Holocaust Testimony Beyond the Frame

By Marianne HirschMay 23, 2020

Holocaust Testimony Beyond the Frame

An Archive of the Catastrophe by Jennifer Cazenave
The Construction of Testimony by Erin McGlothlin, Markus Zisselsberger, and Brad Prager

ON A RECENT VISIT to the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, I had the occasion to “meet” and “speak with” Eva Kor, a diminutive woman with lively eyes wearing a bright blue pantsuit with a white collar. Asking a few basic questions, to which she responded patiently and informatively, I learned that Eva and her twin sister Miriam Kor were survivors of Joseph Mengele’s notorious twin experiments in Auschwitz, where they both spent nine months at the age of 10. Probing further, I was excited to learn that her family came from a region in East Central Europe that was close to my own family origins.

In many respects, this felt like a real conversation. In truth, however, Eva Kor was not actually in the room with me in person: she had died the previous summer, and I was addressing a smoothly produced, hologram-like projection. Eva Kor’s is one of 22 such projections created by filming Holocaust survivors in a brightly lit dome with 20 cameras, asking each of them approximately 2,000 questions about their lives and their experiences during the Holocaust. By way of an AI algorithm, the responses can be more or less closely matched to most questions that visitors like me are likely to pose long into the future.

Since the making of Schindler’s List more than a quarter century ago, the USC Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, at the initiative of Steven Spielberg, has collected roughly 55,000 video testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust from around the globe and, to a much more limited degree, from survivors of other genocides. This massive “visual history” collection adds significantly to substantial oral and video testimony archives collected at Yad Vashem since the 1950s, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Survivor Testimonies at Yale since the 1970s, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since the 1990s, among numerous others.

Carefully preserved, these accounts are meant to carry the Holocaust forward to future generations, and to do so through the powerful authenticity of personal voice and lived experience. But now, in the 2010s and ’20s, there are only child and adolescent survivors left to interview. The Shoah Foundation’s massive investment in creating slick, life-like projections for an interactive encounter is the most recent symptom of a longstanding anxiety: What happens to the story of the Holocaust when the last survivors die out? How will it be remembered?


Since the trial of SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, we have entered what French historian Annette Wieviorka has called “the era of testimony.” Unlike the Nuremberg trials, which were primarily based on documentary evidence, the Eichmann trial made space for numerous survivor testimonies, indicting Eichmann before a world that was able to listen to them live on radio. Later generations could also watch the testimonies documented on film by Hollywood filmmaker Leo Hurwitz. Wieviorka, however, argues that the testimonies were valuable not so much for the factual information they provided — many of the facts were already known, and Eichmann’s guilt was not in question — but for the affective and embodied transmission of the trauma of the Holocaust. The survivor, she says, is a “bearer of history” who carries that trauma in his or her body and transmits it, viscerally, to the listener who thus becomes what scholar Irene Kacandes has called a “co-witness.”

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah — a massive project to create a film based on interviews recorded with Holocaust survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators — was indebted to the Eichmann trial, though this debt is largely unacknowledged. Responding to some of the controversial questions that the trial raised about the Jewish leadership’s implication in the genocide, for example, Lanzmann’s film included interviews with a number of the trial’s memorable witnesses. Begun in 1973 and released in 1985, Shoah is nine and a half hours long — the product of more than 220 hours of interviews and diverse location footage, mostly filmed during the late 1970s and early 1980s. After Shoah, Lanzmann made several additional films from the collected interviews, A Visitor from the Living (1997), Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001), The Karski Report (2011), The Last of the Unjust (2013) and Shoah: Four Sisters (2018). But still, most of the interviews he recorded had never been seen until recently, and Lanzmann claims he considered destroying them to “prove that Shoah is not a documentary” but his own unique cinematic work of art.

Instead, the filmmaker sold roughly 220 hours of outtakes from the original interviews and location footage to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996. The scope of the collection is daunting: in the words of archivists Lindsay Zarwell and Leslie Swift, it consists of “two tons of film materials […] 155 boxes of rushes, negatives, quarter-inch tapes, negative trims, and paper transcripts and logs,” yet it includes “only […] outtakes — that is, the scenes that were shot in the course of making Shoah but were not used in the final version.” Thanks to an extraordinary effort of a team of archivists and editors who reassembled and tried to recreate original interviews as they were shot (minus the scenes and fragments used in the film itself), this material is now available to the public on the museum’s website.

