Updated: May 4
The International Testimony Forum provided a wonderful opportunity for politicians, academics, researchers, journalists, anyone working in Holocaust educations across various sectors, 1st survivors and refugees and next generations to come together in the beautiful surrounding of Lancaster House and discuss the past and the future of Holocaust testimonies.
It was remarkable to see so many organisations and individuals represented who care deeply about Holocaust education and Holocaust memory and to learn about innovative initiatives and projects.
I was honoured, together with my colleagues from the AJR, to have been able to bring so many people together and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the AJR Refugee Voices Archive.
The Forum was opened by Lord Ahmad who in his speech referred to the message given by Refugee Voices interviewee Walter Brunner, which was displayed on the side of the conference room. Lord Ahmad encouraged the audience to read the message (which said that each of us should take responsibility and try to help people) and to increase our efforts in engaging with testimonies:
‘We own an immense debt of gratitude to the incredible survivors of the Holocaust, victims who became survivors who became advocates. Together we must ensure that their testimonies are protected and strengthened for generations to come. That we can also say, in Walters' words, that we did out part to help people and that their memories never ever fade and when we reflect back on our own efforts, we can say we did not forget’.
For me, one personal highlight was the beginning of the Forum, when Lord Pickles announced the formation of the UK Holocaust Testimony Portal Working Group, led by the UK government and the AJR, which will lead to the creation of a digital platform which will facilitate better access to all UK testimonies, recorded by bigger and smaller organisations over the last 40 years. I am delighted that the AJR Refugee Voices Archive will be a part of this portal, along the USC Shoah Foundation, the Fortunoff Video Archive, the Imperial War Museum, and the British Library and that the AJR will play a major role in creating an incredibly important resource which will ensure that the recorded testimonies will be watched by future generations and cross referenced with other sources.
In the lead up of the Testimony Forum we created a campaign called #Whydoes HoloocaustTestimonyMatter. For me, having been involved with capturing Survivor’s and Refugee Stories for more than thirty years, the most important part of the answer to that question is to do with the interviewees. The interviewees, who were able to talk needed to know that there are people willing to listen to their stories and that their story is being preserved for new listeners and audiences. An interview can give a survivor or refugee a sense of collective acknowledgement of their individual traumatic life story. I remember very clearly how many interviewees framed the letter from Steven Spielberg which they received after their interview for the Shoah Foundation.
So I could not help myself thinking that many interviewees would have been proud that their memories were discussed in Lancaster House, near Buckingham Palace, and that Lord Pickles expressed his dedication to preserving and disseminating Holocaust testimonies.
There were moments of this conference which made it palpable to everyone that the impact of the Holocaust is still very much felt by 1st generations and their descendants. In the session which dealt with ‘Producing Testimonies: Perspectives from Interviewees and Interviewers’ we had the chance to hear from Kindertransportee Kurt Marx BEM, and child survivors Eva Clarke BEM, and Jackie Young. Jackie had prepared his speech but at some point could not continue to speak, overcome by emotions. The audience was very quiet and listened to his silence. Being a chair of this session, I forced myself not to come in with another question and to wait for Jackie to continue. In that moment I thought that this situation demonstrates perfectly what a good interview should be, i.e. a place where the interviewee knows that his/her silence can also be part of the story, even if that silence is slightly uncomfortable. At the end of the session, Natasha Kaplinsky OBE commented: ‘Sometimes Silence says everything’. Dr Rosalyn Livshin added that in her extensive interview experience you need to wait and then bring the survivor back to his/her narrative and most people will be able to continue the interview. It was also very moving to hear from Kurt Marx’s son Michael in the Q&A after the panel discussion who told us that his father only started to talk about his experiences after the death of his wife, who was an Auschwitz survivor. You can watch this session in full here:
Emotions also came to the fore in the session with Jonathan Freedland, Lord Daniel Finkelstein OBE, and Karen Baum Gordon, in which each author read from their books. Karen Baum Gordon at some point found it difficult to go on, while she was reading excerpts of her grandmother’s letters (written to her father in the USA) and Daniel Finkelstein as well took a deep pause at some point. He also told the audience that he thought it was interesting that as an author who had written the text, you can still feel emotional when reading it out. He also graciously acknowledged the importance of the Refugee Voices interviews I had carried out with his parents, Mirjam and Ludwik Finkestein, for the writing of his book (which will be published in June 2023).
In the last two sessions we learnt how the dedicated second and third generations are taking their parents and grad/parents stories and telling it to wide audiences, and how HET ambassadors are doing the same.
At the end of these two days, I felt inspired by the many people I spoke to and listened to and felt reassured about the future path of Holocaust remembrance and Holocaust education in local, national, and internationals contexts. The hard work of the interviewers and interviewees in creating testimonies, manifested in the many hours of recording in the last 40 years for many different projects, will hopefully be in safe hands.
I am grateful to all Refugee Voices interviewees, Refugee Voices interviewers, such as Dr Rosalyn Livhsin, Dr Anthony Grenville, Dr Jana Buresova, and the entire Refugee Voices team for their diligent and dedicated work over the last 20 years.
I was poignant to hear from historians Prof Kushner, Dr Andrea Hammel and Prof Dan Stone (in a session on Holocaust Testimonies as an historical source) that Holocaust testimonies have gained in importance in contemporary historiography. Prof Kushner concluded his presentation:
‘To put testimony to the forefront and to explore the context in which it was created – in some cases taken and some cases given – is to take risks but ones, if we are to do justice to its millions of victims, is a necessary though a huge challenge to historians, curators, film makers and the like’.
The International Testimony Forum gave us a taster of the work of organisations and individuals who have taken up this challenge.
May we meet again soon!
—Dr Bea Lewkowicz