Sammelrez: Voices of the Holocaust

Voices of the Holocaust [Illinois Institute of Technology].

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anne Rothe

This website is the result of a remarkable effort by the Galvin Library staff at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), who in 1998 “uncovered a 16-volume set of typescripts that detail first-hand accounts […] of Holocaust victims” and have made some of these testimonies available to the public. The “set includes 70 of the original 109 interviews that were conducted in 1946 […] by Dr. David Boder,” a psychologist working at IIT at the time who had taken up Eisenhower’s invitation to American journalists to document the crimes committed by Nazi Germany immediately after the end of the war in Europe. With the help of a “wire recorder,” developed by a faculty member at IIT, Boder recorded “109 interviews totaling 120 hours.” The original sound recordings are held today at the Library of Congress. IIT owns a “micro-opaque card edition.”

Boder’s interviews most likely constitute the earliest attempt to collect and record testimony from Holocaust survivors which did not serve any immediate legal purposes. These interviews are of particular interest to scholars and students today precisely because they were conducted only a year after the survivors had been liberated. It is for example interesting to note that, unlike many accounts collected in the last two decades, these early interviews are characterized by a stronger focus on the part of the interviewer on facts, such as dates and names of places, rather than on the psychological effect particular events had on the victim. The interviews are also characterized by far shorter answers, often consisting of only a word or phrase, rarely longer than a few sentences, showing that the victims’ memories were only just beginning to be transformed into narrative form. These testimonies thus constitute a valuable resource for a study of narrative strategies and techniques employed by victims of recent trauma to translate their experiences into narratives. It would be interesting to compare the techniques and strategies in these early Holocaust narratives to those employed in testimony given decades later. [1]

However, the “site is still under construction.” Currently only the English translations of the original interviews – which were conducted primarily in German and Yiddish but also in Russian and Polish – are available on the website. The site promises that “in the near future, the actual voices of the survivors will be made available on this site using audio streaming” and that “this site will integrate, in the near future, the transcriptions [i.e. the written translations] of the interviews, reproductions of the original wire recordings, maps, essays by scholars and survivors, papers of Dr. Boder, and other information from our archives, into a seamless, searchable, multimedia web site. This approach will enable scholars, students, and the public to navigate through translations of the interviews, hear the actual voices of the survivors, and pinpoint geographic locations mentioned on the web site.”[2] Until the actual oral interviews are available on the web site though, we should be somewhat cautious using the interviews as historical evidence since we cannot verify the accuracy of the translation. It would also be very helpful if transcriptions in the languages in which the interviews were conducted were provided.

My points of constructive criticism concern largely technical issues: The link to the radio program This American Life (on NPR’s WBEZ Chicago), where the website was featured, is incorrect both on the starting page and under “Other Web Resources,” linking to a different show. The list of interviewees in the “interview archive” and “profiles” categories are in slightly different order, with the order in the “profiles” category not following alphabetical order strictly. A small number of profiles were not available in the “profiles” category and one name (Julian Weinberg) is connected to the wrong profile (Lena Kuechler). Furthermore, the navigation tools are inconsistent, changing from page to page, and one frequently has to use the web browser's ‘back’ button.

With regard to content I would recommend the following changes: It is misleading to read in the introduction that the interviewees represented “many religions” given that the overwhelming majority were Jewish: of the 70 survivors, 53 were Jewish, 12 unknown, 2 Mennonite, 1 Roman Catholic and 3 Greek Orthodox. [3] Furthermore, there is a discrepancy in the “welcome” section by IIT’s president Lew Collens and the “introduction” section with regard to the translations. Collins writes that Bodner “supervised the translation and transcription" while the introduction (on the same page) states that “they were […] transcribed by Dr. Bodner.” Under “profiles” the site provides a very useful table with basic statistical information, such as name, place and date of birth, language of the interview, information about family members, etc., for each interviewee. However, it is not clear whether the scoring for this table was conducted and/or supervised at the time by Bodner or was performed recently by library staff. Along with the table of statistical information for each interviewee, a one-sentence description of the person is provided. However, there are no criteria as to what may be singled out for each person and the entries thus seem rather arbitrary. It is not clear what function this information should fulfill and its arbitrary nature may in fact misguide the reader. While the site’s “map” feature – which indicates the camps in which the interviewees were imprisoned – is useful, especially since the camps were frequently near small, little-known towns, the map only contains major concentration camps and thus creates the false impression that the number of camps was comparatively small. All camps, including all small, satellite camps should also be indicated so the vast number of camps becomes visually apparent. It would also be beneficial to include major European cities, including all capitals,[4] and to provide a scale (in miles and kilometers) to give students an idea of the distances between camps as well as between camps and major cities. Furthermore, at present only the “Buchenwald” tab in the “map” section, which brings up the list of interviewees who were imprisoned in Buchenwald, is working. Tabs for other camps are missing.

