocity are extraordinarily persistent; recent memories do not weaken or conceal them and time does not diminish their potency.
Oral testimony provides a way of retrospectively knowing the experience of atrocity and how this experience translates into the ineffaceable marks of traumatic memory. By focusing closely on many testimonies, one at a time, it is possible to convey the individuality of the experiences as well as the commonalities in the survivors’ memories. Interpreting the sustainability of such memories depends on our understanding of the transmogrified world of atrocity and on the distinction between individual memory and collective memory " as represented in museums, memorials, textbooks, archives, shared stories, and film.
Some survivors remain silent all their lives. Others reveal their memories only reluctantly, later in life. Still others translate their private memories of horror in public gatherings, narrating the traumatic events to memorialize the lives of those who were murdered. In such cases, narrating memory ascribes meaning not to the past suffering and not to the memories themselves but to the function of memory. No longer meant to be hidden, memory is meant to be communicated: to educate others and to document the lives of those who were murdered. Ultimately, archives of oral testimony serve two functions: as a resource for scholarship and as a form of commemoration.