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The International School for Holocaust Studies

"Tell Us What You See"

Interview with Professor Dori Laub

Interviewers: Merav Janou, Naama Shik, and Yael Weinstock
February 22, 2011

Professor Dori Laub was born in Czernowitz, Romania in 1937. With his parents, he was deported to Transnistria in 1942. His father disappeared during a German raid prior to liberation by the Soviets and he and his mother were reunited with his grandparents who had survived in Czernowitz. He immigrated to Israel in 1950 where he attended medical school. Today he is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University and a psychoanalyst in private practice. In 1979 he co-founded the Holocaust Survivors' Film Project, Inc., which subsequently became the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. Dori Laub has published and lectured extensively on the Holocaust. He has participated in 127 taping sessions, has actively trained interviewers in affiliate projects, and has written extensively about survivor testimony. His work on trauma has recently extended to studies on survivors of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and of other genocides, and has led to his founding of the International Trauma Center. We interviewed Professor Dori Laub on the topic of interviewing survivors and obtaining testimony.

Interviewer: We would like to discuss the topic of psychoanalysis, especially as it pertains to giving testimony about one’s own life experiences.

D. Laub: The most difficult experiences sometimes are never spoken of before [someone decides to give testimony]. There is a certain need [that people have] for someone to hear [their story] and for a connection and correlation [to be made]. It’s not a newspaper interview or an historical interview. It’s not only about facts but it’s about facts embedded in so much memory and so much pain or terror. And inevitably you create a relationship with the interviewer and you pick up the subtle cues that tell you that he wants to hear or doesn’t want to hear your story, and that makes the interviewee ready to tell more of their experiences. Now for people who are not trained, they will not necessarily be aware of or notice that. But the point is that the person will go through the painful experiences. Through psychoanalysis you facilitate this and make it happen, and sometimes intuitively or because of a personal connection, you know how to respond or wait or make a comment and keep the flow.

For many people, [being good at interviewing] is a gift they have. They don’t need to be trained and know how to respond. Like how a mother responds to its child’s needs. And this is how the words of a child start to have meaning, through the mother’s listening. So too, the testimony of Holocaust survivors gains meaning, form, historicity, through the words of the interviewer. So I don’t think it’s helpful to separate the emotional side of the interview from the factual side. Sometimes we hear interviews about life stories and life experiences. You pursue the facts and if you feel that a particular experience is missing from their testimony, you can direct the person and say, “please come back to your experiences.” Or survivors often go on a history trip and that’s the moment that interviewers can say, “Yes, that is the history but we can read the books on history. We can only hear from you what you experienced.” Usually, we begin by saying, “Imagine you are in your living room with photographs and you look at them. Tell us what you see.” So there’s visual imagery elicited. I think that earlier interviews were more fragmented and detached. But as the interviewee gets more into the film playing in his head, and more involved with you as a listener, he can begin to live the film and then the film gets real color and is not just the brown color of the photographs.

When a camera is introduced into the interview setting, does this impact how the survivor speaks about his story? How does Claude Lanzmann conduct unique interviews?

Claude Lanzmann is very present in his interviews. To some extent he choreographs them. There is another medium here, which is a translator so you have more than Claude Lanzmann, you have an intermediary and a space with a number of people. I think the translator provides the extra space that can sometimes be helpful because other than the powerful push of Lanzmann himself, the survivor may make a dramatization. Lanzmann is really not interested in a life story but he wants the experience from a particular event, including the music and the songs. Our aim [in my work with oral testimonies] was the person, the family, memories, how it began, and the aftermath.

In an analytic process, there’s also a process of translation and the detachment from the self and coming back to it. By the way, that was the first time I heard the testimony of Helen Kay. It’s one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen.

Helen lost her baby during the Holocaust and she felt like she didn’t actually have the experience. She didn’t even speak to her husband about it. And the camera moves to him and tears are rolling down his eyes. This reminds me of the movie “Europa Europa.” A Yale student who discovered his Jewish origins watched this movie in Germany and saw an old man crying in the theater. He asked the man why he was crying and the man said, “This is my story.” By the time I met the student, he already had 130-videotaped interviews of Jews who had served in the German army. The book he published is called Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers. I told him I didn’t believe him so he brought me documents from Hitler saying, “I hereby permit you to serve in the German army, first rank, and after the war we will clarify your racial origin.” So there were many that were in and to make it even more interesting, I met another family who had the same story.

