Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reviving Witnesses through Play

As the number of survivors dwindles and as the health of those who remain declines, we must accelerate our search for ways that can reassert the relevance of the Holocaust, reinvigorate its immediacy to the issues we face today. The echoes of testimonies must not fade as time passes. The duty to bear witness, to carry on the memories and messages of those whose voices have been silenced, increases in urgency. Some of my efforts are devoted to how technology can activate memory beyond passive spectatorship and immersion in regret. As another Yom HaShoah approaches, the resonance of the Holocaust reverberates anew within us. Bringing the experiences of witnesses into the present--via the Web, video, audio, or other means--can restore the hope that memory promises more than constantly gazing into the rear-view mirror.

Recently I learned of another way that witnesses to the Holocaust can re-emerge as a living presence--not through sheer preservation (i.e., the reproduction of documentary evidence), but through re-presentation: creative reconstruction of their identities. The case is a famous one: Etty Hillesum (1918-1943), the Dutch Jewish woman (pictured at right) whose remarkably expressive, penetratingly reflective diaries and letters endure after her execution at Auschwitz. Her story is brought to life in her own voice--indeed, in her own words directly from her writing--by means of Susan Stein's one-woman play, Etty. This kind of encounter may offer a way to preserve the voices of testimony across time and even beyond the grave. Susan's goal is to render Etty an immediate presence. The audience is Etty's confidante, her words addressed not to a sheet of paper or to a distant reader but directly to the audience. This physical immediacy of testimony offers exciting potential for restoring some of the power of first-hand narratives. Through such techniques, we might depart from our role as observers and come closer touching the hands of the witnesses themselves as they touch our hearts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Visual History Archive Access at UNCG

When he was working on Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg set up the infrastructure to collect unedited video testimonies of as many Holocaust survivors as possible. This effort, which resulted in the production of about 52,000 testimonies, evolved into the Visual History Archive of the Shoah Foundation Institute, housed at the University of Southern California. I had the honor of presenting at the Institute's International Digital Access, Outreach, and Research Conference in March 2010. The ongoing efforts to assure the preservation, quality, and availability of these testimonies are remarkable. Thanks to the diligence of everyone involved in this project, the testimonies will remain a vibrant presence long after the last generation of survivors has passed.

UNCG is privileged to be one of only about 30 sites worldwide with full access to the complete Visual History Archive. Anyone who accesses the Internet from a secure UNCG server (i.e., one with a username and password login) on campus can set up a free account with the VHA and begin accessing testimonies. The access portal works only when using a secure UNCG campus connection.

An especially helpful feature of the VHA is that the testimonies are indexed--and much energy at the Shoah Foundation is devoted to this monumental task. The indexing is constantly being updated to improve precision of searches. Users can explore using all sorts of parameters: names, locations, Holocaust experience type (concentration camp, ghetto, hiding, etc.), as well as an extensive keyword index. The Visual History Archive qualifies as one of the most important primary sources for investigating the human elements of thew Holocaust.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Work by UNCG Honors Students Featured at Conference

On March 8-9, research-based creative work by UNCG Lloyd International Honors College first-year students Meredith Harris and Brittany Smith has been on public display at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching Annual Gathering of Holocaust Educators in Cullowhee, NC. Originally created as their final projects in my Fall 2011 Honors Seminar "Living the Holocaust," these works have been viewed by K-12 Holocaust educators who teach across the state of North Carolina. In addition, Brittany Smith's "Quilt of Shame" has been digitized as a detailed PowerPoint presentation and distributed to everyone attending the NCCAT conference. Meredith Harris's "Inanimate Remembrance" greyscale watercolor collection and accompanying narrative is being distributed via a photographic exhibit to all conference attendees. The teachers at the conference will be able to use the creative works in classes that reach hundreds of K-12 students statewide each year. Both Brittany's and Meredith's projects are being digitized for inclusion on the NC HERO Holocaust education website.