One or Many Directions

What underpins the anxiety of a future world without Holocaust survivors?

New Directions in Testimony

It is a Wednesday afternoon, and I am in a sunlit, empty, chapel-like room, having a stilted conversation with ghosts. The ghosts, Holocaust survivors Eva Schloss and Pinchas Gutter, are at the time of writing still living, in London and Toronto, respectively. But I encounter them as the moving images through which they will live past their deaths. Appropriately, they appear larger than life, popping slightly from flat black screens. They sit on matching red velvet and wood chairs, and make the small movements of video game characters waiting to be selected by a player—giving a faint nod, fidgeting, looking off camera. Before entering the room, I watched footage of these images being made, the survivor sitting in a green room rigged with cameras at every angle. An interviewer sits off camera, asking the questions that form the database of answers for the “interactive testimony installation” I am trying to chat with.

The exhibit, titled New Directions in Testimony, is being piloted at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, and is on permanent display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. It is a demonstration of new technologies that utilize “next-generation natural language processing,” an initiative created by the USC Shoah Foundation with the goal of preserving not only Holocaust testimony but also dialogue between Holocaust survivors and generations to come. The USC Shoah Foundation, founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, archives and preserves around 55,000 video testimonies, including that of my great-grandmother. The Shoah Foundation records and archives the testimony of survivors of other atrocities, as well—the foundation collects testimony from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, for example, and is developing an archive of testimony regarding the 1937 Nanjing massacre. One Chinese-language “New Dimensions” testimony has been recorded. However, the Jewish experience of the Holocaust has been at the core of the foundation’s project and its archiving efforts since its inception, indicated in part by the use of Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

In the exhibit text, the museum visitor is called to “Ask the Witnesses to History in Your Own Voice . . . You are invited to approach the display, speak directly into the microphone and ask your questions.” The installation claims that it “revolutionizes the concept of oral history . . . enabl[ing] visitors to ask questions of the survivor about their life experiences and hear responses in real-time, lifelike conversation.” The visitor approaches the looming survivors in their black boxes and clicks a mouse while asking the question into a microphone. At the Museum of Jewish History, the room is full of benches, implying that the asker and the survivor will have an audience for their conversation, and that the audience will in turn, building a narrative.

I visited the museum in the afternoon, so it wasn’t very busy. I sat and waited for another visitor to enter the space, interested in how other people would interact with the exhibit. A few peered in curiously. One woman charged her phone in a corner while Schloss and Gutter fidgeted. A couple of visitors walked in, read the signs on the walls, circled the room, and took photographs of the survivors. Another couple of visitors took selfies with the survivors. Finally a visitor came in, turned to Gutter, clicked the mouse and mumbled into the microphone: “What was it like in Auschwitz?” While Gutter gave her answer, the man turned and handed his camera to his companion—it seemed important to document the process, to take photos of oneself interacting with the exhibit. There was a lot of nervous laughter.

One woman, listening to the exchange, exclaimed, “Wow, how do they do it? Is it live?” The problem, of course, is that Schloss and Gutter’s presences are lively but not live—they are captured, with extensive but not infinite databases of narrative. Their responses to visitors are triggered by keywords, via a hiccup-prone algorithm that may or may not have the ability to handle follow-up questions. When I asked what it had been like to be in hiding, Schloss flickered, searching her databases, and then told me about the barracks at Birkenau. These misidentifications seemed to dampen the newness, the different dimension of testimony that the exhibit promised. After rephrasing the question to include the keyword “Amsterdam,” Schloss told me about being in hiding in Amsterdam—mostly the boredom. When I asked Gutter about his thoughts on the rise of the alt-right today, he told me his thoughts on the Jewish community today. I asked a clarifying follow-up question and he wasn’t able to answer. I had hit the limit of the technology. If the value of history is to inform future choices, the virtual Holocaust survivors in that future will only be able to retell, in sound-bites, the horror stories of fascism past.

The testimonies of Schloss and Gutter, like all the testimonies that have preceded them, are frozen in the moment of their capture. This is what we have for perpetuity. There is no ability—nor is it arguably ethical or desirable—to program the holographic survivor to proffer opinions or insights on future events. The narrative is shaped by whatever lines of questioning the interviewer takes up, and what the survivor chooses to share. While the crowdsourced list of questions is meant to be exhaustive, this is of course always impossible. There is no way, after the survivor passes or after the session ends, to go back and ask new questions. The Holocaust is often presented as a rupture in time, a discrete event outside of history—and, accordingly, the static testimony is as discrete, a recounting of trauma rather than a project of relational historicization or speculative possibility.

