What can the Institute’s Visual History Archive teach us about other mediations of the Holocaust: how survivors tell their stories, how life performance and other media shape their narratives, or even how humor figures into remembrance?
Rutgers University Professor Jeffrey Shandler, the Institute's Senior Fellow, explored such questions in a March 4 lecture titled “Interrogating the Index: Or, Reading the Archive against the Grain,” which gave a fresh look at the archive as more than a repository for testimony.
"Conducting research in the Institute’s Visual History Archive depends on an elaborate system of cataloging and indexing," Shandler said. "These finding aids reflect the original vision of the archive as a memorial project and a resource for scholars and others interested in learning about the Holocaust from the perspective of survivors and other eyewitnesses. However, like any other archive, its interviews provide a wealth of information on many other topics."
To demonstrate the aforementioned idea, Shandler used the example of testimonies in which survivors discuss Schindler's List, which started filming 20 years ago this month.
"I’ve long been interested in the question of how other narratives—books, films, museum exhibitions, and so on—inform the way that Holocaust survivors tell their own stories, and the Visual History Archive provides a singular opportunity to investigate this," he began. "The archive indexes when interviewees discuss films in general and one film in particular: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The database lists 103 interviewees who mention this 1993 film during their interviews. All but one are Jewish Holocaust survivors. Sixty five of these interviews are in English, and of these, 15 are with so-called Schindlerjuden, or “Schindler Jews," who were among the approximately 1,200 Jewish prisoners whom Oskar Schindler conscripted for work...which proved key to their survival."
Shandler continued, "These interviews and the context of their creation allow me to examine how a considerable number of survivors directly reference the same film, within five years of its premiere, in the course of telling their personal histories, all recorded according to the protocols of the same project. Examining this body of material as a case study contributes to a more general understanding of how individuals, caught up in epochal events that have become the subject of extensive public attention, engage both this history and its mediation in the course of relating their personal narratives."
Shandler, a scholar of modern Jewish culture who specializes in Yiddish culture, Holocaust remembrance, and the ethnography of contemporary Jewish life, teaches courses on Holocaust literature and media, American Jews and media, the ethnography of contemporary Jewish life, Yiddish literature and culture, and Jewish art at Rutgers University, one of 43 sites around the world where researchers are using the Visual History Archive to educate the world.