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Call for Proposals: Creative, Pedagogical, and Research Projects Working with Yiddish Testimonies from the Fortunoff Video Archive

Stephen Naron

The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University is a collection of over 4,300 testimonies of Holocaust survivors, witnesses, and liberators. Only a fraction of these testimonies have ever been used in teaching, research, or cultural productions like documentaries. That is doubly true for the dozens of Yiddish language testimonies, many of which may hardly have been viewed since they were first recorded or processed at the archive.

It is for this reason that In geveb is collaborating with the Fortunoff Archive to encourage and fund scholars to work with the collection. Our hope is to bring the archive “off the shelf” and into your computer screens.

What follows is a description of the collection followed by a call for proposals to work with these materials.

Brief history

In 1979, a grassroots organization consisting mostly of survivors, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project, began videotaping witnesses in New Haven, Connecticut. They donated the original collection of testimonies to Yale University in 1981. The Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, part of the Yale University Library, opened its doors to the public the following year. The archive, today known as the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, has worked to record, collect, and preserve Holocaust witness testimonies, and to make its collection available to researchers, educators, and the general public. The collection now encompasses more than 4,400 testimonies of survivors and witnesses. In total the collection represents more than 12,000 hours of recorded material, in over a dozen languages. Although the majority of the testimonies in the collection are Holocaust survivors, it is quite an ecumenical archive. The collection contains testimonies of Jews and non-Jews, Sinti and Roma, non-Jewish members of resistance movements, and liberators, all of which were recorded at Yale, or across North America, South America, Europe and Israel with the help of thirty-six formally affiliated projects. The Archive was still actively taping until the pandemic, making it the longest continuously taping project of this kind. This extended time period of taping, from 1979 to the 2019, provides a unique longitudinal perspective — over 40 years of recording video testimony.

From “zamlt un fartsaykhnt” to “tsutrit un banits

A poster from the Central Historical Commission in Munich vividly illustrates the conceptual foundation for the work of Holocaust documentation. In the poster, a clock measures the passage of 2,000 years of Jewish history, notes moments of rupture and destruction throughout history. Next to these historical vignettes a book, or a scroll, is depicted — a text that was produced to document the catastrophe. A skeleton, representing the millions of dead, points his finger vehemently at the words collect and record, zamlt un fartsaykhnt, demanding action from the viewers of the image. In her groundbreaking work on the Historical Commissions titled Collect and Record!, Laura Jockusch writes:

These initiatives of Jewish Holocaust documentation arose as grassroots movements impelled by the survivors’ own will and with no government backing […] Out of fear that the Nazi’s effort to destroy all evidence of their murderous crimes would condemn the Jewish cataclysm to oblivion before its full scope was even known to the world (2012: p. 4).

The founders of the Fortunoff Archive would have recognized themselves in this description of the historical commissions — after all, even in the 1970s, the scope was still not fully known, and certainly not from the perspective of the survivor. Their motivation was similar, and their grassroots organization a reflection of the earlier effort, albeit belated. But the living witnesses who stepped forward to give testimony to the Fortunoff Archive, and help establish the “era of the witness,” as Annette Wieviorka calls it, are now fading from the scene. For several years, new recordings at the Fortunoff Archive have been few and far between. Our work is shifting from the traditional archival work of collecting to encouraging access and use (tsutrit un banits) of the collection in teaching and research. The entire collection has been digitized for preservation and access, and it is now possible to make the materials available outside the confines of Yale Campus. In fact, it is now being used in teaching and research at more than 180 access sites worldwide.

We have also launched an international fellowship program to provide opportunities for scholars to engage with the collection at Yale and these access sites around the globe. In these fellowships, scholars are asked to choose a testimony relevant for their research, and then annotate the testimony transcript to create what we call a critical annotated edition of a testimony. What does that mean exactly? Basically, you get to watch and read the testimony through the eyes of the scholar. Imagine a literary critical edition of a Shakespeare play – a text with notes that provide context, explanations, and links and citations to further readings about a particular topic. The goal is to open the testimony to wider readership, and perhaps encourage use of the critical editions in the classroom. It is actually a rather traditional form of scholarship, but enhanced with web technology to allow wider access as well as deep scholarship with the original audiovisual recordings.

