Accounts Received

T he date was May 2, 1979, and Renée Hartman was telling her story. As a child in Bratislava, Slovakia, she had resisted wearing the Jewish star required by the Nazis. She would cover it with a scarf and roam the city, passing without incident because of her blonde hair. Jews were being taken away every month, sometimes by the thousands. “I remember that we would hear certain sounds of boots on the street, and usually whenever there was a transport, it was accompanied by 10 to 12 soldiers coming,” Hartman recalled. Her parents and younger sister were deaf, so she was always listening to keep them safe. She and her sister were eventually taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and she was sick with typhus when the camp was liberated. “Had I had to wait another two days for the English, I would not have survived,” Hartman said. Her sister was saved as well, but their parents were killed at Auschwitz.

Hartman was one of four people who shared their histories on videotape that day in 1979, the first contributors to what would become an archive of—to date—nearly 4,500 interviews collected in Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. At the time, no one knew they were beginning a project that would reach across continents and decades to become what archive director Stephen Naron calls “the oldest video project of this kind and also the longest-recording video project of this kind.”

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The grassroots effort began with an earlier interview conducted by Laurel Fox Vlock, a journalist at Channel 8 in New Haven. As Naron tells it, after speaking with an author on her TV program, Vlock was conversing with her guest about their experiences as a Holocaust survivor. “Laurel had the spark of, ‘This is actually what I should have been recording,’” he says. Later, while planning for a documentary on New Haven’s then-new Holocaust monument in Westville, Vlock met New Haven psychiatrist Dori Laub, a survivor interested in preserving the stories of other survivors.

“What I think is brilliant about the early days of the collection is that it really brings [together] two people who didn’t know each other beforehand… with very different perspectives,” Naron says. “A journalist has a very different approach to interviewing a subject than an analyst who was himself a survivor, intimately aware of the difficulties of dealing with these traumatic memories.”

By the end of June, 1979, Vlock and Laub had found more survivors with the help of William Rosenberg, leader of a local Zionist organization, and the Holocaust Survivors Film Project had been created with Rosenberg as its president. The project found its permanent home at Yale University two years later via Hartman’s husband, Geoffrey, a professor of English and comparative literature who raised much of the early funding. “He gave it a home,” Naron says. By then, Vlock and Laub had collected 183 interviews.

Some testimonies flesh out historical information, Naron says. But the gap they really fill in the historical record is visceral and emotional. “What we can’t get from anywhere else except testimony or memoirs or diaries is that first-person experience: what it felt like to be there, what hunger really feels like—starvation, insights into what it’s like to live and to die in the ghetto, to see your family members deported.”

Today the entire collection—12,000 hours of testimony since 1979—has been digitized. It includes the stories not only of Jewish survivors but also about 100 Sinti and Roma survivors, non-Jewish witnesses and bystanders, members of the resistance, liberators, partisans, participants in war crimes trials, scholars and authors, Naron says. Intended primarily for academic research, the archives have been employed by scholars in fields ranging from history and literature to business ethics and computer science.

The materials aren’t widely available online, in order to protect the privacy of those who have shared their stories, Naron says. For the same reason, survivors’ last names are listed only by initial. But the archive is open to anyone who has an interest, whether personal or professional, in viewing it. Yale faculty, staff and students can access it online. Others can visit Manuscripts and Archives in the lower level of Sterling Memorial Library to view the videos on PCs in the Reading Room, and researchers in other cities can view the collection at one of nearly 80 access sites worldwide. The entire archive is indexed and searchable by names, places, dates, historic events and topics, and much of that searching can be done online and offsite. Excerpts from a few survivors’ testimonies have been compiled for classroom use and can be seen online, including a portion of Hartman’s story.

The third-floor offices at Sterling that house the archive’s staff and researchers were once lined with uniform bookshelves full of videotapes. Today, they’ve been replaced with computers. One recent afternoon, project archivist Christy Bailey-Tomecek was busy checking, “cleaning up” and exporting the notes that help viewers locate their place in some older testimonies. With the deaths of the youngest Holocaust survivors, the task of collecting memories is coming to an end, and the archive’s work is shifting toward making it more accessible. Transcription of every testimony is underway—no small task due not only to the volume of interviews but also the fact that even those given in English tend to be sprinkled with Yiddish, German, Polish, Hebrew and other languages, Naron says. Post-doctoral fellows and senior scholars are also creating annotated editions of some transcripts, which will provide students with the context to understand them better.

Constantly working with stories of trauma isn’t always easy, and everyone on staff manages the challenge differently, Naron says. What they share is a sense that their labor is meaningful. “We wouldn’t be in this work if we didn’t already feel the importance of the work outweighs any sort of potential difficulty with the material,” he says. Many undergraduates who have spent time in the archives have cited their experience as “transformative,” he adds.

Four decades since it began, the work remains weighty and urgent. Thanks to the Fortunoff Archive and its thousands of contributors, the stories of many survivors live on.

Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies
Manuscripts and Archives at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library – 120 High St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Tues 8:45am-4:45pm, Wed 10:30am-7pm, Thurs 8:45am-7pm, Fri 8:45am-4:45pm
(203) 432-1879 | [email protected]

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, depicting the testimony taping of Pierre T. in 1987, provided courtesy of the Fortunoff Video Archive. Image 2, featuring Stephen Naron, and image 3, featuring Christy Bailey-Tomecek, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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