Summer 2016 Research Fellows Share Findings One Year Later
Four of USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research’s summer 2016 research fellows returned to the Institute on Tuesday, April 4, to share the outcomes of their fellowships and the impact of testimony on their work.
All the fellows are studying or teaching at USC and spent at least several weeks in residence at the Center last summer to conduct research in the Visual History Archive.
First up to present was Nisha Kale, the DEFY Undergraduate Research Fellow. Kale is a double major in Neuroscience and Law, History and Culture, and an intern at USC Shoah Foundation. During her fellowship, she researched genocide survivors’ behavioral responses to stress during the Rwandan and Armenian genocides.
“The uniqueness of the testimonies in the Visual History Archive gives me the unique opportunity to hear from survivors about their experiences and garner their reactions to genocide,” Kale said.
Kale outlined her unique methodology. She began by using the Visual History Archive’s indexing terms to identify moments in testimonies that could indicate the interviewee’s response to a highly stressful or traumatic event, such as killings, sexual assault, escape, or loved one’s death. She then transcribed the interviewee’s description of how he or she responded to that event and categorized each response into one of five different types of response: fight, flight, tend, befriend, or death acceptance.
She then performed a statistical analysis on the data to draw some general conclusions. Kale said she found that men’s most common response to stress during genocide was fight, while women more often tended, or took care of others. She also found that death acceptance, or a lack of fear of death with no active attempt to resist, was most common among Rwandan survivors. This may be attributed to the high rate of sexual assault and the brutality of the murders that survivors witnessed, she speculated.
Next, it was Erin Mizrahi’s turn. Mizrahi was the Center’s Graduate Research Fellow and is currently obtaining her PhD in comparative literature. Her research focused on silence in testimonies, to support her multidisciplinary doctoral project on forms of memorialization, witnessing, protest and art through silence.
Mizrahi watched testimonies in the Visual History Archive to identify different types of silence, such as omissions in an interviewee’s storytelling, reluctance to speak, impossibility of speaking, silence of the other, and silence as a means of survival. The testimony of Stella Levi demonstrates a literal silence, for example – she takes a very long pause before describing how she and her siblings reacted to their parents’ death – and also perhaps impossibility of speaking, since she explains that she never spoke about her parents’ deaths or processed it until after the war. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch gives an example of silence of the other. She says that after the Holocaust, no one asked her questions about it or talked about what happened for a very long time.
“[I’m looking at] not only silence in testimonies but silence as testimony, reimagining our understanding of silence as a theoretical approach to testimony and witnessing,” Mizrahi said. “Silence as a language and a mark of survival.”
Piotr Florczyk was the recipient of a special “Honorable Mention” Graduate Summer Research Fellowship because his proposal was so compelling that Center staff wanted to support his work even though he wasn’t awarded the official fellowship. Florczyk, a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing, watched testimonies about his hometown of Krakow, Poland, and wrote poetry inspired by the experience.
Florczyk explained that the 30-page work “From the Annals of Krakow” that was born from his fellowship explores three themes: the character of “Piotr” doing research at USC Shoah Foundation, “Piotr” exploring Jewish and Holocaust locations in Krakow, and the testimonies of survivors themselves.
He read several poems that covered not only events of the Holocaust but also his experiences learning about the Holocaust in Krakow, his fellowship at the Center, and his thoughts on the act of writing poetry based on testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
“Whose if not mine are these words?” he read. “These words become mine the moment I let them go.”
Finally, the Summer Faculty Research Fellow Beatrice Mousli Bennett spoke about her research on Max Jacob, a French writer and artist who was born Jewish but later converted to Catholicism. He was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Amedeo Modigliani and is considered an important link between symbolism and surrealism. Jacob was arrested and sent to Drancy, where he died in 1944 at age 47 before he could be deported to Auschwitz.
Bennett said that she was shocked to discover a testimony in the Visual History Archive that made her completely rethink Jacob’s death. It has always been a mystery why he died in Drancy, since he was only there for five days and did not appear ill when he was arrested. Survivor Renee David says in her testimony that she met Jacob in the Drancy sick ward and confirms that he was not sick.
To Bennett, this may prove that he died not of illness or injury, but of simply losing the will to live.
She shared her finding with other Jacob specialists and they agreed that they had never heard such a thing about Jacob before and it could revolutionize our understanding of the end of his life.
“He had gone to the end of the journey. You need meaning to keep on living,” Bennett said. “I think that the next story [about Jacob] will be written very differently.”