New Fortunoff Archive podcast shares stories of Holocaust survivors
In the fall of 1942, Martin Schiller entered a German labor camp with his family. He was 8 years old.
“As soon as we got into the camp, I knew we were in trouble,” Schiller said in an interview videotaped in 1986 for Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. “Anybody that didn’t get off the truck fast enough was hit over the head with a whip; kicked. My father, my brother, and I were taken in one direction. My mother was immediately put into another camp.”
The interviewer asked Schiller what it was like to be separated from his mother at such a young age. A “survival instinct” helped him to cope, he explained.
“As a matter of fact, I trained myself to be very brutal, very cold,” said Schiller, who was from Tarnobrzeg, a small town in southeastern Poland. “Often times, I have some [voice breaks] … I guess I can’t ask them to turn this off can I?”
“If you like,” said the interviewer.
“No, no,” said Schiller, who was 52 when the interview was recorded. “Keep it running. It should be documented. I sometimes think I was made too inhuman because I didn’t care about anybody else.”
Excerpts from Schiller’s video testimony are the subject of the first episode of “Those Who Were There,” a new podcast series from the Fortunoff Archive dedicated to sharing the history of the Holocaust through the first-hand testimonies of survivors and witnesses. The podcast uses audio from the archive’s collection of videotaped interviews, which were conducted from 1979 to the present. The series includes accounts from Jewish survivors, non-Jewish witnesses, and liberators. It is aimed at anyone interested in learning more about the Holocaust and the personal toll the genocide inflicted on individuals and families, said Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Archive and a co-producer of the podcast.
Only a fraction of the archive’s more than 4,400 testimonies have been viewed and the podcast is meant to share survivors’ stories with listeners worldwide, Naron said, speaking on Sept. 12 at a launch event for the podcast in Sterling Memorial Library’s lecture hall.
“Every voice, every story is important, and my hope is that this podcast is a chance to provide a public space for each survivor, one episode at a time,” he said.
Naron co-produced the podcast with Eric Marcus, the founder and host of the award-winning “Making Gay History” podcast, and Nahanni Rous, the host and producer of “Can We Talk?,” the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Eleanor Reissa, Tony-nominated director, actress, and singer, and award-winning writer in both English and Yiddish, narrates the podcast, which will feature 10 episodes in its first season — each drawn from an individual testimony. Contextual notes by historian Samuel Kassow and a transcript of the program will accompany each episode to enhance the podcast’s value as a teaching tool.
Marcus’ “Making Gay History” podcast provided the inspiration for the Fortunoff’s series, as it uses archival interviews to tell intimate and personal stories about LGBT history in the United States, Naron explained.
Naron contacted Marcus, who embraced the project. Rous joined as a co-producer and Reissa, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, agreed to serve as its host.
The Fortunoff Archive has a long record of using current technology to document and share the experiences of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. It originated in 1979 as the Holocaust Survivors Film Project, which took the novel approach of using video to document Holocaust survivors under the leadership of the late Laurel Vlock, a local television interviewer and producer, and the late Dori Laub, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale and a child survivor of the Holocaust. In 1981, the original collection of video testimonies was donated to Yale. The late Geoffrey Hartman, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, served as the Fortunoff Archive’s inaugural director and his efforts made it possible to extend the collection’s reach across the globe.
In recent years, the archive has digitized its entire collection, which has made it more accessible for research and teaching. The podcast series is another way to invite people into the archive, Naron said.
The launch event included a panel discussion led by Marcus, in which the producers and host described the work of producing the podcast, including the challenge of choosing individual testimonies to highlight and condensing complex, hours-long interviews into concise and easily digestible episodes.
The idea of listening to hours and hours of Holocaust testimonies each week seemed daunting at first, Rous said, adding that she considered it “sacred work” that needed to be done.
“As soon as I started listening to the testimonies that Stephen sent along, I was completely drawn in,” said Rous. “I felt very close to these people, very close to their stories, and very motivated to help other people hear these stories.”
The production team chose a range of testimonies that would provide listeners with a sense of the archive’s breadth, Naron said. They also considered factors, such as sound quality of the recording, that make certain testimonies better suited to an audio presentation than others, he explained. The featured accounts are in English. (The archive includes testimonies in 22 languages.)
Rous described the process of winnowing testimonies to fit the podcast format, explaining that she searches for a narrative arc that will help listeners follow the survivors and witnesses through their experiences.
“I’m also listening for a person’s character to come through,” she said, adding that the decisions about what material to keep and to cut were made collaboratively among the production team.
Imparting historically accurate information concerning one of the darkest periods of human history while keeping listeners engaged was a challenge, Naron said.
“We never look for any sort of silver lining because there isn’t one,” he said.
The episodes offer listeners an opportunity to reflect on current events and draw lessons from history, said Reissa, who added that the individuals featured have compelling stories to share.
“These are great people,” she said. “These are people you should know. You should meet them.”
As a prisoner, Martin Schiller was forced to make bullet shells. He described risking his life to sabotage the shells so they would jam the Germans’ rifles.
When the war ended, Schiller and his brother were liberated at Buchenwald. Camp guards had murdered his father. Their mother had survived. He described being reunited with her in a hallway in a German town.
“That meeting, we couldn’t break apart …,” he said. “I remember people coming out of the doors and watching us. We just couldn’t let go. Holding on and crying.”