Unexpected Connections in the VHA: A Multilayered Approach to Interviewer-Interviewee Dynamics

In this blog, 2022-2023 USC Shoah Foundation Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies Carli Snyder discusses her exciting finds in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.

I set out on my Robert J. Katz Research Fellowship eager to learn more about the ways the Shoah Foundation’s oral history methodology incorporated questions related to gender, sexuality, and sexual violence. I was also curious about how interviewers asked or did not ask about these topics while conducting interviews. You can hear more about my findings in the lecture I presented at the end of my fellowship.

During my residency at the USC Center for Advanced Genocide Research, my days were comprised of exciting and unexpected archival rabbit holes. I want to use this blog as an opportunity to describe a couple of these rabbit holes and how they helped me to answer my initial questions and think of new ones along the way. I was able to follow these twists and turns thanks to my use of both the Visual History Archive and the Shoah Foundation’s institutional archival materials. On any given day, I found myself toggling between a testimony in the VHA, the Shoah Foundation’s Interviewer Guidelines and Topical Questions lists, the survivor’s pre-interview questionnaire document, and any information I could find about the interviewer. This exploratory approach helped me to develop strategies to engage with the VHA in ways I had never done before.

I spent many hours watching recordings of various interviewer trainings held in cities around the world. The first-ever training, which took place in Los Angeles on July 7, 1994, was an especially useful source. Not only did I learn more about the intentions and hopes of what was then called the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, but I also was able to watch individual interviewers introduce themselves and describe why they wanted to take part in the project. A number were survivors themselves, a child of survivors, or otherwise related to a survivor. Many worked as psychotherapists, social workers, journalists, teachers, and graduate students. Thankfully, they also identified themselves by name in the training recording.

From there, Martha Stroud showed me how to search the VHA by individual interviewers’ names which was a game-changing strategy. First, I could search for interviewers who were present at the first training. Then, I began to survey the interviews that a single interviewer conducted in chronological order. This allowed me to trace how an interviewer evolved overtime in their question-asking skills and style and in their engagement with survivors. For example, I was fascinated by the interviews conducted by Dana Schwartz, who was present at the first training in LA. Schwartz, a survivor, a therapist, and an active member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, had already been interviewing other survivors for about 13 years by the time the Shoah Foundation began their work. For the Shoah Foundation, Schwartz conducted 128 interviews. Her own identities and life experiences, in addition to the approaches and methodology of the Shoah Foundation, contributed to her distinct style as an interviewer and her willingness to ask so-called “difficult questions.”

By watching the trainings, I also gained a much richer understanding of many trainers: who they were, where they came from, their hopes and interests for the project, and the projects they had been involved in before the Shoah Foundation. I learned about Darlene Basch, a therapist and the child of Holocaust survivors, who was actively involved in second generation organizations. In the Toronto training, we meet Paula Draper, a historian who had initiated a project in the 1980s at the Holocaust Centre in Toronto to conduct interviews with survivors in Canada. In the early California-based trainings, Lani Silver, a feminist professor, who founded the Holocaust Oral History Project in San Francisco, contributed knowledge from her previous experience interviewing in the Bay Area. At a specialized New York training for Orthodox Jewish interviewers, historian Yaffa Eliach and archivist Bonnie Gurewitsch drew upon their experiences interviewing in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Although I knew previously of the cross-institutional collaboration in the creation of the Shoah Foundation, hearing these women’s voices and seeing their animated approaches to interviewing further illuminated these national and international connections. I was so pleased to be able to speak directly with Draper, who offered important reflections about her time as a trainer and interviewer and made suggestions for further research. After I presented my lecture at USC, a number of Shoah Foundation interviewers also contacted me to offer their memories of interviewing survivors. These conversations further confirmed to me the necessity of documenting individual interviewers’ backgrounds—although interviewers were not meant to influence interviews based on their personal backgrounds, sometimes this additional layer of knowledge can really help us to understand interviewer-interviewee dynamics. (And if any of you are out there reading this and would like to share some thoughts or memories with me, please consider reaching out!)

One specific example that comes to mind is a moment in the interview of Renee Firestone, a survivor who was also actively involved in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and one of the trainers at the first Shoah Foundation training. For one of my research projects, I was searching for the ways interviewers asked about rapes perpetrated by the Red Army during liberation. When Firestone described her liberation by Russian troops, the interviewer, a man, asked her quite abruptly, “and they didn’t try to rape you?” Firestone answered, “No, they didn’t,” and explained why she thought this did not happen to her. The interviewer then emphasized how common rape was at this time. Firestone said, “Absolutely, later on it was very dangerous for a young woman to be alone, or even a few women walking any place, being around Russians. And again I was very lucky, because I had some very close calls.”

Initially, I was a bit taken aback by the interviewer’s line of questioning at this moment. I Googled his name, Simon Frumkin, and learned that he was a survivor too. Then, I searched his name in the VHA, and found his Shoah Foundation interview (listed as Si Frumkin). And guess who his interviewer was? Renee Firestone. The two survivors interviewed each other on the same day, October 11, 1994. After some additional searching, I learned that the two had long been close friends. While this may be common knowledge for someone who is familiar with the Los Angeles Holocaust memorialization community, this was new information to me and it completely changed the way I thought about the exchange above. They had years of rapport that would never be obvious based on the interview’s description alone. Although connections between interviewers and interviewees like this one were not common, it still made me think differently and more deeply about my own analysis of interviewer-interviewee dynamics.

As I continue to utilize Holocaust oral history testimonies in my research from the VHA and from other collections, the tools I gained from my fellowship at the Center will continue to influence my analysis.