Beyond words: Reflections from 2020 Lev Student Research Fellow Rachel Zaretsky

Mon, 08/31/2020 – 8:57pm


I had the opportunity to research the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive this past summer thanks to the Beth and Arthur Lev Student Research Fellowship. I was initially introduced to the archive through a course taught by Dr. Maria Zalewska in the School of Cinematic Arts entitled “Meme, Myself and I: How We Remember in the Digital Age.” Prior to the course, I was unaware of this resource at USC despite having a visual art practice deeply engaged with Holocaust remembrance and archives.

My great grandmother Nechama “Nettie” Srebernik Rothstein immigrated to the United States from Ostrów Mazowiecka, Poland just before World War II. Unfortunately, her family that remained in Poland did not survive, and their exact fate is unknown. This uncertainty presented me with an entry point into the archive as I set out to search for those who may have been from or mentioned Ostrów Mazowiecka. When beginning my fellowship residency, I found 10 survivors through the index term search who mentioned this area in Poland. I discovered that only two of those survivors, a mother and a son who later emigrated to Australia, conducted their interviews in English, though.

My research pursuit is focused on somatic language such as nonverbal gestures and expressions in witness testimony. I’m working towards understanding and uncovering how trauma lives in our bodies and in our fragmented memories. I also wanted to challenge what my perspective as a visual artist could offer to the Visual History Archive.

Using the indexing structure to navigate the vast archive, I then searched for mentions of physical sensations such as taste, smell, thirst, pain, and hunger. While spending time with those who refer to physical sensations from a memory, I took note of moments when someone also tried to reference a memory that is inexpressible. This might be a pause, a gesture with their hands or a knowing glance and facial expression that communicates that there is an aspect of their recalling that is too difficult to express in language. To communicate in this nature, there is an insinuation that those who might bear witness to their witness, or maybe the interviewer, know what they are attempting to communicate.

I found these moments to be intense and they left a lingering impact on my body. Of the options within the index search, these particular instances of communication are imperceptible. I want to explore the question of how I can make them visible through my artwork.

I was also incredibly moved by Holocaust survivors who vocalized struggling with the burden of sharing testimony. This came up in a variety of situations with family, friends, the public and in therapy. They expressed a fear of transferring a burden they carry onto someone else. I note this sentiment with the knowledge that they did indeed negotiate their reluctance to share their experiences through the interview I accessed. Paul Benko put his reluctance in terms that I have been reflecting upon. In his 1991 interview from the JFCS San Francisco collection he spoke of the difficulty of the teller to watch the pain of the listener. He said that it is harder for the listener because the teller speaks from a position that “knows they are out of it” while the listener is reliving an experience which they feared in their minds. He found it easier to tell his story to younger people who had never conjured these images prior to his story.

As an artist processing speculations about transference and the power of creating imagery in someone else’s head, my intention with what I create is to offer a path to connection when communicating with language and the structure of testimony can sometimes be too difficult.