Wednesday, September 27, 2006


As the years pass and survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust disappear, do we keep the memory of the Third Reich’s atrocities alive, despite the pain it causes?

Absolutely, according to Geoffrey Hartman, co-founder and project director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.

The stories of the Jews freed from Nazi concentration and work camps and even the perpetrators of the Final Solution themselves help overcome genocide denial, he told students, professors, and staff members who packed the Ho Lecture Room in Lawrence Hall Tuesday night to hear him talk.

But they also give the survivors the image and voice deprived them by their torturers – and the victims deserve nothing less. 

“Let us respect the voice of lament,” he charged the crowd. “Let us continue to create an audience for those who have the courage to testify and who must also represent the many who could not.”

Hartman, Sterling professor of English and comparative literature emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University, also discussed what role he thinks the oral accounts of Holocaust survivors should play in a wide-ranging talk titled “Holocaust Testimony in a Genocidal Era.”

During the lecture, he touched on a number of topics, including memory authenticity, morality and the media, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and other modern genocides.

“Given the content of the testimonies (of Holocaust survivors and witnesses), our willingness to listen is a moral engagement,” he said.

It is a difficult task, since “there is very little in the testimonies that comfort – mainly the courage of the survivors in telling (their stories) and, to an extent, reliving what they have undergone,” he noted.

That’s because one of the most difficult things a human can do is listen to the voices of those who suffer, he explained. And the suffering persists, because the terrifying memories never subside.

But such firsthand stories help future generations remember without losing hope.

“What we grieve for is never the dead, as such, but their unconsummated lives, the ghosts of so many vital communities, and the loss of wisdom that might have strengthened rather than undermined our species’ image,” he concluded.

“I personally hope that in universities like Colgate there will be found – at a time when the survivors are rapidly disappearing – an expanding community of secondary witnesses cultivating acts of attention in all the arts and humanities.”

One such secondary witness at the lecture, Rachel Wang ’10, found her own interest in such stories was piqued in part because of a connection to one of her classes, Women in China. 

“We’ve been reading a lot of testimonies and accounts of women in the country, along with a history book of China,” she explained.

“We’ve been kind of comparing the two and talking about it – do we believe the history book, or do we look more at the testimonies and believe what these women are saying, are they exaggerating, that sort of thing. I think (Hartman’s) lecture went along perfectly with that.”

Wang, who volunteered that her family is Jewish and that her great-grandparents “went through the Holocaust,” discovered a personal connection to the lecture as well.

“This definitely makes me want to know more about it,” she said. “I feel like I haven’t heard enough.”

And that’s exactly what Hartman would’ve wanted.

In addition to his work at the Fortunoff archives and Yale, Hartman has held distinguished visiting appointments at many universities in the United States and abroad.

He is a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and a Chevalier, Ordre des Arts and Letters of the French Ministry of Culture. 

Among his other awards are the Christian Gauss Prize for Wordsworth’s Poetry, the René Wellek Prize for The Fateful Question of Culture, and the 2006 Truman Capote Prize for The Geoffrey Hartman Reader.