The fear and freedom of asking anything

Last week, Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser, Founder of the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything).

The fact of a Holocaust survivor opening him- or herself up to anything on the internet is a scary proposition. The internet is where the depths of Holocaust denial, revisionism, and anti-Semitism dwell. What kinds of questions would arise in this space, on Reddit, in the wake of ongoing anti-Semitism? What kinds of comments would be posted and upvoted? Would hate or stupidity or love or hope be the prevailing tone?

Turns out the live conversation picked up a bit of each of these – but significantly less hate than might be expected. And a lot of the stupidity got voted to the bottom – like the question of a user who identified themselves as a young student, who asked Lesser if he had “ever met Adolf.” Lesser himself starts from a place of love and hope, using Reddit as a platform to “further the case of tolerance” and express the potential for young people to make change in the world by using their voices and speaking out. In his introduction, he urged the readers/users to do so through a new project of his Foundation – I Shout Out.

By focusing on these kinds of take away lessons – “So my advice to you is choose to live a life that matters” – and on the wonder of America, both as the country of his liberators and his postwar home, much of Lesser’s AMA echoes the tone of other contemporary survivor witnessing efforts (ie. here, here, andhere,) and broader representations of Holocaust survivors in American culture (see: here, here, and (of course) here). But, what does it mean for this kind of dialogue to happen online and for the boundaries of questions to be unbound? As institutions of Holocaust memory start to engage in online spaces, the ability of users to post questions, both historical and intimate, thoughtful and provocative, to comment, sub comment, and vote on these iterative conversations seems even more transgressive.

The USC Shoah Foundation YouTube channel has over 1,000 survivor testimonies available for viewing. And, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has started webcasting their  First Person program, allowing viewers around the world to watch live conversations taking place at the museum in which survivors speak about their experiences under Nazism. While these digital projects invite greater access to the voices and stories of survivors, they still do so within moderated and limited parameters: the set up remains an interviewer and interviewee, the questions are prioritized by the host institution, and internet viewers cannot interact directly with the survivor.

Lesser’s AMA, on the other hand, was not an interview between two people – one of whom had a story to tell and the other an obligation to listen [citation 1]. Rather, Lesser opened himself up to be interviewed by anyone, although he retained the ability to choose which questions to answer and which to leave alone. He responded in detail to some questions – about what he saw, what his worst memory was, what he wishes he could tell his younger self – and left many others without answer. For example, repeated questions about Israel and Zionism and the connection of the Holocaust to ongoing Israel/Palestine politics were taken up not by Lesser, but by other Reddit users.

But, it is not just the openness of the questions that feels different from other models of online Holocaust survivor witnessing. The space of Reddit, the space of the internet itself here, is without limit. There is no Youtube screen, no house plant in the corder of a Shoah Foundation video, no stage or chair or moderator. Lesser’s responses are not visual or audio – they are virtual. This space, one that does not rely on a survivor’s body or voice to authenticate their memories and does not set the boundaries for what should be talked about or how it should be said, feels unsettled and new. Yet, It evokes many of the earliest frameworks for survivor narratives. Survivors, in the wake of liberation, wrote down their memories for court cases, legal documentation, and communal collection projects, like the Jewish Historical Commissions that started in 1944 [citation 2]. These accounts were roughly drawn, written hastily, and sometimes dictated (as Lesser’s AMA was).

The AMA string is still open – other Reddit users are posting about experiences they lived through or their grandparents lived through under Nazism and responses are nested inside other responses. Some of the initial questions and comments that were openly or subtly anti-Semitic were voted down and are now hidden from the front page. The detailed responses Lesser gave to questions about his liberation and his personal experiences with violence in the concentration camps have been voted to the top.

As this conversation continues and the openness of a space for ‘anything’ grows through comments, sub comments, and responses, the nature of a testimony – a direct conversation between an interviewer and an interviewee, already so tangled through an online forum like Reddit, becomes ever more networked. As more voices become part of this conversation, it weaves out in multiple directions, and offers an entirely new way of thinking about Holocaust witnessing – not as the voice and words of one survivor, but as a public discourse that breaks down the limitations of a video taped testimony.

