Symposium to honor Dr. Dori Laub, co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive

A symposium at Sterling Memorial Library on Thursday, Nov.  29, will honor the life and legacy of Dr. Dori Laub, co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and Yale’s Genocide Studies Program.

Laub, who died in June at age 81, teamed with New Haven television producer Laurel Vlock in May 1979 to begin videotaping Holocaust survivors, and the project became the Holocaust Survivors Film Project (HSFP). Their taped testimonies were deposited at Yale in 1981, forming the foundation of the Fortunoff Video Archive, which today houses 4,400 testimonies comprising 12,000 recorded hours of videotape.

Born in in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1937, Laub’s family was deported to Ukraine in 1942. He survived the Holocaust, but lost his father in a German raid. He was a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and maintained a private practice focused on survivors of trauma. 

The symposium, which will run from 1 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., will examine Laub’s contribution to the use of video testimony to document survivors’ experiences; his role in establishing the Genocide Studies Program; and advances he made to the study of trauma.

Laub’s clinical practice informed his work documenting the experiences of survivors, and vice versa, said David Simon, director of the Genocide Studies Program, who organized the symposium with Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Video Archive.

His clinical work and his archival work dovetailed and interacted in ways that maybe weren’t often appreciated by people who were only exposed to one or the other,” Simon said. “We hope the symposium draws out those interactions by bringing together people who knew part of him so that we will have the chance to appreciate all of him.”

Lawrence Langer, a leading Holocaust scholar and the Alumnae Chair Professor of English emeritus at Simmons College in Boston, will give a keynote address.

Dr. Dori Laub
Dr. Dori Laub

Langer’s 1991 book, “Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory,” drew on the Fortunoff Archive to show how oral testimonies expose the human dimension of the Holocaust, thereby complementing historical studies. Published by Yale University Press, the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and was named one of the 10 best books of 1991 by the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Documentary filmmaker Taylor Krauss ’02 B.A., who first engaged with Laub while visiting the Fortunoff Archive as an undergraduate to watch testimonies, will give a second keynote.

Those encounters with history, and testimony itself, left an indelible mark on my consciousness,” he said. 

Krauss’s experience with the archive inspired his own work filming the survivors of genocide. He established Voices of Rwanda, an archive dedicated to filming testimonies of survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Krauss also co-founded Voices of Yezidi, an archive of testimonies documenting the 2014 genocide against the Yezidi by ISIS in northern Iraq.

While working on Voices on Rwanda, Krauss returned to campus frequently to seek advice and present testimonies.

Without fail, Dr. Laub would be in attendance taking personal interest in the ways in which Rwandan witnesses both carried memory and spoke of it,” he said. “He offered his observations and helped me begin to more fully understand the work in which I was engaged.  Throughout the subsequent years, Dr. Laub generously continued the conversation with me not only about the work, but also about my life.”

Krauss counts Laub among his “kindest and most supportive life teachers,” he said.

Though I never learned from Dori in a traditional classroom, without a doubt he changed the course of my life and work,” he said. “The form and ethos of my work in Rwanda and Iraq was fashioned in the image of his work. 

Laub was a mentor in subtle ways, he said.

He consistently attended presentations I made in New Haven and even in New York; he shared gentle guidance and insight both about my testimony work and my life; and he lived as an example of the kind of humble intellect who was capable of revisiting and revising in his twilight years the learnings he felt he had arrived at throughout his decades of work with Holocaust survivors,” Krauss said.

Laub, who participated in 134 testimony-taping sessions and trained interviewers for affiliated projects, employed the method of empathic listening, which encourages the subject to share their story with as little interruption as possible. The focus on empathic listening is one of Laub’s lasting legacies, Simon said.

The advantage of the approach is twofold: First, it allows the storyteller, not the interviewer, to determine the shape of the story,” Simon said. “It provides a more authentic story — the one the survivor wants told. The other advantage is that we can learn so much more about other elements of life. You learn about the whole person and the culture and society that are of interest beyond the escape and survival story.”

A panel discussion will feature Joanne Rudof, an archivist at the Fortunoff Video Archive for 34 years before she retired in 2017; Ben Kiernan, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale and co-founder of the Genocide Studies Program; and Elizabeth A. Brett, a training and supervising analyst at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis in New Haven, and past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

The symposium will conclude with a screening of excerpts from a documentary about Laub being made by filmmaker Ohad Ufaz, who will be on hand to discuss the film.

In many ways, Dori was a humble and quiet man,” Simon said. “I hope the symposium provides a chance for his family to see how much his colleagues appreciated him and value his contributions.”

The event is sponsored by the Fortunoff Video Archive and Yale’s Genocide Studies Program, which is based at The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

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