The passing of Elie Wiesel, z”l
This week came the news that Elie Wiesel, z”l (1928-2016), had died. Wiesel who was born in Romania was a Holocaust survivor, a Nobel Laureate and American Jewish writer, professor and political activist. In 1986 Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. As the chairman for the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust he was a key founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
As a British student of 20th century Jewish history it is Wiesel’s publications about the Holocaust which introduced me to his Holocaust experiences, the significant role of Holocaust testimony and simplicity and complexity of how we respond to genocide. In particular Wiesel’s memoir Night which is a work based on his experiences as a 15 year old prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel originally wrote his 900-page memoir Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) in Yiddish, he rewrote it in French, published as La Nuit in 1955, and it appeared in English in 1960.
Many are the reflections on Wiesel’s passing, Avner Shalev, the Chairman of the Directorate of Yad Vashem, Israel, has noted: “It also constitutes a painful milestone in the gradual transition to an era and world lacking live personal Shoah testimony.” (Yad Vashem newsletter email “Mourning the Passing of Elie Wiesel”, 05/07/2016)
Virtual holographic Holocaust testimony
It is also increasingly the case in the United Kingdom that the number of living Holocaust survivors is decreasing year on year. And so it was with great interest that I recently viewed a report made by the BBC Click technology team about a project run by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Mark Cieslak visited the project which uses 3D projection technology to produced the virtually interactive new dimensions programme allowing participants to interview virtual versions of Holocaust survivors, for use in classroom and museum settings. The same Light Stage technology as used to create visual movie effects has been employed for example to capture the 20 hours of footage of survivor Pinchas Gutter giving his Holocaust testimonial and recounting his experiences. Gutter’s hologram can algorithmically produce around 2,000 responses to questions allowing interviewees to interact in a very natural way with his virtual presence. Cieslak said notably that these interactive recordings of Holocaust survivors had “the ability to keep their stories alive long after they themselves are no longer with us”.
Holocaust era testimony collections
Testimonies are powerful historical accounts of great significance, not least for the remembrance of individual Holocaust victims and communities. Testimonies also serve the education of subsequent generations both morally and for the specific knowledge they bring, making “the inconceivable more tangible“. Four large collections of written, audio and video testimonies, many now digitised, are held at Yad Vashem, at the USC Shoah Foundation’s Institute for Visual History and Education which has a collection of 52,000 videotaped testimonies, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Wiener Library, partly accessible online or in situ.
There is one collection of testimonies at the Wiener Library in London which specifically predates the Holocaust. The Pogrom: November 1938 – Testimonies from ‘Kristallnacht‘ collection contains over 350 eyewitness testimonies and reports gathered under the institute’s founder Alfred Wiener describing the events of 9 and 10 November 1938 in locations across Germany and Austria. For individuals who have family members that lived through Nazi persecution in Germany, the accounts of Kristallnacht are a compelling account of a society in collapse. Showing the stages of the genocidal process already at work across a wide swath of Germany and German-occupied territories. Persecution which reinforced the classification, symbolisation and dehumanisation of victims, evident in the organisation of action against them. But also these testimonies and others show the brave intervention of individuals who refused to turn on their friends and neighbours because of political and ethnic differences.
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 07/07/2016
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You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Holocaust Testimony – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016.
Image copyright United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Group portrait of Jewish DP youth at the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) home for Orthodox Jewish children in Ambloy. Elie Wiesel is among those pictured.” Photograph: #28147, Date: 1945, Locale: Ambloy, [Loir-et-Cher] France. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Robert Waisman and Willy Fogel.
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