'The testimony itself has a life after it’s given'

New Shoah Foundation podcast connects Holocaust testimony with today’s headlines

Drawing from USC Shoah Foundation’s audiovisual archive, ‘The Memory Generation’ seeks to ‘expand the pyramid of memory’ by giving survivors’ voices contemporary relevance

Illustrative: Tova Friedman, an 82-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor, holds a photograph of herself as a child with her mother, who also survived the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, in New York, December 13, 2019. (World Jewish Congress via AP)
Illustrative: Tova Friedman, an 82-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor, holds a photograph of herself as a child with her mother, who also survived the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, in New York, December 13, 2019. (World Jewish Congress via AP)

When distorted news about Israel’s conflict with Hamas started to fill international airwaves, Rachael Cerrotti drew a connection to potential future misuse of Holocaust testimony.

“This week I saw the Internet become a landmine of information, disinformation, misinformation, anger, sadness, fear, frustration, blame, and every other emotion regarding what is happening in the Middle East,” Cerrotti posted on Facebook.

As the inaugural storyteller-in-residence for USC Shoah Foundation, Cerrotti recently partnered with the organization’s executive director — Stephen Smith — on a podcast called “The Memory Generation.” The series — which started in April –taps the archive’s 55,000 audiovisual testimonies while “putting the contemporary layer first,” said Cerrotti.

“Our second episode’s exploration of how to find truthful information in this digital age seems more relevant than ever,” posted Cerrotti during this month’s conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Rachael Cerrotti with Rabbi Bent Melchior in Denmark, 2019 (courtesy)

Called “Authentic Evidence,” the episode draws from testimony given by 101-year-old Benjamin Ferencz. As a 27-year old, Ferencz was appointed the youngest prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, in which 199 German Nazis were tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust.

“Nuremberg was meant to set history on a completely new path for justice,” said Jonathan Dotan, who is also featured in the episode. A key part of the trials, said Dotan, was the screening of film footage in which Allied forces encountered the atrocities committed at German camps.

Post-war Nuremberg Trials in Germany, 1945-46. (public domain)

“[The camp film footage] showed a crime that defied what we know of as reality,” said Dotan, a blockchain technologies expert and former writer and producer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

According to Dotan, experts must work to create legal and technical standards for authenticating visual evidence. With the proliferation of “deep fake” technology and other developments, said Dotan, courts of law need to be capable of authenticating — for example — videos taken by smart phones and ring camera footage.

For example, said Dotan, the veracity of videos taken of George Floyd’s murder was questioned by a US Congressional candidate, who said the footage had been manipulated. The allegation was tied to a conspiracy theory in which Floyd supposedly died long before May 25, 2020.

In this image from Minneapolis city surveillance video, Minneapolis police are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody, May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

“I don’t think we will be that lucky in the future,” said Dotan, referring to how easily the “video manipulation” charges were dispelled last year. “Seeking justice with our mobile phones will require more tools to prove the validity of the evidence,” said Dotan.

By juxtaposing Holocaust testimony with contemporary issues, Cerrotti hopes “The Memory Generation” will widen the archive’s reach. The project is Cerrotti’s second foray into podcasting, following the 2019 series, “We Share the Same Sky,” based on the life of her late grandmother.

“We want the series to speak to both experts and people who have never heard testimony,” Cerrotti told The Times of Israel. “And we also need to make sure people always see these testimonies as part of our collective legacy. We’ve inherited a world plagued with war and the sincerity of oral history helps us understand that.”

‘Retelling the story and owning it’

American document room at the Nuremberg Trials, 1945-6, in Germany (public domain)

Stephen Smith has been working with Holocaust testimony for 30 years. During that time, the British-born historian has witnessed the deaths of thousands of survivors who gave their testimony to the archive during the 1990s.

“We have a passing of the generation right now,” Smith told The Times of Israel. “As the survivor generation passes, I’ve been seeing more and more that passing of the baton of memory from one generation to the next. It is a legacy that no one wants, and it is real in the lives of those who are receiving it,” said Smith.

Thousands of Armenian children were murdered by Turkish forces in the genocide during World War I (public domain)

In addition to Holocaust testimonies, the archive has gathered audiovisual testimony related to genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Smith, who has visited the sites of several genocides, believes that testimonies from these atrocities have to ability to shed light on each other.

“With the podcast, we are interested in how these experiences will talk or relate to each other in the future,” said Smith. “What happens before the Holocaust and what happens after is all part of a trajectory the testimony takes,” said Smith, who has published a book on genocide testimony. “That is true of all communities that experience genocide,” he said.

According to Smith, there have been at least one million grandchildren and great-grandchildren born to survivors who gave their testimony to the archive. The USC Shoah Foundation was established by Spielberg following the success of his 1993 film, “Schindler’s List.”

An episode of ‘The Memory Generation’ will include Betty Grebenshikoff (left) and Ana Maria Wahrenberg, who reunited on Zoom after 82 years of not knowing what happened to each other after Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany (courtesy: USC Shoah Foundation)

In what Smith called “the pyramid of memory,” the immediate descendants of survivors can be said to form the pyramid’s base. As testimony reaches new audiences, said Smith, the pyramid grows in height and people become increasingly removed from the base.

“We are seeing young people now retelling the story and owning it. The testimony itself has a life after it’s given,” said Smith. “Testimonies are fixed, and yet they live and breathe as a document of the past. Testimony is a product of time, over time.”

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