The site also provides a few links to and brief descriptions of other major Holocaust web sites. Since several of these sites are very useful, I will reproduce these links and comments here and add my own brief comments:

“Cybrary of the Holocaust The Cybrary of the Holocaust uses art, discussion groups, photographs, poems and a wealth of facts to preserve powerful memories and to educate scholars and newcomers alike about the Holocaust.”
The site also contains a small number of audio files of brief segments of survivor testimony. I found the site rather chaotic and unfocused. It seemed directed toward high school students and teachers. Selections seem very arbitrary and not informed by current Holocaust scholarship, e.g. the “books by survivors” section contains none of the ‘canonical’ texts like the memoirs by Wiesel, Levi, Klueger, Delbo etc. but rather 18 books by unknown survivors. The nine books included in the “books for students” section are equally arbitrary; for example a biography of Anne Frank is included but not (the critical edition of) her diary. Many texts provided on the site are decontextualized, given without information about their origin or author, and even put into false contexts. Both criticisms would apply, for example, to (the English translation of) Niemoeller’s famous poem “They came for the communists…” which is provided under a link for “bystanders,” without any information about the person other than the dates of his life and the fact that he was a German Protestant pastor. The site claims to have had 4 million visitors, however even with significant knowledge on the subject and experience in teaching it I can’t think of any way to use it in a university lecture or seminar (and the decontextualization excludes scholarship anyway).

“United States Holocaust Memorial Museum The United States Holocaust Museum is America's national institution for the documentation, study and interpretation of Holocaust history. The website presents its collection of documents, photographs and articles that would be of interest to students, academics, the general public and survivors.”
This is an excellent resource. Since the audio files on the Voices of the Holocaust site were not yet available I looked specifically for audio and video testimony available on the other sites. The USHMM site contains a number of short (1-2 minute) video segments in the “personal histories” section which are organized into thematic groups. All testimonies are in English, and transcripts as well as subtitles to read along are provided.[5] The site is very clearly structured, beautifully designed, easy to navigate and still manages to provide a wealth of information, not only on the Holocaust itself but also on Holocaust scholarship and the museum's many events. It’s very worthwhile to surf the site, as you’re bound to find some ‘gems.’ For example, through a link to a special exhibition of the museum on the 1936 Olympics I found a short audio file by a German-Jewish athlete who was not allowed to participate in the Games and another audio file by one of the two American-Jewish athletes who did participate (both with transcripts). I plan to use both in a lecture this semester.

“The Holocaust History Project The Holocaust History Project is a free archive of documents, photographs, recordings and essays regarding the Holocaust, including direct refutation of Holocaust denial.”
The site contains primarily original documents (both facsimiles and typed-up copies) and a number of short essays on various aspects of the Holocaust. It is not immediately apparent, however, who created and maintains the sites and who the authors of the various essays are. The only way I found this information was by clicking on the name of an author in the “essays” section. (While all of them are university educated, only two are academics and none are Holocaust scholars. Most became interested in the Holocaust through encountering Holocaust denial.) The design is rather simple but functional, although not too well organized. A great feature of the site is somewhat hidden in the “question & answer” section, which contains a number of standard questions American students could have about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, along with short answers as well as short and good, briefly annotated bibliographies for each question. This would be a good place to send (American high school or beginning university) students to for background information or to get ideas for papers and reading suggestions. The only recording I found on the site was a 5 ½ minute audio clip from Himmler’s famous secret Posen speech in which he talks openly about the extermination of the Jews. Clip and speech are well contextualized and could easily be used in classrooms (provided you have a ‘smart’ one with a projector). In addition to the audio file, a German transcription and English translation are provided. It seems like a good site when you need short but well-researched answers to complex questions, but it could use improvement in terms of navigation and organization.

“Voice/Vision: Holocaust Survivor Oral History A University of Michigan-Dearborn project, this website provides both the audio as well as the transcriptions of over 150 interviews taken with Holocaust survivors.”
This is an excellent resource for audio and video survivor testimony. The site is very clearly structured and easy to navigate. The project, which is directed by historian Professor Sid Bolkosky, currently encompasses 200 audio and video testimonies with nearly 180 survivors. Out of these, 45 audio interviews, their transcripts and brief biographical information about each survivor (all in English) are available on the web. Unlike the (video) clips available at the USHMM site, these are full interviews, not just brief segments. Unfortunately, technology makes it necessary to break these down into short segments. A particularly useful feature of this project is that a large number of video testimonies are available through interlibrary loan. (This is very rare, e.g. neither USHMM nor the Holocaust Memorial Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan, circulates their video testimonies, and the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale University only circulate a very small number of edited versions of their videos.) I will use the site the next time I am teaching my Holocaust seminar by requiring students to listen to and read a number of the testimonies on-line and watch several of the video testimonies, both for their content and to prepare them for conducting their own interview with a survivor. (Teaching a Holocaust class at a university in a large American city has the advantage that you can, at least for a few more years, still relatively easily find survivors whom the students can interview.)