A number of noted scholars of the Holocaust have explored and reflected on these outtakes in two illuminating new volumes: An Archive of the Catastrophe: The Unused Footage of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah by Jennifer Cazenave and The Construction of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Its Outtakes, edited by Erin McGlothlin, Brad Prager, and Markus Zisselsberger. Together, these incisive analyses of the outtakes do much more than to give us insights into the changing goals, complex choices, and momentous omissions that determine this landmark film. They do more than qualify and complicate such iconic moments in Shoah as the breakdown of Abraham Bomba, filmed in a Tel Aviv barbershop, who was forced to cut women’s hair in the Treblinka death camp, and whose mouth literally dries up before our eyes as he falls silent. Or the clandestinely filmed testimony of the Treblinka guard Franz Suchomel, singing the prisoners’ “Treblinka Song” at Claude Lanzmann’s request. Or the tears of Filip Müller, a Jewish slave laborer who walks out of the gas chamber in Auschwitz at the urging of his compatriots so as to bear witness for the future. In fact, as the rigorous analyses in these two books carefully demonstrate, the outtakes contest the vision of the Holocaust, of testimony, and of the act of witness that Shoah, through these and other iconic moments, has been influential in shaping over the last 35 years.

What is that vision, and why has it been so influential?

From the outtakes we find out that the film’s original title, seen in the clapboards, was “L’holocauste,” but that after the success of the 1978 American fictional television miniseries Holocaust, against which Lanzmann specifically constructed his work, he changed the title to the untranslated Hebrew word for catastrophe, Shoah — a name that, Cazenave suggests, sounds like “choix,” the French word for the difficult choices involved in the making of this film. Cazenave also reminds us that in his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann recounts a 1973 meeting at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs during which his friend Alouph Hareven enjoined him to make a film that is “not a matter of making a film about the Shoah, but a film that is the Shoah […] in all its magnitude.” If Shoah has become, in Cazenave’s terms, “a reference point for theorizing Holocaust representation” and has “informed decades of dominant discourses around Holocaust testimony,” it is precisely due to the ways in which it departs from the feel-good fictional approach of the TV series Holocaust or, later, Schindler’s List.

The “Shoah paradigm,” discussed by Cazenave, and also by Debarati Sanyal in The Construction of Testimony, involves carefully staged mise-en-scènes in which witnesses not only narrate but actually physically and emotionally reenact, and relive before our eyes, the scenes they evoke, either by being brought back to the sites of their experiences, or by means of props that elicit bodily memories. Lanzmann uses this technique not only with victims, but also with perpetrators like Suchomel, the guard whom he invites to sing, and with collaborators and bystanders like the former train conductor Henryk Gawkowski, whose mournful face Lanzmann films in close-up as he drives a specially hired locomotive into the Treblinka station.

Lanzmann excludes archival images or footage, provocatively arguing that what he wanted to present — the very process of extermination — was not anywhere recorded and could only be reconstructed, or, rather, constructed through witness testimony in the present. It is this focus — one that emerged quite late in the process, as Cazenave demonstrates — that determines Lanzmann’s choice of those who were closest to the sites of extermination, the Sonderkommando, as his “exemplary witnesses,” in the terms of media scholar Noah Shenker. One of the aims of the film is to rehabilitate these slave laborers who worked in the gas vans, gas chambers, and crematoria and who were cast as collaborators in a 1979 Israeli television film by David Perlov, Memories of the Eichmann Trial. In contrast, Primo Levi included them in his moral “gray zone”; yet, calling them the “bearers of secrets,” he refused to judge them. As Sanyal argues, “these men emerge as synecdoches and living traces of the Shoah, incarnations of its trauma.” The “Shoah paradigm” that the finished film advances is based on the traumatized speechless, overwhelmingly masculine, figure who, before our eyes, performs the bodily and emotional wound that has, since the release of Shoah, been seen as the very incarnation of the truth of the Holocaust.


I have to plead guilty here: Shoah has been a reference point in all of my thinking, writing, and teaching about the Holocaust, largely because of the ways in which it features witness testimony. But I have also been keenly aware of the enormous risks of allowing a particular scene of traumatic witnessing to stand in for the essence of such a complex historical event. It’s not only about all that it leaves out — and these two books illustrate manifold omissions in nuanced detail. It is also about the danger of perpetuating a vision of the Holocaust as the ultimate limit case of human evil, one that thus diminishes the severity of other genocidal crimes and prohibits discussion of structural connections between them.

As these two books show, the outtakes tell many alternate stories, qualifying and expanding, if not outright contesting, the paradigm that Lanzmann has carefully constructed and defended. Cazenave shows that Lanzmann, while presenting himself as the “docu-auteur,” had numerous collaborators who helped shape the film, including his assistants, translators, and, most importantly, the celebrated cinematographer of the French New Wave, William Lubtchansky. Their contribution, as well as the role, often, of a second camera and of rehearsals and multiple takes of individual scenes, are minimized or omitted in the final film. With the exception of the figure and work of the Polish envoy Jan Karski, the film also omits international efforts at rescue, detailed from the outtakes by Cazenave, as well as the criticism and condemnation of Jewish leaders, which is taken up in The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann’s later film about Benjamin Murmelstein, the head of the Jewish Council in the Terezín ghetto.

More important, however, as both volumes convincingly show, is the omission of extraordinary accounts of resistance and uprising, and of utterly improbable escapes from the death camps, by the very figures like Abraham Bomba, Filip Müller, Mordechai Podchlebnik, and other Sonderkommando slave laborers, whom the film stages as traumatized broken men. Instead, the camera is content to dwell on their tears, often resulting from reliving the encounter with the dead bodies of close family members or neighbors as they clean the gas chambers or dig mass graves.

