Thirty years later, the Fortunoff Archives still keeping alive the past for the future

The Fortunoff Archive at Yale, which has collected the personal stories of thousands of survivors and first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust, is marking its 30th year with an exhibition at Sterling Memorial Library on view through Nov. 6 and a conference titled “The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies: Achievements and Challenges, 1982–2012” on Oct. 21.

Founded in 1982, the Fortunoff Archive is dedicated to the recording, collection, and preservation of videotaped oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

The archive now holds approximately 4,500 testimonies comprising over 12,000 hours of videotape, which were recorded in cooperation with 37 affiliate projects in North America, South America, Europe, Israel, and the former Soviet Union. The video filming has also traversed a sizeable linguistic terrain, since witnesses can choose the language in which they give their testimony.

“The video filming has been conducted in 16 or 17 languages, in addition to signing when we dealt with survivors who were hearing impaired,” says Fortunoff archivist Joanne Rudof.

The archive serves as a resource for students, scholars, museums, and educational associations. It catalogues its testimonies to make them accessible to researchers, and lends programs of testimony excerpts to educators, schools, museums, and community groups. Among the public sites featuring testimonies from the Fortunoff Archive is the information center at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenman.

The Fortunoff program of taping Holocaust survivors has also stood as a model for other projects documenting genocide or racially based internments, among them: the Cambodian genocide, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and the genocidal campaign in Rwanda.

The archive came into being through the efforts of a grassroots organization called the Holocaust Survivors Film Project, initiated by the organizer of a New Haven Holocaust survivors group Willy Rosenberg, local television interviewer and producer Laurel Vlock, and Dr. Dori Laub, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale and a child survivor of the Holocaust.

In 1979, when audiotape was still the recording medium of choice, the organizers began videotaping testimony from survivors and witnesses in the New Haven area. Working mostly on weekends, they created an archive of first-hand testimonies from survivors, bystanders, and rescuers, as well as those involved in the Nazi resistance and liberation efforts.

“The Holocaust Survivors’ Film Project expanded very early to include Hartford and Bridgeport, and locations in other states. “They even interviewed survivors who had migrated to Shanghai, Hong Kong,” notes Rudof.

In 1981, the collection — which then numbered some 200 testimonies — came to the Sterling Memorial Library, thanks largely to the efforts of Geoffrey Hartman, a professor of comparative literature who was at the time getting Yale’s Judaic studies major off the ground.

As the husband of a Holocaust survivor, Hartman also became involved in the film project, serving on its board. “In its early days the project was still a civic initiative, and the video testimonies had yet to be made into an archive,” recalls Hartman. When the board met to discuss how to preserve the growing collection of video testimonies and make it accessible for future research, Hartman spoke up. “I suggested the only way to do it was to team up with a great national university, and there happened to be one at their doorstep,” he recounts.

He dates the official opening of the Fortunoff Archives at Yale to Nov. 15, 1982.

Since its establishment at Yale with funding from individual and institutional philanthropists, including an endowment by Alan A. Fortunoff in memory of his parents Clara and Max Fortunoff, the archive has grown and kept pace with technological advances in recording, storage, and access.

“The archive spent 10 years planning the migration of our files to digital format. Our testimonies were originally recorded on analogue video formats for which manufacturing of the recording and playback equipment ceased many years ago. Yale library IT staff designed systems for digitization, which began in February 2011,” says Rudof.

Rudof notes that recent gifts from the Fortunoff family and others will ensure ongoing support for “the forward migration of the video files” as technology continues to evolve. With digitization there have been advances in incorporating current search techniques,” said Rudof. The archive will continue to provide expert advice to researchers, both remotely and in person, while expanding its educational outreach, she adds.

“The process of technical adaptation is never complete,” says Rudof. “When you move into the digital world, you have to constantly migrate to new formats.”

At the conference at Yale on Oct. 21, which is free and open to the public, presenters will focus on another Fortunoff objective: using the archives in the classroom.

“Another important goal now is to encourage as many Yale faculty members as possible to integrate materials from the archive into classes. Several courses or seminars on genocide or visual biography are already offered, and our material can also play a role in other courses, as faculty speakers at our conference on Oct. 21 will emphasize,” says Rudof.

One conference session will address the topic “At Yale: Testimonies in the Classroom,” and will feature Yale faculty members from three academic disciplines: Jessica Helfand, who teaches in the School of Art and is the author of the critically acclaimed “Scrapbooks: An American History”; Katie Trumpener, professor of English and comparative literature; and Jay Winter, professor of history.

Other topics to be covered include a session titled “What Children of Survivors Do with Their Parents’ Experience,” featuring a presentation by Dr. Romana Strochlitz Primus, a Connecticut physician who was born in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp, has served on the executive committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and is president of Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center in New London to educate teachers and students in the region about the Holocaust.

The concluding session includes a presentation by Raye Farr, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; a talk by Samuel Kassow, Trinity College, on the eyewitness accounts of Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto (which were hidden away by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and found after the war); and a discussion between Laub and Hartman.

In addition to the conference on Oct. 21 and the continuing exhibition, lectures and other events are planned. More information can be found at the Fortunoff Archive website.