Fortunoff Archive shares survivors’ voices with new generation of scholars

The story — and music — of survivor Liubov’ N. was highlighted during a recent symposium at Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
Sarah Garibova, Glenn Dynner, Gabor Toth, and Stephen Naron at Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.

Sarah Garibova, Glenn Dynner, Gabor Toth, and Stephen Naron discuss recent scholarship in the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies during a May 6 symposium at Sterling Memorial Library. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Over the course of a two-hour video testimony describing her experiences during the Holocaust, survivor Liubov’ N. occasionally breaks into song.

Liubov’ shares songs that she wrote with her fellow prisoners at a series of three labor camps located north of Zvenigorodka, the central Ukrainian city where she was raised. One of the songs, titled “Tuchi,” describes the conditions the prisoners endured — meals of thin gruel, long days toiling in the bitter cold, short nights sleeping on hay in unheated barracks, and frequent beatings with a ramrod.

But we aren’t afraid of the lashing,
And the ramrod doesn’t hurt at all.
We’re ready to endure it all,
Only to make it another day,” she sings in Russian.

The songs enabled the prisoners to document their lives before the Nazi occupiers murdered them, said Sarah Garibova, the Geoffrey Hartman Fellow at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.  

Songs could be easily memorized,” said Garibova, speaking at a May 6 symposium at Sterling Memorial Library where she presented her research on Liubov’s testimony. “If even one of the camp inmates survived, their collective history was guaranteed to survive as well. By sharing these songs in her testimony, Liubov’ helps to preserve the voices and experiences of her friends, who did not make it out of the camp alive.”

Garibova is the first recipient of the Hartman Fellowship, established in 2016 in honor of the late Geoffrey H. Hartman, Yale Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative literature and longtime faculty adviser to the archive. The postdoctoral fellowship is part of an effort to draw people into the archive’s collection of more than 4,400 video testimonies in more than a dozen languages for research and teaching. Garibova was joined this academic year by Glenn Dynner, professor of religion at Sarah Lawrence College, and the archive’s first senior research scholar. A second postdoctoral fellow, Gabor Toth, is working with Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab to develop a web-based tool for exploring thousands of transcripts of survivor testimonies from the Fortunoff Archive as well as from the collections of the USC Shoah Foundation and the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

These measures follow the digitization of the collection — an initiative completed in 2015 that helped to preserve more than 10,000 hours of recorded testimonies and make them more accessible to scholars worldwide.  

Stephen Naron became the archive’s director in 2016, taking over from Joanne Rudof, who retired after managing the archive for 32 years.

Thanks to Joanne’s indefatigable work, we’re in a position to share this now-digitized collection with a broader audience of researchers, and we want to encourage a new generation of scholars to work in it,” Naron said. “The voices being preserved in the archive must be heard and it is our responsibility to create opportunities for people to hear them.”

The archive implemented a partner site program in 2016 that provides remote access to the digitized collection to scholars at 28 institutions in the United States, Europe, and Israel. Since July 1, 2017, the program has generated a 200% spike in usage over the previous year, with more than 1,000 requests to view testimonies received as of April, Naron said.  

Using testimonies for scholarship

The Hartman Fellowship and senior scholar position each support a researcher to work in the collection while producing a critical edition of a testimony of his or her choice with an introductory essay and scholarly annotations to provide context and illuminate complexities within a survivor’s account, and translate it into English if necessary.

Our hope is that the Hartman fellow and senior scholars will serve as ambassadors of this collection once they leave Yale and continue to use the collection in their teaching and research,” Naron said. “The critical editions will unlock testimony. They are designed to make testimony more accessible to a broader readership and encourage scholarly use of these sources at various levels.”

For his critical edition, Dynner selected the testimony of Rubin P., who was born in Zhetl, a town in Belarus. Rubin, a Yeshiva student before the war, became a partisan fighter in the forests surrounding his hometown after the Germans murdered his parents and sister.

Sarah Garibova, the archive’s Geoffrey Hartman Fellow, presents the testimony of Luibov’ K., pictured in the background.
Sarah Garibova, the archive’s inaugural Geoffrey Hartman Fellow, presents the testimony of Luibov’ K., pictured in the background, who survived the Holocaust in central Ukraine. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Garibova, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2017, chose Liubov’ K.’s testimony, she explained, in part, because the former schoolteacher conveys her story in a clear and compelling manner.

Her nuanced accounting of human brutality and compassion, terror and courage, is largely absent in archival records,” said Garibova, who translated Liubov’s testimony from Russian into English.

Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History and the archive’s faculty adviser, said the critical editions ground the video testimonies in traditional scholarship.

At the end of it, you have a piece of scholarship, which is related to the original visual source but is also something that is new, which is something that can be cited in a different way and read in a different way,” Snyder said at the May 6 symposium. “It’s interesting how just changing the medium from visual to written changes how we experience the source.”

Garibova and Dynner selected two of the most challenging and important testimonies, said Snyder, a renowned scholar of the Holocaust.

Misfortune began to rain down on our heads’

Liubov’ K.’s testimony, which Garibova translated from Russian into English, provides invaluable insight into the daily life of Soviet Jews in central Ukraine before, during and after the Holocaust, Garibova said.

