Until his 50th birthday, Geoffrey Hartman had little Jewish involvement after fleeing Nazi Germany as part of the Kindertransport to England. Instead, this Sterling professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Yale University devoted time to establishing his reputation as a scholar of Wordsworth, Keats and the romantic poets.
It took a non-Jewish colleague, Bart Giammati, Yale’s president at the time, to re-direct Hartman’s energies to the task of elevating and expanding the Jewish studies curriculum at the university and simultaneously preserving memories of the Holocaust. In the 1980s, Hartman helped establish the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, a Yale-based collection of videotaped Holocaust testimonies he continues to head. The archive preceded Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation by more than a decade.
“I have always thought of literature as dealing with extreme situations. It wasn’t just a sense of duty that motivated me. Rather because it is a part of the human condition, the Holocaust is what the humanities should be studying. While it was a change in my direction, I felt no discontinuity,” said Hartman, who is now in his late 70s.
During a recent stay in Los Angeles as a Getty scholar, Hartman met with students of the UCLA Jewish studies program and addressed an audience comprised largely of Holocaust survivors and their families at the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism.
In his talk at the AJU, given under the auspices of the Sigi Ziering Institute and titled, “Holocaust Testimony in a Genocidal Era,” Hartman touched on a number of salient contemporary issues, among them what he described as “the globalization of grief.”
“The Shoah was not the end of all genocide. Each collective trauma has its own unique character, and as long as eyewitnesses are able to testify, we must preserve their memories,” he said, adding that no one has a monopoly on suffering.
“We surely have no intention to show that Jewish suffering is special,” he said.
As Hartman began his efforts to expand teaching resources for Yale’s Judaic studies program, his wife was volunteering to help a grass-roots group in New Haven that had begun videotaping Holocaust witnesses. Founded by television journalist Laurel Vlock and Holocaust survivor Dr. Dori Laub, a psychiatrist, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project was having trouble reaching a national audience, let alone an international one.
“I was struck by the project’s relevance for education in an audiovisual age, and convinced the university to adopt the project and lend it its name and prestige,” he said.
Hartman joined with Vlock, Laub and William Rosenberg, president of the New Haven Farband and the New Haven survivors fellowship group, to expand its scope to Europe, Israel and wherever survivors could be found. Their efforts resulted in an initial collection of almost 200 videotaped testimonies, as well as the 1981 Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Forever Yesterday,” produced by New York’s WNEW.
Hartman emphasized that when gathering the testimonies, trained volunteer interviewers use no prepared set of questions and allow the survivors to speak freely for as long as they wish.
“We’re interested in their memories, not history, and we strive to cover the survivor’s life before, during and after the Holocaust. This has resulted in deeply emotional responses and adds an important sociological dimension,” he said.
With support from the Revson Foundation, Yale provided space for the testimonies, as well as technical assistance in 1981. The project received a major grant from the Fortunoff Family Foundation in 1987, and became known thereafter as the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. While the Fortunoff grant is adequate to support the archive’s ongoing operations and maintenance, Hartman said that some $800,000 is now needed to digitize the testimonies, which were recorded more than a quarter century ago using technology that has become obsolete.
The archive currently holds more than 4,300 testimonies, comprising more than 10,000 hours of videotape. The tapes are housed at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University and are available to the general public.
In addition to the testimonies available through the Fortunoff archive, as well as USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, Hartman believes the proliferation of genocide documentaries and docudramas have value in educating people about the Holocaust and other examples of genocide. But he cautioned that there is also the danger that showing so much violence tends to create a sanitizing effect.
He said that some survivors who reacted to those depictions have said, “First we were killed and now they’re taking our stories away.”
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