Another way the Archive has started to encourage meaningful use of the collection is through the sponsorship of productions such as our Vlock Film Series, our Podcast series Those Who Were There, and our Songs from Testimonies project. All of these efforts demonstrate the richness of the collection’s content, and prove the potential for activating these archival materials for cultural and educational purposes beyond the academy.

Yiddish in the Archive

In the same spirit as the projects above to make meaningful use of the
collection, In geveb and the Fortunoff Video Archive have embarked on a
cooperative effort to support and publish a series of projects exclusively based on Yiddish language materials from the Fortunoff Archive. There are 36 testimonies in the collection that were recorded entirely in Yiddish. These interviewees were born between 1892 and 1934 and recorded between 1983 and 2006. The survivors who testify in Yiddish come from a variety of towns and cities from across Eastern and Central Europe in what is today Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Czech Republic, and Lithuania, therefore representing multiple Yiddish dialects.

One example of how testimony preserves important expressions of Yiddish culture is the testimony of Moshe B. (HVT-4409). Moshe was born in Rymanów, Poland in 1926. He survived deportation and slave labor in a camp and was liberated in Bergen Belsen after a death march. In his testimony, Moshe recalls this song which was sung by a fellow prisoner during daily camp “appell,” or roll calls:

This excerpt then served as the basis for the original arrangement and performance of the song on the second volume of Songs from Testimonies by Zisl Slepovitch and his Ensemble featuring Sashe Lurje:

A Dermonung Funem Appellplatz—אַ דערמאָנונג פֿונעם אַפּעלפּלאַץ

Lyrics in Transliteration and Translation by Zisl Slepovitch

Mayn harts tut mir vey.
Vus zhe helft mayn geshrey,
Az kayner tut mikh nit oyshern?
Men tut mikh nor yugn,
Ikh fil mikh ershlugn,
Ikh hob shoyn kayn koy’kh mer tsu klern.

Der mentsh hot kayn deye,
Bay der runde matbeye
Af velkhe zayt es varft zikh.
Er tit shtendik shtrebn
Tsu genisn fun lebn.
In hartsn dort hobn dos glik.

Mentsh, di bist dokh narish,
Farges nisht fun deym,
Az dayn gants geveyn
Iz nor erd un leym.

In shtopn dem baytl,
Meynsti iz klig,
Farges nisht, di kumst naket
In di geyst naket tsurik.

Meygst zayn raykh vi Korakh,
Zikh budn in glik.
Blaybsti alts der zelber orakh,
Ven er ruft dikh tsurik.

In shtopn dem baytl,
Maynsti iz klig,
Farges nisht, kumst naket,
In di geyst naket tsrurik.

My heart is aching,
but what does my cry help,
If no one hears me?
They only chase me,
I feel beaten up.
I have no energy to think.

A human cannot understand,
when tossing a round coin,
On which side it will fall.
One always aspires
To enjoy life,
And have joy in one’s heart.

Human, you are foolish.
Don’t forget that
All your crying
Is just earth and clay.

And as you fill your wallet,
You think you’re so smart.
Remember, you’re born in this world naked,
And you’ll return naked.

You can become rich as Korah.
And bathe in luck,
You’re still the same as everyone else,
When God calls your number.

And as you fill your wallet,
You think you’re so smart.
Remember, you’re born in this world naked,
And you’ll return naked.

As another example, here is a short clip from Leyba E. (HVT-1931), a survivor from Kyiv born in 1919. He offers us a personal glimpse into the chaos and violence against Jews in the post-WWI period, as well as a sense of Yiddish educational institutions in Kyiv.