“Fortunoff Video Archive The Fortunoff Video Archive, a part of the archives collection at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University contains a collection of over 4,000 videotaped interviews with witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust. The website contains excerpts from a few of the testimonials.”
Among (American) Holocaust scholars the Fortunoff Archives at Yale University contains probably the best known collection of survivor video testimony. The site is simple but clearly structured and easy to navigate. The archive makes a small number of edited video programs, based on their testimony collection, available for rent for educational purposes (for a rather steep lending charge of $30 per tape). There are 10 short (1-2 minute) video clips from the interviews with various witnesses (a labor camp survivor, a hidden child, a German bystander, an officer of the US army, a rescuer, a ‘Gypsy’) available on the website along with a brief summary of the life of each witness life and a transcript of the video segment (all in English). Given the diversity of the experiences represented, these clips can easily be used in (American) survey lectures to give a face and a voice to history when one has to cover the Holocaust in one or two lectures. I will use them this semester in my Survey of German Cultural History class (a general education class taught in English) by briefly summarizing each witnesses’ history orally and then playing each segment (again you need a ‘smart’ classroom with a projector for this).

“Interdisciplinary Approaches to Holocaust Video Testimony This site examines factors that affect video testimony and the importance of this source of information to Holocaust research. It includes resources for the study of audiovisual Holocaust testimony and assists in the diffusion of information about archival resources in the US and abroad.”

This sounds like a useful site if you want your students to conduct interviews with survivors. Unfortunately the link provided leads to a site with restricted access. It may be possible to search New York University’s web site to find someone involved with this project and then gain access to the site.
Given my interest in audio and video testimony available on-line I also looked up Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, available at It’s a beautifully and elaborately designed site, well organized and easy to navigate. When you enter certain pages, slow, classical music will be played, which seems a little overly sentimental for me. I primarily looked at the site for audio and video testimony, which is available, in a significantly larger window than on the other sites and in pristine oral and visual quality, under two different headers: “the archive” and “testimonies.” The latter section contains brief (1-2 minute) excerpts from 6 testimonies without transcripts, subtitles or any information about the speaker. They are thus completely decontextualized. The segments under “the archive” are equally short (this is still a technical necessity for all web sites due to the vast amount of data necessary to transport audio and especially video files) but they are much better prepared. There are 2 clips available under each of the thematic sections: pre-war, hiding, ghettos, camps, liberation, and post-war. For each interview segment, statistical information about the survivor and a summary of the content of the clip is provided. However, similarly to the video clips provided at the USHMM site, no information about the respective interviewee is given, probably because their testimony is intended to stand for many others, typifying an experience. Yet to me this strategy is problematic because it deindividualizes the witnesses. Therefore I would prefer to use the segments from the Fortunoff site for my lecture, as I am given information about the person’s background and can summarize it for the students in the lecture so that the people they see in the video segments are not just representatives of ‘typical’ experiences but also individuals.

[1] In fact, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC is currently trying to locate survivors whom Bodner interviewed “to re-interview them in order to gain a more complete picture of their initial recollections and contrast their original perspectives of the Holocaust to their views today.” For more information please see the USHMM site at Thanks to the H-Soz-u-Kult list editor Maren Brodersen for this hint.
[2] I contacted the creators of the site by email to find out when the audio files would be available. Unfortunately, however, they did not reply.
[3] While the Russian Orthodox Church developed from the Greek Orthodox Church, it would be better to term the religious affiliation of these three survivors Orthodox Christians or, if they were members of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox. Furthermore, when clicking on the “Greek Orthodox” section in the pie chart and then on the interviewees’ names, “Greek Orthodox” appears only in two profiles. Anna Prest’s religious status is not recorded in her profile.
[4] Currently only select capitals are provided. Capitals and major cities should be consistently named in either English or the respective county’s language. Currently the names of those capitals provided are in English except for Lisbon, which is written in the Portuguese form of Lisboa.
[5] Unfortunately, quite a number of the segments would shut down Explorer on my (German) laptop at home as soon as I clicked on “view video” but all worked fine on the (American) laptop in my office.

Anne Rothe: Rezension zu: Voices of the Holocaust [Illinois Institute of Technology], in: H-Soz-Kult, 19.02.2005, <>.
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