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Why Testimony Matters

Ahead of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, PM Rishi Sunak praised the courage of Holocaust survivors and announced that parliament will soon legislate to build the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, “so that testimonies of survivors will be heard at the heart of our democracy by every generation to come.”

When Rishi Sunak’s statement appeared on my Social Media, my first thought was about the many survivors and refugees who I had interviewed in the last 20 years for the AJR Refugee Voices Archive and how pleased they would be hear this pledge from the current Prime Minister. My thoughts went back to one particular interviewee, the journalist John Izbicki. As an eight-year-old boy in Berlin in 1938 he watched from the window as Nazi storm troopers ransacked his parents shop on the evening of the November pogrom (Kristallnacht). Knowing his parents were in the shop, he shouted and cried uncontrollably. His parents survived and the family made it to safety in the UK but his vocal cords had been severely affected and his voice was permanently changed as a consequence.

The PM’s commitment to the importance of testimonies hopefully means that voices like that of John Izbicki, marked profoundly by the traumatic experience of anti-Semitic persecution, will have a strong presence in our memorial and political landscape and that John Izbicki’s clear message from the end of his interview will be heard: ‘Look back to the past and don’t let it become the future’.

When Holocaust testimony moves to the political centre stage, it is a good time to take a step back and think about the history of the creation and dissemination of Holocaust testimony, understand the complexities of the production of testimonies, look at the institutions which have collected and recorded these testimonies, and examine the memorial landscapes they have emerged from.

Ahead of the AJR’s ‘International Forum on Collecting, Preserving Holocaust Testimonies’ in April 2023, which will address many of the poignant issues relating to the collection and dissemination of testimonies, I would like to share some reflections on why testimony matters.

Broadly speaking, the capturing and dissemination of testimonies shape a variety of agents and environments: a) the interviewee and their families b) the academic ‘users’ of testimonies and their areas of research and c) the broader educational and learning fields (use of testimonies in schools, digital and non-digital learning platforms, local museums, televisions and documentary productions, exhibition installations). In recent years, with Holocaust denial and distortion on the rise, the words of the survivors have gained even more significance.

For some years now, most institutions dealing with Holocaust testimonies, have been thinking about the future of Holocaust education without survivors. Different institutions and groups have developed new resources, the New Dimensions in Testimony from the Shoah Foundation and the Forever Project from the National Holocaust Centre and Museum have created new kinds of testimonies or interactive recordings, which respond to the questions of the viewer, other organisations like Generation2Generation have trained second and third generations to tell the stories of their parents or grandparents. Some organisations have created video games and virtual reality content, in early February 2023 a virtual reality guide of Auschwitz-Birkenau was launched in London, featuring drone footage and survivor testimony.

I feel that with all these resources, as with testimony itself, we need to be clear about the limitations and challenges of each medium. While, for example, I appreciate the educational value of the interactive testimonies, as an oral historian I feel sorry that I cannot follow the interviewees’ narrative and that I cannot find the silences, pauses and hesitations, present in a regular interview. When second and third generations talk about their parents or grandparents story, what is their agency? Are they re-presenting somebody else’s history or are they interpreting their parents/grand-parents’ experiences? But there is also the wider question when watching testimonies in different spaces. Are we sufficiently aware of the curatorial interventions when watching these testimony? A recently opened exhibition in Vienna called ‘The End of Testimony’ (House of Austrian History, until 3 September 2023) which also features two Refugee Voices testimonies with Valerie Klimt and Freddie Boxer, is trying to explore testimony as a product of wider relationships, interests, and contexts. The exhibition attempts to illuminate parts of testimony recordings which were edited out from the testimony seen by most viewers.

As there is now a very high chance that testimonies will take centre stage near parliament, the conference on the past and future of Holocaust testimonies is very timely. By understanding how Holocaust testimonies have been collected and displayed over time and in different cultural and memorial contexts, we need to create an important dialogue which will ensure that the voices of all British Holocaust survivors and refugees, such as John Izbiki’s, will be represented and properly contextualised. My hope is that future visitors of the Learning Centre will find out about individual stories of survival but that they will also gain an understanding of the medium of Holocaust testimony itself, so that we realise why testimony mattered in the past and in the future.

—Dr Bea Lewkowicz


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