Today survivor testimony is almost exclusively video testimony. Even if this change seems like a minor one (in sync with that from radio to TV and Internet), what matters is the act of witnessing in the communicative context of the electronic media: The visibility bestowed by video ensures the formal “audiencing” of the survivors and consolidates a larger move by them into the public consciousness. Yet testimony at this point also makes us more aware of the interviewer. By 1980 the survivor interviews are no longer standard debriefings, as in the immediate postwar years. They now serve principally both present and past: the present, by assisting the witnesses to retrieve and deal with memories that still burden, consciously or unconsciously, family life; the past, in that guarantees are needed, as the eyewitness generation passes from the scene, that what they endured will not be forgotten. “The mission that has devolved to testimony,” according to Annette Wieviorka (a major French historian who coordinated Yale’s taping in France ), “is no longer to bear witness to inadequately known events but rather to keep them before our eyes. Testimony is to be a means of transmission to future generations.”
This does not mean, of course, that this mission/transmission is without problems. Much has been written about secondary trauma: that is, how some of the effects of trauma suffered by the parents in the Holocaust were involuntarily transferred to the children of their new, post-Holocaust families. (To try and ignore this psychoanalytic issue is a bit like ignoring climate change.) But to give a more common and poignant example of what Wieviorka means by keeping the events, now mainly (if still not quite adequately) known, before our eyes, let me instance an episode from one of the earliest of the Yale tapes in which a survivor describes an incident in Poland during a deportation. When the survivor’s grandmother, an old woman with a broken leg not quite healed, tries to climb into a cart but is too weak to do it by herself, asks in Polish for help, a German soldier nearby says, “Yes, I’ll help you,” takes a gun from his holster, and kills her.
Her grandson, describing this episode, breaks down. He cries, or rather tries not to, contorting his face in a painful, gnawing motion that forces out the words “I’ve seen it.” When he is calm again, one of the interviewers asks him, very hesitantly, whether he could tell what moved him most (or what made him cry at this point in the interview) and whether he had also cried at the time it happened.
The two conjoined questions, though they seem intrusive at first, are, important. The answer to the second question is that he did not cry then, because he was “petrified.” The answer to the first is also simple but strikes me as wonderfully strong, because it comes so close to the agony that preceded it. He cried now because of “the inhumanity: someone asks for help, and that help is expressed as a killing action.”
I’m currently editing a report that addresses in part the issue of vicarious or secondary trauma for those watching graphic footage in order to establish its veracity. I’m struggling to find many absolutely pertinent sources on the specific nature of the trauma engendered by watching abuses or traumatic footage on screen (maybe that’s my own poor research), but then I came across this article, which, once I began it, I had to finish in its entirety.