But, what does it mean for Holocaust memory to grow out in these unexpected and unknown ways? Do the possible dangers of this kind of open forum outweigh the value of public engagement? These questions remain open as Holocaust memory changes in the digital age and transforms for the world when survivors are no longer able to answer these questions directly.

1.   See Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors : Recounting and Life History, (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998) and Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York; London: Routledge, 1992).
2.   See Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2012).


Originally posted on >

Turning Witnessing into Action (on Digital Learning Day)

photo (1)When I was asked to lead a discussion section about turning engagement with Holocaust memory into action on February 5th, I didn’t know the day was designated Digital Learning Day (#DLDay). So, it was fortuitous that I had planned an hour about the relationship between witnessing, activism and technology.

For 4 weeks in the 10 week Winter Quarter, about 150 UCLA undergraduate students meet with local Holocaust survivors for lunch. Throughout the quarter, the students share more than kosher Hillel lunch with these survivors, they share stories that reveal the past.  The Bearing Witness program has been bringing students and survivors together for lunch since 2007 and has evolved from a small student led initiative to a credited-class and has become so popular that there is now a lengthy wait list. Half the students enroll for university credit and meet on off weeks with Professor Todd Presner. The other half voluntarily meet with survivors and on the off week, gather to discuss the experience. A former student of mine invited me to lead one of these volunteer discussions and it happened to be #DLDay.

I started the discussion with a traditional question for considering Holocaust memory in any context: what does it mean to be a witness? And, I challenged them to consider their participation in the Bearing Witness program as a kind of responsibility. The conversation was slow to start, it seems not many of them had thought about the responsibility of passing on a survivor’s story and the act of witnessing that they were engaged in.

But, when I turned the discussion to the use of social media as a response to “What can I do?” things picked up. We debated multiple points of view, thinking about the value of twitter for non-profit organizations engaged in advocacy work, the “passive” activism of tweeting news links, the power of tweeting at your elected representatives, and the potency of twitter and Facebook in places like Syria and Egypt. Just as I had hoped, our conversation circled back to considered if twitter could be a site for witnessing and I was happy to see that, although they agreed that social media (YouTube included) could offer access to first hand accounts of human rights violations, more than a few students were skeptical about whether that access translated into action or political will.

In learning about the Holocaust (in particular) and genocide (broadly), we often associate technology with systematic murder. In the stories these students were committed to hearing every other week, they would learn about trains and gas chambers – two examples of technological modernity that facilitated a death machine. They could also study the way the telegraph facilitated organized deportations during the Armenian Genocide or how the radio inspired hatred and violence leading up to the Genocide of the Tutsis (a name change which I learned about on twitter). But, instead, we learned about how the digital world can help us stay informed and become active voices not only in the fight against genocide, but in the fight against bullying and aids and in the fight for refugee aid, all of which allow us as individuals to transform stories of past injustices into present day action.

There’s a lot I can say about the thought students gave to what they should or could take away from a concerted dialogue with Holocaust survivors, but since I’m honoring #DLDay here, let me say one final thing about how we thought through the possibilities for witnessing and action through technology: We looked at George Clooney and John Prendergast’s Sudan Satellite Sentinel project as both a bold attempt to use technology to prevent genocide and as an example of how the relationships between technology, witnessing, and celebrity resonate as modern approaches to “never again.” The project (which documents violence in Sudan by satellite in order to “sound the alarm” for intervention) employs technology as a watch dog, but the students pointed out that having documentation of violence doesn’t change the interest of governments to get involved. However, the access to this kind of documentation – made public on the project’s website and made popular by George Clooney (who, in fact, talked about the project Tuesday night on the Late Show) – could convert public interest into political advocacy. And, that relationship is what makes the project powerful and the students responded to the project’s own tag line: The world is watching because you are watching.

We ended with this idea that acting as witness, whether its through talking with Holocaust survivors, watching YouTube videos, or checking in on satellite imagery, can be an form of activism and that using technology to do so can empower individuals in their everyday lives.

This discussion was inspired by this video, created by the last year’s Bearing Witness participants that raises questions about witnessing and documents action pledges of student participants.