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Collecting Trauma: Oral Testimony and the Sydney Jewish Muse

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Melinda Reid

on 15 October 2013

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Transcript of Collecting Trauma: Oral Testimony and the Sydney Jewish Muse

Collecting Trauma:
Oral Testimony and the Sydney Jewish Museum

What is testimony?
The expression of a combination of complex traumatic memory and normal memory, often recounted as a series of events and personal experiences, which may conjure up various emotions within the speaker and the listener
Are testimonies accurate?
Due to the centrality of memory and its malleability, testimony is sometimes viewed as subjective, singular, and biased perception of history
Recollection of events purposefully dictated for public consumption
Bessel van der Kolk: Trauma can paralyze the Broca’s area of the brain which controls “construction of a coherent narrative” (Grinbalt, 19)
Taped testimonies can be edited, resulting in viewers only hearing segments of stories
History is, in reality, a complex collection of “truths”
Some witnesses may be just as comfortable expressing their experiences publicly as they would privately
Self-edits and simple forgetfulness may demonstrate the impacts of trauma upon memory and communication skills
Omissions made by survivors or editors of taped testimonies may also reveal which events of the Holocaust were central to their experience, or, conversely, are too horrifying to speak of or represent.
How have testimonies been collected and displayed at the Sydney Jewish Museum?
“Oral history is [the basis of] about 80 to 90 percent of what you see [at the Sydney Jewish Museum." (Jane Wesley, former curator)
Oral testimony featured throughout permanent exhibitions
All testimonies have been willingly donated

Present in two forms:
1. Taped testimonies played on televised loops
2. Holocaust survivor guides

Both the taped and live testimonies provide the Holocaust with human faces and individual stories that can be related to and deeply empathized with.
Melinda Reid
1. Taped Testimonies
Recorded during early 1990s
Testimonies made by survivors who now live in Australia, many of whom volunteer as guides or have donated objects to the SJM
Video footage of speaker and documentary imagery shown
Each speaker named
Subtitles provided
Various speakers provide insight into each topic
Evoke emotive response
2. Living testimony: survivor guides
Lotte Weiss spent three years in Auschwitz and Birkenau. She currently volunteers as a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
Hanaka Glucksman describes her last conversation with her mother before being transported to a concentration camp in a taped testimony of her Holocaust experiences exhibited at the SJM.
Holocaust survivors who voluntarily provide tours or speak with visitors in certain areas of the permanent exhibitions
Provide a living trace of trauma with whom a relationship can be developed
Evoke emotive response
What is the significance of testimony to Holocaust remembrance and study in the museum?
Imparts "history from below" (history from the perspective of the victim)

It can “construct activism” and encourage students of the Holocaust “to heal the future” since they cannot repair the past (Alba, 112-113)

A means of breaking "The Silence" (the inability/resfusal to speak about the Holocaust).

The act of remembering: "bearing witness" (Grinbalt, 21)

Overcoming the “crisis of representation” of trauma (Violi, 40-41)

Can leave visitors feeling inspired by the strength and resilience of Holocaust survivors

Breaks down survivor stereotypes (eg. the saintly survivor)


• Alba, Avril. ‘Integrity and Relevance: Shaping Holocaust Memory at the Sydney Jewish Museum.’ Judaism. Volume 54. Winter 2005. 108-115.
• Alba, Avril. ‘Unbearable Memory? On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Testimony and its Effects.’ Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis. Sydney Jewish Museum, Darlinghurst. Tuesday 11th June 2013. Lecture.
• Andrews, Susan. ‘Olga’s Blanket: Trauma, Memory and Witnessing in the Sydney Jewish Museum.’ Australian Feminist Studies. Volume 26. Number 69. September 2011. 281-296.
• Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. (New York: Cornell University Press. 1989).
• Brown, Timothy P. ‘Trauma, Museums and the Future of Pedagogy.’ Third Text. Volume 18. Number 4. 2004. 247-259.
• Felman, Shoshana. ‘Camus’ ‘The Plague’, or A Monument to Witnessing.’ Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. (New York: Routledge. 1992). 93-119.
• Felman, Shoshana. ‘The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.’ Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. (New York: Routledge. 1992). 204-283.
• Grinbalt, Rebecca. The Future of Memory In Australian Jewish Museums. (Clayton: Monash University Publishing. 1999).
• Helva, James. ‘Looting Bejing: 1860, 1990.’ Tokens of exchange; The Problem of Translation in Global Ciculartions. Lydia H. Liu, ed. (Durham and London: Duke University Press. 1999). 192-213.
• ‘Holocaust History.’ Sydney Jewish Museum. 148 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst, New South Wales, 2010, Australia. 13th October 2013.
• Janowitz, Naomi. ‘The Talking Cure as Action: Freud’s Theory of Ritual Revisited.’ The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Volume 71. Number 3. 2011. 217-237.
• O’Hanlon, Michael. ‘Introduction.’ Hunting the Gatherers: Ethnographic Collectors, Agents and Agency in Melanesia, 1870s-1930s. Michael O’Hanlon and Robert L. Welsch, eds. (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. 2000). 1-31.
• Bessel A. van der Kolk. ‘Trauma and memory.’ Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. Volume 52. Issue S1. September 1998. 52-64.
• Violi, Patricia. ‘Trauma Site Museums and Politics of Memory: Tuol Sleng, Villa Grimaldi and the Bologna Ustica Museum.’ Theory Culture Society. Volume 29. 2012. 36-75.
• Weiss, Lotte. Holocaust survivor and volunteer guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum. Personal communication. Sunday 13th October 2013.
• Wieviorka, Annette. ‘On Testimony.’ Holocaust Remembrance: The Shape
of Memory. trans. Kathy Aschheim. (Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1994). 23-32.

Discussion Questions:

All of the testimonies provided at the SJM have been willingly donated.
Hypothetically, if some testimonies had been produced via coercive means (an example is Claude Lanzmann's method of gaining some of the testimonies featured in 'Shoah' through pressured questioning and secretly filming interviews), how would this change our experience of the SJM's collection of oral testimony?

Sadly, the day will come where Holocaust survivors will no longer be able to provide a human presence at the SJM. How could the SJM compensate for this loss of living testimony?
The Sydney Jewish Museum, Darlinghurst
Full transcript