Our students participated in a special seminar with Dr. Bea Lewkowicz, a social anthropologist and oral historian, and director of two oral history projects, the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) Refugee Voices Audio-Visual Testimony Archive and Sephardi Voices UK. Dr. Lewkowicz is a member of the Research Centre for Austrian and German Exile Studies, University of London. She directed and produced many testimony-based films and has curated several exhibitions, such as Continental Britons and Double Exposure. The subject of her presentation was “Working with testimonies: The AJR Refugee Voices Archive as a Resource for Learning and Scholarship.”
Lewkowicz began by talking about her own journey as an anthropologist and oral historian taking testimony from members of the Jewish community in Salonika. While working on her PhD Lewkowicz was confronted by the difference between the fields of anthropology and history, and the latter’s greater focus on accuracy and the identity of the person giving the testimony. Following the completion of her PhD Lewkowicz worked for the Shoah Foundation an experience that taught her how to more accurately collect testimony.
Lewkowicz is currently the director of AJR and the second portion of her talk was devoted to the testimonies done through that project and archive. It is a collection of 150 testimonies but they are currently working on adding 30 new testimonies to the collection, some of which are conducted with child survivors. Lewkowicz discussed the importance of having themes and open-ended questions to allow the interviewee to create their own narrative. She discussed the importance of allowing silences as part of an interview and how body language and gestures are key aspects of testimony as a primary source. Sometimes the body language can contradict the spoken words; hence Lewkowicz’s caution not to rely on a transcript but to watch the actual video. Transcripts can have mistakes and don’t reflect the tone, facial expressions, and gestures of the interviewee and thus can’t be considered a primary source. Lewkowicz emphasized the need to consider memory when dealing with testimony. A key facet is not the historical content but how the individual remember what occurred. She also cautioned young researchers to contextualize all testimony, to consider who, why, and how it was collected.
In the final portion of her talk Lewkowicz discussed the educational outputs of AJR, which have included three films and an exhibition that accompanied one film to Austria, called Double Exposure. Lewkowicz also discussed in more detail the new interviews they are conducting. She discussed the values and challenges associated with interviewing those who were too young to remember, and the different types of questions the interviewer must ask in those cases. She mentioned that the new interviews open up the opportunity to ask new questions such as ones about gender and mental health.
It was inspiring for our students to hear from Dr. Lewkowicz about her masters and PhD research in Salonika and the various jobs conducting oral history that she has held. Lewkowicz conveyed the enormous potential that oral history interviews and testimony have for scholarship, and gave our students many insightful suggestions for how to work effectively with such sources.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/