Over the last six weeks, I have had the unique opportunity to be the Senior Fellow at USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education. It’s been an honor for me to be here, especially since I led the Institute between 2000 and 2008. Returning to this remarkable place, having the opportunity to use the Visual History Archive, and working among dear former colleagues and new friends has been simply thrilling.
Needless to say, the entire experience has also had an air of unreality about it. Some days I feel as though the past six years, during which I was Dean of Arts and Sciences and now Professor of History at Rutgers, never happened. All the old Shoah Foundation synapses fire at full force. On other days, I am simply in awe of what the Institute is achieving under the leadership of my successor and friend, Executive Director Stephen Smith, and my terrific former colleague, Managing Director Kim Simon. Each day delivers a fresh surprise of some wonderful new program that pushes the mission forward in an entirely innovative way.
I am not here, however, to spend a couple months reminiscing and navel gazing. I have been working away on a project I began at Rutgers. I have been watching testimonies of survivors from a place now in Ukraine which was in seven different countries in the twentieth century: Volyn.
Volyn is now in northwestern Ukraine, but it began the twentieth century in the Russia of the Czars and was overrun by the Nazis in 1941. In many ways, the experience of Volhynian survivors does not conform to our expectations or to the standard view of the progress of the Shoah. I have been exploring the differences among the recollections of survivors, the scholarly portrayal of the Shoah in Volyn, and popular perceptions of Holocaust history. It’s been a fascinating and sometimes terrifying journey.
The other day I had a lunchtime conversation with the staff about what I have been doing, a preview of coming attractions for the public lecture I will be delivering here on March 24. I surprised myself (and perhaps some staff members too) by saying that my experience as a researcher in the Visual History Archive had reminded me that the Institute’s education program always ran the risk of using the testimonies outside their precise geographic, chronological, and communal context. I found myself questioning an educational mission I had helped to craft and which has had many spectacular successes since my departure.
Survivor testimony only exists historically; it comes from particular places and particular times. Using it unencumbered by that provenance, I said uncomfortably, is to strip it of its most essential meaning. Using a clip of survivor testimony to teach about bullying, for example, without acknowledging the particularity of the time, place, and community from which the testimony came, now strikes me as potentially misleading. This perspective arose, of course, because I am now using the Visual History Archive as I was trained to use archives when I got my Ph.D. in history more than forty years ago. When I led the Institute, I had other purposes in mind. I was aware then of the possible contradiction, thought about it, and tried to tuck it away for later. Now, it appears, is “later.”
My provocation to the staff prompted a really stimulating discussion. At the end of it, we had pretty much agreed that the tension between educational and scholarly uses of the Visual History Archive is a healthy and potentially creative one. I was especially struck by Stephen’s observation that the trajectory his career had been different than mine: he came here as an accomplished leader of Holocaust and genocide education, but said that being here had compelled him to contemplate more deeply the issues that the Archive prompts for scholarship. I came here in 2000 as a person with long experience in scholarship, but found myself drawn to advancing the Institute’s educational mission above all else.
Now I have come full circle; I am again captivated by the scholarly value of the testimonies and the Institute’s indexing system, itself an act of astounding scholarship. Meanwhile, the Institute moves ahead, brilliantly balancing its two deepest aspirations: to build the future by advancing scholarly knowledge of the past and by leveraging that knowledge in the present to heal the world.
Apart from my love for my family, my connection to these aspirations has been the most profound experience of my life. It is wonderful to find myself back in the middle of a conversation that began 14 years ago and which will continue long into the future.