The investment in this specific technology coincides with dwindling access to survivors with the passage of time. The building out of the spatial dimensions of the witness, into a 3-D interactive model, a virtual ghost, reflects these institutions’ deep faith in being a witness to the live act of relating testimony, even beyond the life of the survivor. To invest in this particular technology implies that this technology is different than other modes of relating information—different than a desire to teach history, to show documentary or even testimonial footage, or to have actors reenact testimony.

While, like previous iterations of archived testimony, Schloss and Gutter’s testimonies are recorded, the hologram is meant to be more convincing, more human. There are multiple stated goals in sharing the stories of Holocaust survivors—for example, to push back against denial of the event of the Holocaust, and to bolster the ethical imperative of preventing or ending genocide. Of course, we are not the intended audience, the intended audience is the future; we are only witnesses to the creation of the future of testimony in the present, viewers of the pilot program, the dramatization of how our descendants will experience testimony. The particular goal of this new dimension of testimony is emotional connection. One must ask, then, what political work these emotions are meant to do.

As right-wing politics and anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe seem to resurface, the warnings of Holocaust survivors around fascism and legalized prejudice are treated as particularly powerful. The Washington Post, CNN, Newsweek, among many others, have printed stories of living survivors warning of the eerie similarities between present-day America and 1930s Germany—undergirded by work like On Tyranny by historian Timothy Snyder, who traces these similarities, along with those to nascent Soviet dictatorship, in historical terms. Without dismissing these concerns or aims, the turn to Nazi Germany and the language of nascent fascism both speaks to the persistent exceptionalizing of the Holocaust and dismissal of the normalized violence that is central to Western modernity and is foundational to the United States as a country. In a place built on chattel slavery and Indigenous genocide, that holds white supremacy so dear, American history holds at least as many lessons as to how we got here as European history.

I acknowledge and even share in the investment in Holocaust testimony as an important relating of experience and trauma. Testimony, as a statement or recounting of events, is shaped by the time and place in which the witness testifies. Each witness has, as Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman make clear in their groundbreaking work on testimony, an incommensurable experience; each tells their truth, but they can only see from their position within the scene, and can only speak from that place. Laub and Felman suggest thinking of testimony as a literary genre rather than a complete account of events or a conclusive statement. Witnessing and history are bound together, but they are not the same; this is all to say, while multiple testimonies can help build a history alongside archival materials, an individual testimony only bears witness to individual trauma. While genocide is a legal and ethical category pertaining to the collective, trauma is a diagnosis, a wound—while it can be collectively identified, it is individually experienced. But part of the devastating trauma of genocide is not just the harm done to individuals but the experience of collective destruction—witnessing and experiencing the end of the world, as it were.

The faith placed by those who curate history in the power of conversational witnessing is also present in projects like the The Whole Truth exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin—in which a Jewish person sits in a glass box above the question “Are there still Jews in Germany?” and answers visitors’ questions about Jews, broadly. These responses are delivered through the lens of individual experience and opinion, although the volunteer is presented as an expert voice standing in for all Jews. As a historian and an anti-fascist descendant of German Jews, I am deeply interested in the investment, largely by Jewish institutions, in proliferating the ways that we access Holocaust testimony as time marches on. My Oma, like many survivors, often spoke to students near her home in North Carolina. She passed in 2010, leaving behind multiple interviews on video and tape. I have transcribed and worked with these interviews, but am consistently frustrated by my inability to ask follow-up questions, to go beyond my Oma’s script, because I failed to ask those questions while she was still alive. This is partly the urge of the historian and partly the urge of the descendant.

Visual and Holocaust Studies scholar Marianne Hirsch describes the memory of the children of survivors as postmemory—the “connection to the past” of the second generation is “mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” What is the experience of memory when so many generations have passed that memory of the event can be described as intensely mediated or prosthetic, even for descendents of survivors, even with a growing understanding of inherited trauma? I become a storyteller, fictioning the holes in my Oma’s story, trying to connect the brutal violences that my recent ancestors faced to my passage through daily life.

The generational, mediated trauma experienced in particular by Jewish people in the United States today is complicated—while not all American Jews are the descendents of survivors and not all Jews, or descendents of survivors, are white (or Jewish), the Holocaust as an event has been treated as the collective property of white Jews in the United States. Growing up, I understood this through the experiences of Hannah in Jane Yolen’s 1988 YA novel The Devil’s Arithmetic; failing to understand the importance of Holocaust memory as a young American Jew, Hannah opens the front door and finds herself, having traveled through time and space, in the Warsaw Ghetto. This is the danger, we are told, of loosening the grip on memory. While guarding the boundaries of access to claims of victimhood, the generational trauma of the Holocaust is paradoxically also arguably a hitch in the assimilative process of ethnic whiteness, the alarm that flares when anti-Semitic tropes reemerge.