So, did [the survivor in the theater] know that or did he pay attention to that knowledge? Maybe, but not for a long time. He set his story aside and all of a sudden for whatever reason, maybe due to an encounter with someone, it broke through. He could no longer set it aside and that is how he could tell his story. And I can give you a story of someone who didn’t break through. The video I showed of Helen Kaye. This is maybe the only person who asked me for treatment. After I spent two years with her, she [finally] said, “yes, [my baby] died in my arms.” Until then, she didn’t own the experience that she lost a child.

Is it true that there’s a big difference between the initial testimony and the repeating of it? Is it a process that might be developed over time, revealing new layers of the testimony?

I don’t know enough about it. I re-interviewed seven people 13 years after, and I re-interviewed eight people 25 years after the first interview. I compared them with the initial interviews and there are differences but differences more in a sense of the movie becomes live and in color. The initial interviews were more detached and frozen, but this could also be because I was not comfortable in allowing it to run. I was much more present. But those re-interviews, it was like we picked up where we left off, like this was an ongoing process. I completely forgot that it was an interview.
There is also a process of comparing history with interviews. Recently, questions have been raised among historians. A possible question could be, “When did World War II really end?” In other words, when was the threat of annihilation over? Some say that the threat of annihilation shifted to the threat of Israel’s existence. After World War II, survivors who lived in Israel felt that once again their enemies were at the door. After the Yom Kippur War and peace with Egypt, this shifted. There was less of a discourse of resistance and survivors felt less threatened to speak. At that point there was a certain level of comfort with giving testimony. When you are under the gun you don’t have the luxury of knowing.

Do you think, as a whole, for Holocaust survivors, the process of testifying is a healer or a killer? We know that Philip Muller, the last witness in the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, was so traumatized by his giving testimony to Claude Lanzmann that he refused to give testimony again. Do you think that giving testimony traumatizes the survivors again?

First of all, it’s Claude Lanzmann and he has a powerful determination to get the story. You become an actor for Lanzmann, so it depends what kind of interviewer it is, and it depends what your experiences were that you are telling about. The loss of a child is one of the worst. So I think it depends, and the interviewer has to exercise a certain amount of caution.

Sometimes the survivor does not tell the whole story. Would you ask him to fill in the details?

It depends. If he says it is a difficult thing to talk about, I would leave it. Once I interviewed someone who insisted on telling a story that made him cry, even when I gave him a way out. It was important for him and for me.

Do you think we can speak about those survivors who came to Israel? Almost all of them deal with trauma. Do you think there is an influence of this kind of collective trauma on Israeli society?


In what ways?

First of all, the discourse of heroism for years and years.

So Israel is a unique society considering we built our identity on trauma?

On rebuilding, reproducing, being strong, militarily superior, that is the price. I don’t want to be a social commentator but there were also advantages. But I definitely think the whole collectivity has a lot of advantages, except if you don’t allow individualism to emerge for a long time, it can erupt in a more primitive way.

I think it merits lengthy volumes. What strikes me [is that] there is so much awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet there is no awareness of PTSD, in Israel, the country in which it should be a daily acceptance. For example, the way soldiers of wars were treated. They should be treated for PTSD.

Can you find similarities between PTSD from the Yom Kippur War and other wars were treated, and the way that Holocaust survivors were treated for their PTSD?

I do not want to overstate because I don’t know enough, but to begin with, PTSD in 1973 was not the diagnosis. It was not treated with the person in mind. I don’t see that this treatment policy has been thoroughly reexamined.

From this perspective we can say that Israeli society didn’t learn anything from Holocaust trauma.

Things have changed recently in that there is a different discourse now. But are they really implementing different treatment programs for PTSD?

I wanted to go back to what you said about the discourse of victimization and heroism, and the process that Israeli society has gone through. At the trials of Nazi perpetrators, individuals stand up and tell their stories to an audience of more than one person.

There were 111 witnesses in the Eichmann trial. Who did they talk to? In their minds, I think they talked to a person. Of course they wanted society to know, but you don’t speak to society. I think they went so much into themselves and they were hurt and I don’t think it started the discourse about the Holocaust at that time. It was an isolated event and very powerful. I think the discourse started at the Yom Kippur War, when the whole country was under threat and there was no omnipotent defense anymore. Twenty palots of the Israeli air force were shot down over Egypt. So there was no defensive armor anymore. At that moment the real experience of the Holocaust, of annihilation, forced itself in.

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