Top page banner of the Journal for MultiMedia

Survivors explain their perception of Hitler's early threats.
Survivors explain their perception

of Hitler's early threats.
28.8 | 56 | Cable/T1
Witness: Voices from the Holocaust.. Video. 86 minutes. Joshua M. Greene and Shiva Kumar, producers. Stories to Remember, in association with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University. 1999. For more information on the video and its companion book, Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, Greene, Joshua M. & Shiva Kumar, Editors, Free Press, 288 pp., go to:

The outpouring of survivors' testimonies in the past generation has enriched the study of the Holocaust immensely. When participants are able to tell their own stories they can animate history as nothing else can. That so many articulate people survived to write memoirs or to describe their experiences to students, filmmakers, and archivists is one reason that the subject has captured the public imagination in the United States and much of Europe. The scholarly implications of the popularity of these testimonies are increasingly clear, however. Not only are fakes occasionally unmasked, such as Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments: Memoirs of a Wartime Childhood, which won the 1996 National Jewish Book Award for Autobiography and Memoir. But these testimonies may also come to dominate the field, with confused or conflicting accounts opening the way for Holocaust deniers to cast doubt on their validity.

Frank S. describes the teaching of
Frank S. describes the teaching
of "Racial Science" in 1930's Germany.
28.8 | 56 | Cable/T1
Filmmakers must address these concerns when using survivors' accounts. Usually, they have been incorporated into a traditional documentary format, along with voice narration, archival and contemporary footage, and interviews with experts on the subject. The Fatal Attraction of Adolf Hitler, the 1989 BBC documentary (reviewed in The Journal for MultiMedia History, Volume 2, 1999), is one widely praised example of this genre, covering a broad sweep of history. Most films take a more limited subject, such as the "Night of Broken Glass" or partisan warfare in Vilna, and use testimony—usually in translation—as one element in the story they are telling.

Joshua Greene and Shiva Kumar have chosen a bolder approach in Witness: Voices from the Holocaust. Drawing on the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale University, which since 1979 has collected testimonies of some four thousand survivors, they present nineteen eyewitnesses speaking in English, with no narrator, experts, or translators standing between them and their audience. The survivors are articulate and the viewer sees enough of them as they appear from time to time or their voices are heard while archival film is on the screen to be moved by their stories. Most of the nineteen are Jewish, but they also include a former American POW in a German camp, another American who took part in the liberation of a camp, a former Hitler Youth member, and a priest who witnessed deportations. The result is a powerful, effective, and award-winning film, aired nationally by PBS in May, 2000, as well as a companion book with a foreword by the distinguished scholar Lawrence L. Langer. It, too, has drawn wide accolades.

Father John S., a Checz priest, describes the
Father John S., a Czech priest,
describes the "collective crime" of
indifference and fear of denunciation.
28.8 | 56 | Cable/T1
Greene and Kumar are television producers with a long string of credits, chiefly in producing animated and live-action films for children. In interviews he gave after making Witness, Greene made it clear that he had not read much about the Holocaust during the four years he spent on the film and book. He tried instead to let the testimony speak for itself, to "step away from the control inherent in his craft as a filmmaker, relinquish the expectations that accompany interviews."[1] Witness may succeed in these terms and even awaken the interest of schoolchildren in the subject—which would be no small accomplishment—but it also raises a number of questions of particular concern to scholars.

Scholars may be irritated by some of the choices the filmmakers made. Why was an American POW chosen as a "voice from the Holocaust" but not a Romany or Polish person? Simply because the Fortunoff Video Archive has his testimony and not theirs? How representative are the survivors and how accurate are their statements? Is Robert S., the former Hitler Youth member, correct in saying that Germans were all in favor of war at the outset? Is Joseph K. fair in saying that the Polish Nationalist Party fell under the influence of the Nazis? Were many American prisoners of war put in places like Mathausen, as Herbert J. was, rather than in POW camps?

Robert S., former Hiter Youth member.
Robert S., former
Hiter Youth member, asserts that
most germans were for the war.
28.8 | 56 | Cable/T1
Though I cannot ignore these questions, I believe that the dramatic impact of Witness would have been seriously compromised by a more conventional approach to the use of testimonies. A narrator could have answered some questions, framed some issues differently, but at a price. Scholars who work with survivors often stress how we can enlarge our understanding of the Holocaust if we encourage them to express themselves freely and avoid imposing our own categories and questions. Witness is a beautifully wrought example of the directness and power that can be achieved when survivors are allowed to tell their own stories.

What child could listen to Frank S. describe his classroom experience without being moved? A Jewish child in a biology classroom when "Racial Science" was being taught in 1930s Germany, he was ridiculed by his teacher for his non-Aryan features. The hatred for that teacher that has stayed with him for fifty years is palpable. The terrible deportation journey in crowded cattle cars is handled beautifully, with interwoven accounts of survivors and of Father John S., a Czech priest, who watched the train roll by his town and described the "collective crime" of indifference and fear of denunciation, as no one came to the aid of their former neighbors.

was your number?
What was your number?
28.8 | 56 | Cable/T1
Hollywood treatments of Nazi concentration camps do not probe the depths of the human experience the way the testimonies in Witness do. Emotions are raw and on the surface as people describe what they went through or subjected others to. There is the testimony of a survivor still haunted by the knowledge that he sent his little brother to his death by steering him to the wrong line during the selection process. Martin S. described how he trained himself to be brutal in order to survive in Buchenwald. "I didn't care about anyone else." One woman describes how hunger drove her to steal bread from a fellow prisoner. Herbert J., the American POW, describes the brutality of Nazi guards and the cannibalism of Soviet inmates.

There are no tidy conclusions to Witness. Martin S. returns to Poland looking for his family and finds only hostility from his former neighbors. He and Renee H. explain what happened to them when they made their way to the United States. No one wanted to hear about their experiences; they chose to remain silent for a generation. Another survivor ends Witness with a question: "Did we really learn anything? I don't know."

  1. Joshua Greene on The Paula Gordon Show, "Survivors: Introduction." Go to: (   [Return]

Donald Birn
University at Albany, State University of New York 

~ End ~

Video Review of Witness: Voices from the Holocaust
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History

Comments | JMMH Contents