The project of understanding contemporary anti-Semitism requires a significant attention to nuance. In their book On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace identifies the rise of “Zionist antisemitism” in Trump’s America—the unholy political alliance of fascist anti-Semites and anti-Palestinian-rights organizations toward, presumably, a future in which all the Palestinians are dead and all the Jews are in Israel. The Holocaust as a genocide is leveraged in support of another, ongoing settler-colonial genocide. Of course, Holocaust remembrance as a political project, often in support of claims to a Jewish state in Palestine, largely precedes Holocaust or genocide education—that is, a clear understanding of what happened, to who, how, and why—information that can be synthesized into antifascist and antigenocide strategies for the present and future.

The director of the film Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, said in an interview, “When I started to work on Shoah . . . I was like many Jews, I thought I knew: I thought I had this in my blood, which is a stupidity.” The phrase most often associated with Holocaust remembrance, “never again,” was in fact coined by an ultranationalist Zionist militant, Meir Kahane. The failure of this phrase or projects around it to prevent the proliferation of mass killing and genocidal violence cannot be surprising when taken in the context of ongoing settler colonialism—in Israel, and also in the United States, Canada, and Australia among others. Despite or perhaps because of the persistent logic of “never again,” which often presents itself also as a protected and exclusionary claim, constructed categories such as victimhood are unevenly accessed, often for the aims of a state-building project and along lines of racial, gender, and sexual privilege.

Holocaust remembrance should, in practice, exceed anxiety about anti-Semitism and Jewish safety, without denying the specificity of Jewish experience within and after the Holocaust—the experiences of Roma, Black, gay, and gender-nonconforming people are all still notably underrepresented and understudied, often presented as a sidebar or afterthought, particularly in popular memory. Elie Wiesel famously described the Holocaust as “the ultimate event,” and for the international order that took him as the figure of moral conscience, it is presented as the exceptional historical violence against which all violence is compared.

But a wider historical view of the Holocaust enriches our understanding of historical violence. Poet Aimé Césaire observed of white Europeans in his 1955 book Discourse on Colonialism that “before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.” Within the Western legacy of the “human” as a privileged and demarcated status, and claims to rights based on this category, the Holocaust as an event has been produced as the paradigmatic example of modern violence, over and above colonial and imperial violences that were its condition of possibility.

The political strategy and popular tendency of comparing all subsequent violence to the Holocaust has framed genocide as competitive—both as a numbers game and in the sense of whose lives are made to matter. However, Raphael Lemkin’s original 1944 conception of genocide encompassed a broader set of violences, which included economic and cultural devastation. Genocide as a legal and ethical framework was developed by Lemkin partly in response to Winston Churchill’s 1941 statement, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name”—in response to the Holocaust, but, in Lemkin’s view, certainly not limited to those events. In his unpublished writings (unearthed by the historian John Docker), Lemkin wrote, “Slavery may be called cultural genocide par excellence. It is the most effective and thorough method of destroying a culture, and of de-socializing human beings.”

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and made active in the 1990s through the development of criminal tribunals. The retroactive designation of genocide has a material effect in making legal cases for reparations, but otherwise is primarily important for the ethical weight of the category—a mode of historical condemnation that seems attached to the value placed not only on individual lives lost or even loss of life generally but the unnatural loss of a way of life, a people, or a culture. In contrast to the ways in which genocide has been taken up, Lemkin’s conception of genocide included both episodic and ruptural violence, as well as normalized, “extended process[es]” such as the ongoing and structural genocide of settler colonialism.

Memory of violence is still often treated as a contest, rather than as relational and part of a larger and connected structure—both because of the tendency to view history as episodic and because of the vested political interest in emphasizing certain violences over others. The question with New Dimensions in Testimony is less how they did the thing than why—what underpins the anxiety of a future world without Holocaust survivors, the desire to prolong the illusion of access to this particular traumatized generation. Why are these the particular ghosts that must be preserved? While valuing the lived experiences and oral histories of Gutter and Schloss, to invest in these ghosts seems to reiterate the claim of the Holocaust over history and the dominance of these claims to injury as the ultimate violence, as demands swell from the living to attend to the historical violences which continue into the here and now.