Oral testimonies are present in various ways in our everyday lives, and they are frequently used to present and explain history in exhibitions and documentaries. History books increasingly incorporate oral accounts and interview archives used by the public as well as by researchers become more and more common. In the late 1990s, the French Historian Annette Wieviorka stated that we are living in the “era of the witness”, and her observation remains valid until today. Therefore, it is important more than ever nowadays to look closely at the meanings oral accounts about the past carry for the ones involved in their production as well as for their recipients, in order to understand how past and present are interweaved in oral narrations. Through close readings, advantages, treasures as well as weaknesses of these accounts can be revealed. Consequently, when we become more aware of how oral testimonies are created and used, we are also able to understand historical narratives more profoundly.
The “founding father” of Oral History in Italy, Alessandro Portelli, stated in the beginning of the 1990s that “Oral history, in fact, is never the same twice”. When the use of oral testimonies in historical science was still evolving, Oral Historians felt obliged to justify and explain the advantages of their “new” source. For most Oral Historians today, however, Portelli’s observation is common sense and rarely questioned, as it was so often the case from the 1970s till the 1990s. The focus of most research today and the significance of oral sources lie not on questions of truthfulness and reliability. The value of these sources lies rather in the social or “emotional truth,” which they convey, as the Literary scholar Lori Ann Garner has pointed out when she compared written and oral accounts on the same historical event. Oral History is hence not about eliminating “uncertainties” in oral testimonies, but about reflecting upon them to understand which meanings and readings of the past they disclose. Thus, as the British Sociologist and Oral Historian Paul Thompson stresses, testimonies are representations of one or more aspects of the “many-sided nature of reality.” The importance of different contexts, which Portelli’s quote implies, remains, however, often underestimated in historical analyses, as well as in public representations of these accounts.
Esther Shalev-Gerz’s art installation “Between listening and telling: Last witnesses, Auschwitz 1945 – 2005” addresses this lack of attention to context. Specifically, her work raises attention toward the role of the interviewer and the questions, which are rarely made visible in most representations of witness accounts. The artist was born in Lithuania in 1948, grew up in Israel and resides mostly in Paris. Her art also features other works which focus on commemoration and dialogue, while questioning common conceptions. For the installation commemorating 60 years since the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz in 2005, Shalev-Gerz and her team asked 60 survivors, living in Paris: What did you do before the war, what did you do during and after? Their answers were made accessible to the public at an exhibition in Paris. Towering above the audio stations were triptychs featuring short clips from the interviews.
In her video-installation Esther Shalev-Gerz captures the moment between question and answer – a moment that can only be grasped through a visual medium. In these powerful short sequences of different interviews, which are shown in a 7-second-loop, she chose to focus on the emotions of the witnesses. The viewer’s attention is entirely directed to the witnesses’ faces. Shown mostly in a head and shoulder-close up before a neutral background, the attention on their facial expressions is elevated. Shalev-Gerz, hence, orients herself to common aesthetics of video testimonies today. With this installation she comments on the process of remembering. The gestures and the mimics show how remembering influences the body. The brief sequences literally demonstrate the audible gaps between question and answer – one might even say, the thinking process itself.
The video-work leaves room for interpretation. By capturing the silence and how the witnesses are searching for an adequate answer, Shalev-Gerz’s work suggests the impossibility of describing the traumatic experiences in Auschwitz or at least the difficulties in doing so. Furthermore, one could argue, that these moments of thinking are representing the authenticity of the emotional process of remembering. But these moments are present in all conversations and therefore they can also stress the dialogue itself. The witnesses are not only searching for memories. They are also choosing – concisely or unconsciously – the appropriate and comprehensible answer considering the given contexts and perhaps even future audiences. Therefore, the gaps in the interviews do not conceal, but work to emphasize the importance of the question and represent the invisible interviewer behind the camera. The answer of the witnesses is, thus, not only shaped by memories which come up in the context of the interview, but also by the person who is asking the question, as well as by the question itself, and by extension, also by the cultural and temporal context in which the interview takes place.
Esther Shalev-Gerz’s artistic approach to oral testimonies illuminates the multiple layers that inhabit oral accounts. These are revealed to us, even when we are “only” observing the moments of silence, in between question and answer. Focusing on the conversation and henceforth on the changeability of oral testimonies makes it clear that context should be considered when oral accounts become part of historical narratives. The setting can be pointed out in the presentation of the interviews, like Shalev-Gerz does in her installation. If this is not the case, the recipients of oral testimonies must consciously look for different perspectives. The difficulty in recognizing and acknowledging contexts lays in the routine with which we might watch oral testimonies by now, as well as in the emotional impact and the aura of authenticity oral testimonies carry. In the case of interviews with survivors of the Shoah, there is also an ethical implication which needs to be considered (and should be taken into account in other cases as well), which makes distancing from and questioning the accounts problematic, unethical or sometimes even immoral.
The artistic intervention of Shalev-Gerz hints at the fluidity of oral accounts and thus invites the observer to critically engage with these testimonies while keeping moral boundaries and the dignity and credibility of the witnesses and their experiences. In doing so, her approach opens the possibility to identify different layers of oral narratives. And making us aware of the silent parts of such exchanges, which challenges our common perceptions, can ultimately enable us to understand the (inter-)subjectivity of historical narratives and the making of history.
Lori Ann Garner: “Stories Which I Know to Be True”: Oral Tradition, Oral History, and Voices from the Past. In: The Oral History Review 43/2 (2016), pp. 263–291.
Alessandro Portelli: The death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories. Form and meaning in Oral History, Albany: State University of New York Press 1991.
Paul Thompson: The Voice of the Past. Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1988 (2nd edition).
Annette Wieviorka: The era of the witness. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2006 (the 1st edition was published in French in 1998).
Installation: Between listening and telling: Last witnesses, Auschwitz 1945 – 2005 by Esther Shalev-Gerz in Paris in 2005. Visitors could access the unedited testimonies and place the snippets from the installation into context. A booklet in French featured stills and quotes from the interviews. The installation was also displayed in the US and Canada for example, in silence, without the possibility to listen to the testimonies. (Picture from the website: http://www.shalev-gerz.net)