Oct 22, 2023
In March 2023, In geveb and Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies announced a call for proposals with the goal of unlocking and activating the Yiddish-language materials in the archive’s nearly 12,000 hours of audiovisual survivor testimony. Together we sought to fund meaningful scholarship and creative productions based on these unique Yiddish oral histories. We are pleased to announce that out of the responses to our first call, in what will be a series of calls for similar projects, the academic selection committee picked five promising, diverse proposals ranging from more “traditional” scholarship based in the testimonies to artistic interpretation and representation in both music and plastic arts. These projects are now in different stages of production, and we look forward to learning from the work of these new Fortunoff/In geveb fellows:
Fiszel, Sara, Paja: A Story of Migration to Latin America
Our first fellow, Joanna Zofia Spyra, is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her doctoral project explores the relationship between sexuality, health, and philanthropy in 1930s Argentina. Her research is situated at the intersection of migration history, minority studies, and gender theory. Before coming to Bergen, Joanna completed prior degrees at Jagiellonian University, Cracow University of Economics, and most recently a Master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University.
Her project will result in a critical review essay of three testimonies of Holocaust survivors who found their way to Latin America. Fiszel S. (HVT-2971), Sara P. (HVT-3152), and Paja L. (HVT-1406). All three were born in Poland within just a five-year span; Spyra hopes to put their very different survival stories into context and show how they diverge and converge, in particular as they faced similar challenges in their naye heym, in the global south – in the case of Fiszel that new homeland was Bolivia, while Sara and Paja ended up in Argentina.
“Much research has been done on Jewish interwar migrations to Latin America but the time period after World War II has been often overlooked. I would like to create a visual representation (interactive map) of the journey all the survivors embarked on their way to Latin America, not only across the Atlantic but also internally in Poland/Europe.” - Spyra
In addition to her essay, she intends to develop short-edited programs from the testimonies for use in the classroom, for instance in courses she is teaching as a graduate student at the University of Bergen.
Musically Augmenting and Amplifying Memory
Our second fellow, Benjy Fox-Rosen, originally hails from Los Angeles but currently lives in Vienna, Austria, where he works as a musician and lecturer. He recently completed his master’s thesis at Institute for Musicology of the University of Vienna writing about the musical practice of Vienna’s Stadttempel synagogue. This project uses ethnographic research methods to address questions of musical change, meaning and continuity. Fox-Rosen has also published scholarly reflections on his own artistic practice, focusing on questions of translation in the performance of Yiddish song, particularly in the German speaking world. His familiarity with the Stadttempel choir is, however, not exclusively scholarly, since Fox-Rosen is also the conductor, accompanying Cantor Shmuel Barzilai weekly. As a singer and bassist, Fox-Rosen has performed widely at festivals and venues throughout the Americas and Europe. Fox-Rosen is currently a lecturer in the Institute for Musicology, at the University of Vienna.
Fox-Rosen’s project is designed as an “artistic intervention” in the Yiddish-language materials captured in testimonies at the Fortunoff Video Archive. He will create audio compositions using Yiddish language materials by using testimony excerpts as the basis for his own original musical piece.
“Instead of reinterpreting songs from the archives with my own voice, I will use the voices of the witnesses themselves as the building blocks for musical composition. I intend hereby to frame my own artistic practice within both the lineage of secondary musical witness, as well the Yiddish music community…By engaging with the Fortunoff Archive’s Yiddish material, I intend to bring visibility to what has been inaudible to many, augmenting memory through the shaping and amplification of aspects of witness testimony.” Fox-Rosen
In addition to the musical compositions, Fox-Rosen will frame this project with a series of written reflections on the particular challenges of using witness testimony and more broadly archival recordings in artistic practice.
Butter-lider Book II
Our third fellow, Max Friedman, is a composer, trumpet player, Yiddishist, translator, and educator based in Memphis, Tennessee. Friedman holds degrees from Brown University (AB ’20) and Brandeis University (MFA ’22), was a 2021 Steiner Program Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and in 2022 attended the YIVO-Bard Uriel Weinreich Yiddish Summer Program. His music and scholarship explore the multitudes of ways Yiddish speakers have and continue to express their identities through music. His composition “Butter-Lider,” for Yiddish poetry recordings and sextet, was commissioned and premiered (2022) by Cleveland’s No Exit New Music Ensemble. He has also presented at conferences hosted at Indiana University, Brandeis University, and the University of Toronto.
