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Reviewed by:
  • Reframing Holocaust Testimony by Noah Shenker
  • Jared Stark (bio)
Reframing Holocaust Testimony. By Noah Shenker. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015. xv + 248pp.

Video testimonies of Holocaust survivors are often said to possess a valuable sense of immediacy and authenticity. Yet as many scholars have observed, video testimonies are nonetheless framed, not only by the borders of the video image and the technology of the camera, but also by underlying conditions of recording and reception. Of particular importance are the institutional practices of the archives that collect and disseminate testimonies, such as pre-interview and interviewing parameters and protocols, cataloging methods and access policies, and forms of exhibition. Reframing Holocaust Testimony provides the first comprehensive overview of the institutional histories, policies, and practices of the three major archives of Holocaust video testimony: the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, the oral history collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), and the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA), originally founded by Steven Spielberg after the filming of Schindler's List.

After a useful methodological and historical introduction, Shenker devotes one chapter each to these archives, drawing on internal working papers, interviews with staff, and other sources to supply cogent and well-researched characterizations of the explicit and implicit preferences, values, and mandates of each institution. Each of these chapters also includes illuminating discussions of "exemplary testimonies" that seek to demonstrate both how archival practices "shape the formation of testimony" and how individual witnesses may "counter or at least evade the approaches of archives and interviewers" (103, 152). The book's fourth chapter analyzes an interesting group of five survivors who gave their testimonies to each of the three archives, thus allowing what is as close as possible to a direct comparison of the consequences of the archives' various methodologies. A brief epilogue reflects on the paradigmatic status that Holocaust testimony has achieved for efforts to document genocides after the Shoah.

Given recent arguments that we inhabit an era in which historical truth is thought to reside less in documents and material traces than in the voices of memory, Shenker's call for "testimonial literacy" assumes paramount importance. Rather than accept audiovisual testimony as "unvarnished" or "raw," Shenker's work pays careful attention to the impact on testimonial performances of crucial framing conditions, from the training and guidelines given to interviewers, to the sorts of questions [End Page 166] each archive favors, to the ways that each archive uses (or envisions eventual uses for) its collection. Whereas the Yale archive favored open-ended questions meant to "foster agency by witnesses," the USHMM gave primary consideration to the eventual exhibition value of testimony (53). The VHA tended to view testimonies as sources of objective historical fact and structured its pre-interview questionnaire and its interviews accordingly. Indeed, Shenker suggests, for the VHA "the indexing and cataloguing protocol drove the interview process, not the other way around, often at the expense of the specificity of witnesses' experiences" (131). The various preferences and methodologies of each archive are also revealed in post-production activities. These include the identification of "exemplary" testimonies that are implicitly or explicitly scored for quality and most frequently shared with new researchers, potential funders, and broader publics; the production of transcripts and indices that guide research but may exclude aspects of a testimony deemed irrelevant; and the dissemination of edited testimonies and documentary films for educational or exhibition purposes. These various forms of mediation, Shenker argues, participate in the "instrumentalization" of testimonies, in that "moments that capture a sense of the dialogical, mutual labor involved in testimony are often consigned to the periphery rather than to the center of the archival process" (13, 151). While these general observations may not be surprising, Shenker's work supplies rich historical and analytic context for registering their specific implications and ought to be a point of reference for future studies.

Complementing the book's rigorous history of each archive's development and its institutional preferences are analyses of individual testimonies. These vary in persuasiveness but effectively demonstrate both the instrumentalizing tendencies of archival mandates and the ways that individual testimonies "challenge the imposition of closure and redemption" or...


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