איך בין געבױרן געװאָרן דעם זעקס און צװאַנציקסטן אָקטאָבער, טױזנט נײַן הונדערט נײַנצן יאָר אין קיעװ. ס′איז געװען זײער אַ שװערע צײַט, װײַל דעמאָלסט זײַנען געגאַנגען אין קיעװ פֿאַרשײדענע באַנדעס, און זײ האָבן.…די יידן פֿאַרשטערט ...[געמאַכט פּאָגראָמען אױף יידן]... געמאַכט פּאָגראָמעס, און די מאַמע האָט זיך אױסגעבאַהאַלטן אין קבֿר, און אַזױ איז זי געבליבן לעבן. אין טױזנט נײַן הונדערט זיבן און צװאַנציקן יאָר האָט מען מיך אָנגעגעבן זיך לערנען אין קיעװ אין אַ יידישער שול. יענער צײַט אין קיעװ איז געװען אַ סך יידישע שולן. אונדזער שול האָט געטראָגן דעם נאָמען פֿון שלום עליכמען. געװען זײער אַ פֿײַנע שול. געװען זײער פֿײַנע לערערס. אָבער דער קאָנטינגענט פֿון קינדער איז געװען זײער אָרעמע קינדער פֿון אָרעמע פֿאַמיליעס. אָבער די לערערס האָבן געטאָן אַלץ מעגלעך מיטהילפֿן די קינדער זײ זאָלן קענען באַקומען נײַעס, באַקומען די קולטור יידישע. זײער אַ פֿײַנע שול. איצטער בײַ מיר איז געבליבן די בעסטע אָנדענק פֿון דער שול. אַפֿילו נאָך דער מלחמה די לערער װאָס זײַנען נאָך געבליבן לעבן, האָבן מיר זיך געהאַלטן פֿרײַנט ביז די לעצטע טעג פֿון זײער לעבן.


Transcript:

I was born on October 26, 1919 in Kyiv. It was a very difficult time. At the time different groups (bands) who attacked (destroyed) the Jews ... [made pogroms against the Jews] ... made pogroms, and my mother hid in a grave and that is how she survived. In 1927 I was registered to attend a Yiddish school in Kyiv. At that time, there were a number of Yiddish/Jewish schools in Kyiv. Our school was named after Sholem Aleychem. It was a very good school. They were very good teachers. But the children in the school were very poor children from very poor families. Still the teachers did everything they could to help the children grow and learn about Yiddish culture. A very good school. Even today, I have nothing but fond memories of this school. Even after the war, we remained friends with the teachers who survived, until the last day of their lives.

Of course, Yiddish is present in many of the testimonies in the collection. There are hardly any monolingual testimonies in the collection. After all, the archive’s methodology allows for very open, almost stream of consciousness interviews in which the witness leads, and the interviewer accompanies them as an empathic listener. In these testimonies one sees how memory works in mysterious ways as survivors slip in and out of different languages as they recount events from the past. It often seems that survivors are “right back there,” in the past, and re-telling their life story like a film playing back in their head. That film didn’t take place in English, or Hebrew, or whatever majority language of their country of adoption where they now reside, but rather in the original languages of their hometown, in Yiddish, in Polish, in Russian or in German.

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Proposals

The Fortunoff Video Archive, together with In geveb, will provide funding (between 500 and 2500 USD per submission) for a series of projects and publications that are based primarily on the Yiddish language materials in the Fortunoff Video Archive. These projects can be conceptualized in various ways, either as traditional research publications, educational materials that employ testimonies in classroom teaching, or cultural productions like podcasts or documentaries. In geveb invites those who produce materials for this project to submit them for consideration for a special issue that will gather these unique projects and publications in one location for further dissemination.

Proposals will be evaluated in waves by a committee consisting of:

Jessica Kirzane, Editor-in-Chief, In geveb; Assistant Instructional Professor, University of Chicago

Stephen Naron, Director, Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies

Hannah Pollin-Galay, Senior Lecturer of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies, Tel Aviv University

Josh Price, Lector, Yale University

The deadline for the first wave of submissions is June 1, 2023. The evaluation committee will contact applicants within 4 months of submission.

Proposals should consist of:

  1. Curriculum Vitae

  2. Project description and budget (max. 1000 words)

Please submit your proposals to [email protected] with the subject heading “Fortunoff Submission”

MLA STYLE
Naron, Stephen. “Call for Proposals: Creative, Pedagogical, and Research Projects Working with Yiddish Testimonies from the Fortunoff Video Archive.” In geveb, March 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/call-for-proposals-fortunoff.
CHICAGO STYLE
Naron, Stephen. “Call for Proposals: Creative, Pedagogical, and Research Projects Working with Yiddish Testimonies from the Fortunoff Video Archive.” In geveb (March 2023): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Naron

Stephen Naron is the Director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testomonies at Yale University.