Liubov’ was born in Zvenigorodka in 1921. Her family was affected by Soviet modernization efforts, including farm collectivization. During the Holodomor, a manmade famine that ravaged central Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, Liubov’ and her siblings were sent to an orphanage because their parents could not provide for them. She lived at the orphanage until 1936, said Garibova.

Liubov’ attended one of 800 secular Yiddish schools established in Soviet Ukraine to supplant traditional religious schools and educate youth in socialist values, Garibova said. Liubov’ describes reading Yiddish newspapers and attending Yiddish theatre, but by the mid-to-late 1930s the Stalinist state began closing those cultural institutions as it sought to instill a homogenous Soviet culture, Garibova said.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. German troops entered Zvenigorodka on July 29, 1941.

The war started and misfortune began to rain down on our heads,” Liubov’ says in her testimony.

Liubov’ describes watching a former neighbor beat her mother to death after the German invasion. According to Liubov’’s account, as the man brutally murdered her mother, he shouted, “You Jews have tortured us for 23 years,” a reference to the  years of Soviet rule, Garibova noted.

We had rented our apartment from his uncle since we didn’t have our own home,” Liubov’ says, expressing a sense of betrayal. “They knew all about us, everything from the inside out. They had known us all of our lives, but he didn’t take that into consideration.”

Garibova said that, despite witnessing her mother’s murder, Liubov’ provides an even-handed account of Jewish/non-Jewish relations during the Nazi occupation. Non-Jewish residents’ treatment of their Jewish neighbors ranged from violent score-settling and collaboration with the Germans, to indifference and complicity, to genuine altruism.

Liubov’s testimony highlights the complexity of inter-ethnic relations during the war,” Garibova said. “It also highlights the incredible risks that both Jews and non-Jews took at a time when neighbors could become executioners and strangers could become unlikely saviors.”

Forced to relocate to a ghetto in the northern part of Zvenigorodka, the Jewish residents sold their furniture and other possessions to non-Jews to supplement their meager food rations, Liubov’ explains, although many of the buyers never returned with the payments they had promised.

This asymmetrical trade, while not specifically collaboration, contributed to the dispossession of Jews, which was a primary objective of German occupation policy,” Garibova said.

On May 5, 1942, Liubov’ and about 300 other able-bodied Jews were transferred to a series of labor camps just north of the city where they encountered the miserable and violent conditions documented in the song “Tuchi.”

The residents of nearby villages, who were strangers to the prisoners, provided them food, such as bread, potatoes, and salt, Liubov’ explains.

If it weren’t for them, we likely would have died from hunger,” she says.

When the last labor camp was liquidated in May 1943, Liubov’ and another female prisoner escaped the mass shooting.

Knowing they couldn’t go home, the two young women fled south, entrusting their fate to the kindness of strangers,” Garibova said.

Posing as non-Jewish Ukrainians fleeing Nazi labor conscription, they found shelter in the home of a woman in a nearby village of Kozachany. She confronted the refugees after she overheard Liubov’ speaking Yiddish in her sleep, and after learning that they were Jews, she hid them until the Red Army drove away the Germans.

Decades later, Liubov’ would lead an effort to establish memorials in Zvenigorodka to those who died in the Holocaust, Garibova said. 

Her songs are still alive’

The first song Liubov’ shares concerns the anguish that she and the other prisoners suffered as they were ripped from their families to face an uncertain future in the labor camp, Garibova said. Another song describes the cruelty of Stepan, the camps’ ramrod-wielding overseer, she said.

Liubov’ explains that the songs were the product of a collaborative process.

Everyone wrote the songs all together,” she said. “This one would give a word. I would give two. This one a line and the next would add another. That’s how it came together for us.”

Tuchi” borrows the melody from a song performed by a Jewish actor in a 1938 movie called “The Man with a Gun,” Garibova said.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder delivering remarks at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies on May 6, 2018.
Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale and the archive’s faculty advisor, says the video testimonies have the ability to “cross a membrane between death and life.” (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Liubov’s singing underscores the unique richness of video testimony, Snyder said.

That can’t happen in a written source,” Snyder said. “It can only happen in a video or an audio source. That bit of art can then be performed. It can be changed. It can be brought into the present. That is a reading of a source that is only possible with this kind of source.”

The video testimonies provide a beginning point for biographical or literary critical examination, and they can inspire people in a way other sources might not, he said, noting that Liubov’s songs can be performed today, recreated straight from her recollections.

As art can do, these songs have a special ability to cross a membrane between death and life,” Snyder said.

Garibova, who will join the Jewish studies faculty of Pennsylvania State University in August, said that, aside from studying Liubov’s testimony, the fellowship gave her an opportunity pursue her primary research interests, which use mourning and burial practices as a lens through which to examine the engagement of Soviet Jews with Jewish religious traditions, Soviet norms, and Russian cultural influences.

This was a really great moment to immerse myself in the sources, do some big thinking, and re-envision my project,” said Garibova.

She expressed her hope that by translating and annotating Liubov’s testimony, she has made “the voice of an ordinary Soviet Jew,” whose experiences concern an under-studied episode of Holocaust history, accessible to aspiring scholars and non-academics alike.

Following the May 6 symposium, Garibova contacted Liubov’s grandson, who lives in Israel, on social media.

He was so touched that were using her testimony and that her songs are still alive,” she said.

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