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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 217-232

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Witnessing Video Testimony: An Interview with Geoffrey Hartman

Jennifer R. Ballengee

Geoffrey Hartman's role as co-founder of Yale University's Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and his continued involvement with the Archive have provided the catalyst for his work on video testimony. While such considerations may seem far from the studies of Wordsworth that marked the beginning of his career, an interest in vision and the visual, as well as a concern with literature and the aesthetic, manifests itself in both his early and his more recent work. I interviewed him in the summer of 1999 on the Fortunoff Archive, the question of video testimony in general, and the role such testimony can have in education, particularly literary education.

I. Memory, Video, and the Witness

Jennifer Ballengee: I'm interested in your work in the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies which is housed in the Yale University library, and a small portion of which has been lent to the Emory University library. In The Longest Shadow, you indicate that the genesis of this project, and your involvement with it, was on a more personal, rather than professional level. 1

Yet, now, of course, your work with the archive and your writing on it are well known. I wonder if, to begin, you'd mind sharing with me again how your role in the project has developed or changed.

Geoffrey Hartman: It's true that I was drawn into the project through personal issues, being a refugee myself, and, of course, my wife is a survivor. But from the beginning I immediately--almost instinctively--recognized the educational value of recording survivors, as well as bystanders to the event, and other relevant people, on video, because I had been thinking a lot about the medium of video, and the Holocaust, so these two matters came together. But I couldn't have brought Yale to accept it except on a professional and educational basis. Yale is not a Holocaust memorial institution. So, from the beginning it struck me that there were great advantages of a pedagogical even more than [End Page 217] historical nature to interviewing survivors this way--that is, oral history and then oral history in the format of video.

Now, there's been a lot of oral history done, so there's nothing innovative in that. But with the help of Dori Laub we decided on a protocol that tends towards the open interview--an interview that gives as much autonomy as possible to the interviewees and does not take the initiative away from them. The idea here was a sustained interview to release the memory of the survivors. And to record for a future audience which, we felt, would be audio-visually oriented.

And so, I want to modify a little bit what you say--it wasn't just the personal, but the personal and professional linked up. And I did not author the idea. A local television personality called Laurel Vlock originated it. But, I persuaded Yale to adopt it and to create the video archive. So it was a grass-roots, local project and it wasn't easy--quite frankly, not at all easy--to get an institution such as Yale to accept it. For two reasons: first, it was felt that to accept the project incurred an obligation to a particular community--could Yale fulfill that obligation?

JB: To the community of survivors?

GH: To the community of survivors and to the Jewish community in general. Should Yale undertake it? Could Yale even sustain it? In other words, funds had to be found; everybody knew that video would be very expensive. But the second question--and the more important one--was: what were the educational justifications for this project? I came in strongly and insisted that it did have educational reasons. And I was successful in getting Yale to accept it and put it in its library--in the Collection of Manuscripts and Archives. It may be the first...


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