An alternate story of survival and of kin relationships develops as we watch the 20 hours of testimony Lanzmann collected from Jewish women, only about 20 minutes of which are included in the glaringly masculine finished film. In the film, as I have argued in an early article co-authored with Leo Spitzer, women do not provide key testimonies, but remain in the background, off-frame, underscoring the losses and laments of the male witnesses through brief, truncated comments and songs. In contrast, the full testimonies of Ada Lichtman, one of the organizers of the Sobibor revolt; Ruth Elias, survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz who also appears in Shoah: Four Sisters; Gertrude Schneider, survivor and historian of the Riga ghetto, among others, reveal complex stories of survival amid choices and experiences that are as difficult and compromising as those of the Sonderkommando.

Ruth Elias, for example, tells the story of her love affair with a fellow prisoner, her pregnancy and childbirth in Auschwitz, and the excruciating decision she made to remain alive by killing the baby that Joseph Mengele deliberately starved in a horrific experiment. Elias, like some of the other women, insists on controlling her own act of witness, resisting Lanzmann’s directions and interpretations. In his essay in The Construction of Testimony, Markus Zisselsberger argues that in her lengthy and spirited narrative Elias reenacts not her trauma but her will to live, love, and experience joy: “[L]ife itself […] guides […] the form of her story and the narrative reconstruction of her memories.” In her essay in the volume, Sanyal asks whether infanticide is not as complex an example of Primo Levi’s “gray zone” as the work of the Sonderkommando, and as worthy of consideration in the film.

The joint interview with Gertrude Schneider, her mother, and her sister illustrates the strong kin and friendship relationships highlighted in some of the women’s testimonies. In the film, Schneider only appears for roughly three minutes together with her mother to sing a Yiddish song of resignation, “Azoy muss sein” (“That’s how it must be”). The mother covers her face with her hands in a gesture of despair. In the full interview, however, the three women co-create the story of the Riga ghetto in narrative and song. In this woman-oriented story, the witnesses recall how the Nazis tried to outlaw sex between ghetto inmates, much to the amusement of the prisoners. But they also recount how the Nazis forced women to undergo abortions and sterilizations, and they sing a ghetto song in German about a girl who falls in love only to end up in the hospital by herself.

Singing, for Ruth Elias and for the Schneider women, as Leah Wolfson argues in The Construction of Testimony, shows us that “life, death and survival all exist simultaneously.” She cites Gertrude Schneider saying, sarcastically, “‘They were killing us and we were singing, isn’t this, isn’t this a scream?’” The elderly mother gets some details mixed up and does not remember the words to some of the songs, but she is nevertheless a lively participant in the conversation, underscoring the conviviality, humor, and pleasure of mutual recollection that persists despite the pervasive presence of death.

There are many questions I would love to be able to pose to Ruth Elias, Gertrude Schneider, and others interviewed and filmed by Lanzmann four decades ago. Sadly, they are now dead. But thanks to the availability of remarkable testimony collections such as this one, and thanks to the valuable guides provided in these two recent books, I am able to watch, and thus to participate in, the spontaneous and embodied co-creation of testimonial narratives about both destruction and survival. This is enough for me.

Even as I resist Claude Lanzmann’s approach to collecting testimony from survivors of atrocity, and the problematic ways in which he re-traumatizes some of his witnesses by pushing them to the point of reenacting and reliving their trauma for our benefit, I do, as I watch, feel included in the process of co-constructing an embodied act of witnessing, as it takes shape before the camera. I feel the presence of these witnesses and the sparks of spontaneity that issue forth, even in scenes that are prompted by the filmmaker.

The memory scholars Jan and Aleida Assmann have written that what they call “communicative,” embodied memory lasts three generations, from grandparents to grandchildren, no more than a century. After that, memory becomes “cultural” — it is institutionalized in archives, memorials, and museums. Video testimony, we might argue, brings communicative memory into the archive, enlivening it. The USC Shoah Foundation’s AI project wants to enhance that feeling of aliveness even further through interactive encounters. And yet, the liveness I experience watching film or video testimony, whether in Shoah, its outtakes, or elsewhere, was utterly missing from my encounter with the disembodied life-like projection of Eva Kor and the algorithm that selected her responses.

As much as I value the voice of the survivor witness as a carrier and vehicle of memory for the future, I also know that living memory is subject to the passage of time. Is my response a generational one, I wonder? Or could it be that the desire to interact with survivors well beyond their lifespan is driven by the technology that makes its simulation possible?


Marianne Hirsch teaches at Columbia University. Her most recent books are The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust and School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference, co-authored with Leo Spitzer.

LARB Contributor

Marianne Hirsch teaches at Columbia University. Her most recent books are The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust and School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference, co-authored with Leo Spitzer.


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