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Extraordinary Life: He Gave A Voice To Holocaust Survivors

Extraordinary Life: He Gave A Voice To Holocaust Survivors
Dori Laub, a Holocaust survivor and a Woodbridge resident who co-founded the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, died June 23. He was 81. (Family Photo)

Dori Laub co-founded an extraordinary archive of testimony by Holocaust survivors and witnesses that contains the indelible, unique memories of more than 4,000 people. Housed at Yale, it is accessible at universities around the world.

Beginning in 1979 and using the new technology of video recording, Laub and his colleague began their work in the basement of churches with amateur movie cameras and tape recorders. The project came to be known as the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University.

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“At the core, it was an important way to provide a voice to the voiceless,” said Stephen Naron, director of the archive. “Up until then, the history of the Holocaust was written from the point of view of perpetrator documents. The survivors did speak about the war, but the surrounding population wasn’t ready to hear what they said.”

Laub, a Holocaust survivor and the child of a Holocaust survivor, died June 23 of cardiac problems. He lived in Woodbridge and was 81. He was a clinical professor of psychiatry and deputy director of Trauma Studies at Yale and had a private practice in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

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His work in recording Holocaust memories began in 1979, when local filmmaker Laurel Vlock asked Laub if he would work with her to record testimonies of a few Holocaust survivors. Vlock and Laub started the Holocaust Survivors Film project and began their interviews. Although there had been other efforts to record memories, they had been either written or audiotaped. The change to the new medium of videotape gave an added dimension to the stories. Silence, tears, fears and voices became part of the account — a dimension Vlock called “demeanor evidence.”

They began a partnership with the Farband, a Zionist labor group in New Haven that counted many Holocaust survivors among its members, and within two years, they had recorded nearly 200 interviews, which they donated to Yale. In 1980, “Forever Yesterday,” a documentary produced by Vlock and based on the interviews, won a regional New York Emmy award.

The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation), created by filmmaker Stephen Spielberg, started in 2014 and has more than 55,000 recorded testimonies at the University of Southern California, but the Yale archive is different, said Lawrence Langer, whose award-winning book, “Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory,” was based on the Yale video recordings.

At Yale, “they kept their own agenda out of the interviews,” Langer said, “and let them tell their own story.” The interviews are open ended, with few questions asked by the two interviewers.

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Dana Kline, who has conducted more than 200 Fortunoff interviews, called Laub a particularly effective interviewer. “He was a compassionate listener, a companion who enters this journey of memory, providing a space for what will be said,” Kline said.

As the number of recordings grew, the archive became known internationally. Researchers have used it to produce numerous books, documentaries and educational materials about the Holocaust, and the staff members have visited schools to discuss the videos. The archive served as a model for other universities and countries to document genocide and other crimes against humanity. “Rwanda was directly inspired by Dori’s work. He had an enormous international impact,” Naron said.

The 4,400 testimonies comprise 10,000 recorded hours in more than 12 languages. It is digitized, and available without charge to the public at Yale’s Sterling Library and at partner sites around the world, including the University of Hartford.

Laub trained several generations of interviewers. “His contribution was teaching people to be very empathic listeners,” said Joanne Rudof, director of the archive for 34 years. “Silence is a very big part of what happens in these testimonies.”

Laub, an only child born on June 8, 1937, was a 5-year-old in Romania when he and his parents, Moshe and Clara Laub, were ordered out of their house by German soldiers and taken to a stone quarry in Ukraine. He remembered prisoners being forced to watch a man being whipped in the public square and seeing the bloody marks on his back.

“The urge to know and to bear witness to others who suffered pain was very evident to me,” Laub recalled in testimony of his own. “It might have had something to do with my becoming a psychiatrist.”

As a young man, he was unaware of the impact of his wartime experiences in the prison camp, but while he was training to be an analyst, he described a happy scene on a riverbank with another child discussing whether they could eat grass. His analyst remarked that some survivors of death camps recalled having breakfast served to them in bed by German guards. That led to Laub’s exploration into the denial and recovery of traumatic memories that influenced his later work with the archive.

At the camp, his mother’s impulse to force her way into a hiding place with some Rumanians likely saved their lives; his father was later taken away by German soldiers and never seen again. After the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers, he and his mother made their way back to their village, returning to their old house and discovering that his grandmother had survived. In 1950, Laub, his mother and his grandparents emigrated to Israel, where he attended college and medical school before coming to the United States in 1966 for further training.

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He became affiliated with Yale, but returned to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, where he treated soldiers who had been traumatized on the battlefield. He realized that many of those who suffered were children of Holocaust survivors, and that their psychological wounds had not healed. On his return to the U.S., he wanted to obtain a grant to study the effects of the Holocaust on the lives of the children of survivors but found only minimal support. In Israel, he had been told that recalling the events of the Holocaust would be too disturbing for psychiatric patients. His efforts showed that patients wanted to discuss their experiences, and did not become more disturbed by doing so.

Laub wrote more than 30 articles and book chapters on trauma, including “Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History” with Shoshana Felman. “His writing deepened and extended previous ways of understanding trauma as well as expanded techniques for helping trauma survivors. He has been a guiding figure in the in the field of massive psychic trauma studies,” wrote Elizabeth Brett, a former colleague in trauma research, in a tribute to Laub.

Laub was a quiet, sensitive man who loved the outdoors and skied avidly until he broke his leg in his 70s. He swam daily in his heated pool from April to October and loved to hike off the beaten path. “He always pushed the limits,” recalled his daughter, Miri Goldman.

“Dori was remarkable in bringing together his profound clinical experience of survivors and survivor-patients with a subtle and philosophical inquiry into the nature of trauma,” said Cathy Caruth, a Cornell University professor who has written several books about trauma. “One always felt the presence of his own past experience, his awareness of the stakes of the experience of trauma, and the importance of the quest for truth in thinking about this enigma.”

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Laub is survived by his daughter, Miri Goldman; a son, Avi Laub; and five grandchildren. He was divorced from Dalia Gelman, the mother of his children; his second wife, Johanna Bodenstab, whom he met when she came to the U.S. from Germany to produce a radio program on the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, died in 2015.

Only a few recordings have been done in the past few years as the population of Holocaust survivors has aged. “It was not that they were silent because they didn’t want to talk. It was because people didn’t want to listen,” said Naron, the archive director. “In the future, there’s an imperative to listen.”

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