Friedman’s project, also musical in nature, aims to produce a new-classical musical composition based on Yiddish songs shared by survivors in the Fortunoff Video Archive’s testimonies. The project is conceived along the same methodological and compositional lines as Friedman’s composition, “Butter-lider,” which was produced as the capstone in his MA program at Brandeis University. In that piece, Friedman set to music the texts of modernist Yiddish poets in a song-cycle format.
“I aim for sensitivity to the rhythm and delivery of the original recording, not just the text and melody. This centers the individuality and identity of the witness, and it highlights not just the rhetoric of a song, but how it has been orally transmitted across generations.” Friedman
His work will focus closely on the phrasing and dialect of each witness, which is something that will be felt clearly in the final composition.
A Critical Edition of Julia Pirotte’s Yiddish Testimony
Our fourth fellow, Matthew Johnson, is currently the Senior Lecturer in Germanic Languages & Literatures and Director of Yiddish & Ashkenazic Studies at the Ohio State University, but is heading to Lund, Sweden where he will soon take up a new position. Johnson’s teaching and research interests include Yiddish- and German-language cultural history, literature, and other media, translation theory and practice, and the history and representation of the Holocaust. His writing has or will soon appear in The Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, German Studies Review, In geveb, and AJS Perspectives, among other venues, and he serves as a peer review editor at In geveb. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Faltering Language: On German-Yiddish Literature.
Johnson intends to produce a critical edition of Julia Pirotte’s (HVT-774) Yiddish-language testimony. Pirotte, born in 1908 in Poland, was a photojournalist who worked with and documented the resistance movement in occupied France. She also captured images of life in Poland in the immediate postwar period, including the aftermath of the infamous Kielce pogrom in 1946.
“In recent years, there has been growing curatorial and scholarly interest in Pirotte’s photography, and it is my understanding that a film is currently being developed about her life and work with the support of the Fortunoff Archive. In light of this film and the increased visibility of Pirotte’s photography, it is important that educators and students have the ability to access and work with her video testimony, which a critical edition—like the others already commissioned by the archive—would help facilitate.” -Johnson
Johnson intends to use this critical edition in his teaching. In fact, he has been using Fortunoff Archive’s critical editions in his courses on the Holocaust at OSU. Having a Yiddish-language critical edition will open new opportunities for bringing these important archival documents into the classroom.
Veln Di Verter Oykh Nern: Cultural Transmission in the Vilna Ghetto
Our fifth fellow in this wave is Etai Rogers-Fett. Rogers-Fett is a printmaker, Judaica artist, and arts educator living on Piscataway land in central Maryland. In his woodcuts and etchings, Etai draws inspiration from Jewish craft traditions of papercutting, manuscript illumination, and calligraphy to create compositions that blend decorative and narrative imagery and explore the expressive potential of Hebrew and Yiddish typography. Etai plays with the genres of Jewish book arts in order to think about how we tell and transmit stories, often weaving together archival research, folktales, oral histories, and speculative imagining.
Rogers-Fett’s artist book will employ printmaking methods such as etching, aquatint, and letterpress, and draw direct quotes from Paja’s testimony as well as pair this with imagery from cultural event posters that were produced in the Vilna ghetto at the time. His hope is that this artist’s book will not only open discussion on the nature of testimony, and its representation in an artistic form, but can also be used as a resource for Yiddish language instruction, arts education, and contemporary cultural organizing.
“Paja was also situated at an intersection between caregiving and culture-making that interests me as an arts educator thinking about how we teach young students amidst multiple crises. While remaining open to new threads that may emerge from Paja’s story, I plan to weave Paja’s individual testimony into a broader exploration of the relationship between cultural production / preservation and various forms of resistance in and outside the Vilna Ghetto - Rogers-Fett
Rogers-Fett’s artist book will employ printmaking methods such as etching, aquatint, woodcut, and letterpress, and draw direct quotes from Paja’s testimony as well as pair this with imagery from cultural event posters that were produced in the Vilna ghetto at the time. His hope is that this artist’s book will not only open discussion on the nature of testimony, and its representation in an artistic form, but can also be used as a language teaching resource, in particular in the Yiddish language courses where he serves as instructor.
A warm shkoyekh to our first cohort of fellows. We look forward to seeing the end results of these wonderful efforts, some of which we hope to include in a future special In geveb issue on Fortunoff Yiddish testimony. And watch the In geveb website for another opportunity to submit your applications as part of this ongoing effort to activate the Fortunoff Archive’s incredible Yiddish-language materials. The new call is scheduled to be announced in spring 2024.
Stephen Naron, Director, Fortunoff Video Archive
Jessica Kirzane, Editor-in-Chief, In Geveb