Summer 2016 Fellows Presentation

“USC Research With Testimonies: Featuring the Center’s Summer 2016 Research Fellows”
Nisha Kale, Erin Mizrahi, Piotr Florczyk, Beatrice Mousli (University of Southern California)

April 4, 2017

Four of USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research’s summer 2016 research fellows returned to the Institute on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, to share the outcomes of their fellowships and the impact of testimony on their work.

All the fellows are studying or teaching at USC and spent at least several weeks in residence at the Center last summer to conduct research in the Visual History Archive.

The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research bestows summer research fellowships to USC undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty across disciplines. Fellows spend one month in residence at the Center during the academic summer break to conduct innovative research using the Visual History Archive (VHA) and other unique USC resources. Four of the five Center Summer 2016 research fellows gathered to publicly present and discuss their research.

Nisha Kale (DEFY Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow, Double major in Neuroscience and Law, History, and Culture)

Nisha Kale set out to conduct a project analyzing behavioral responses to stress as reflected in VHA testimonies from the Rwandan, Armenian, and Holocaust collections. While scholars have explored reactions to stress after genocide, Kale’s wanted to focus her project on behavioral responses to stressful events during periods of genocide. Would people exhibit “fight or flight” responses or “tend and befriend” responses as described in literature about behavioral responses to other kinds of stressors? What would be the gendered patterns of those reactions? What other responses, she asked, could be discovered in her research?

After familiarizing herself with the archive and its controlled vocabulary of searchable index terms, Kale focused her research on descriptions of forced marches during the Armenian genocide, brutality and crude attacks during the Rwandan genocide, and life in the ghettos during the Holocaust. After viewing testimonies and transcribing relevant excerpts, Kale created a modified event scale and analyzed 151 data points of descriptions of stressors and stress responses.

In her analysis she found that men had a higher rate of fight or flight responses, and women had a higher rate of tend and befriend responses in the contexts she was exploring. She also discovered a new behavioral response that she heard so often in the testimonies, she coined a term to describe it – “death acceptance”. Kale described how many survivors articulated that after witnessing and experiencing atrocities, they knew they would die, and they were ready for death. They no longer feared it. This was not a passive response, Kale argued, but an active one. Kale found that in the Rwandan case, women showed significantly higher rates of death acceptance than men. In the testimonies, discussion of this death acceptance often related to descriptions of incidents of sexual violence. Kale discovered there was no other response type to sexual violence than death acceptance.

Kale also discussed some of the methodological challenges of her project, such as searching for index terms in the controlled vocabulary that were comparable despite vastly different historical and cultural contexts, accounting for those different historical and cultural contexts, and navigating the psychological impact of doing qualitative research with the testimonies.

[Due to technical difficulties, the video above of Kale’s presentation is incomplete. Our apologies.]

Erin Mizrahi (Graduate Summer Research Fellow, PhD candidate in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture)

Erin Mizrahi approached the Visual History Archive not to analyze what survivors said in their testimonies but instead to explore their silences. She wanted to consider in what ways silence itself is testimony and how silence might serve as a language of its own and a mark of survival. In her monthlong residency watching testimonies, Mizrahi found that silence permeates the archive and its testimonies. In addition to literal moments of silence by the survivors or webs of silences the survivors describe, Mizrahi argued that there is a network of silence embedded in and woven throughout the testimony archive.

She discovered six types of silences in the testimonies she watched during her residency: moments of silence (survivors’ pauses and hesitations); silence as a means of survival (where survivors describe employing silence to aid in survival); omissions in the testimony (deliberate gaps or jumps in time in the testimony); reluctance to speak (where survivors describe not sharing their stories until decades later); the impossibility of speaking (the idea that what they experienced cannot be communicated); and the silence of others.

To illustrate these types of silences during her remarks, Mizrahi drew from the testimonies of Stella Levi, Sara Paul, and Anita Lasker Wallfisch. Stella Levi expressed in her testimony that there are no words to describe the world that is Auschwitz, which would fall into the “impossibility of telling” type of silence. In her testimony, Stella Levi discusses how she did not want to speak about her experiences. She did not want to let the horror in. Anita Lasker Wallfisch said she fell into a “hole of silence” after the war where no one wanted to ask about the atrocities she and other survivors experienced during the Holocaust.

In addition to these specific excerpts, Mizrahi reflected on how often the interviewers allowed or didn’t allow silence and in which contexts. She concluded her remarks by relating her discussion of silence in the testimonies and the archive to artistic explorations and representations of silence in poetry, literature, art, performance art, and activism.

Piotr Florczyk (Graduate Summer Research Fellow Honorable Mention, graduate student in Literature and Creative Writing, USC)

Piotr Florczyk earned an honorable mention in the Center’s summer fellowships competition with his unique proposal to conduct research with testimonies from the Visual History Archive in order to inspire a suite of poems. During his two-week residency, he researched testimonies describing places and experiences in and around Krakow, where he grew up. He wrote a collection of poetry based on his research entitled From the Annals of Krakow and shared some of his poems with the assembled audience.

Please click on the video above to hear his poetry.

Beatrice Mousli (Faculty Summer Research Fellow, Professor (Teaching) in the Department of French and Italian, USC)

Professor Mousli used her summer fellowship to conduct research related to her manuscript in progress focusing on writing under threat — writers who were in France during World War II. She centered her remarks at the event on the writer Max Jacob. She watched testimonies about him from the archive. The circumstances surrounding his death have never been clear, and Mousli described some of the mystery around his death and how testimonies from the Visual History Archive provide the missing puzzle piece into the reasons for his death.

At the beginning of war, Max Jacob said he could not write anymore, and he began painting. On February 20, he visited Abbaye de Saint Benoit, a church he had visited many times. On this visit, however, he signed the visitor book, and when he signed it, he added the dates 1921-1944 by his name. On February 24th he was arrested by German soldiers and transported to Drancy, via Orleans. There were closer camps to the place of his arrest, but he was taken to Orleans and then transported to Drancy, where he arrived on February 29. There he was brought to the infirmary. Mousli argued that on February 20th when he visited the church, Jacob was not ill. Yet reports from the infirmary describe that he was ready to die. In the Visual History Archive, Mousli was astonished to discover a testimony by Renee David, who was also imprisoned at Drancy and met Jacob in the infirmary there. David confirms that Jacob was not ill. Yet Max Jacob died just five days after arriving at Drancy.

Mousli reflected on the cause of Jacob’s death. What happened? Mousli argued that Max Jacob did not die of illness. He died of something else. He had reached the end of his journey. This was already evident from Jacob signing the book at the church “1921-1944.” In Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes surviving because there was meaning to his life. Perhaps for Jacob, life had lost its meaning, Mousli said, resulting in his death in the infirmary at the internment camp of Drancy on March 5, 1944.