Several artists showed videos and performed Tuesday at the Witness and Responsibility conference to explore artists’ responses to Holocaust testimonies and to create new, informative art.
The event, sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, was part of the Association for Jewish Theatre’s four-day international conference, Reflecting and Shaping a Shifting World.
Shony Braun, a Holocaust survivor, played a violin emphatically in a short video clip.
He had previously played the song years before, when a Dachau officer threatened to kill him with a metal rod inches from his head if he did not play a song. He had never played this particular song, but he had pried a violin from the hands of a fallen prisoner and proceeded to play famous classical piece “The Blue Danube.”
Braun’s powerful testimony is one of nearly 52,000 acquired and archived by the Shoah Foundation, according to Stephen Smith, director of USC Shoah.
“These survivors have a very real, conscious sense of what their story could mean,” Smith said. “The question that lingers is that of history versus story: How do we become tellers?”
Stacie Chaiken, an adjunct faculty member at the USC School of Theatre, said she spent months poring over USC Shoah’s 105,000 hours of written and video-taped testimonies from Holocaust survivors before writing her performance piece titled “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
“We have the opportunity as artists to help shape perception,” Chaiken said. “We want to process this information and bring forth something that can shed light, can transform perception. Art’s role is to transform history into something that can change someone’s connection to that material.”
Comedian Betsy Salkind said humor can play a pivotal role in conveying difficult themes. Though she is aware there is always the potential for upsetting portions of her crowd when she presents delicate material in a lighthearted manner, Salkind said that is one of the purposes of comedy.
“I like the comedic approach,” Salkind said. “It allows [artists] to talk about things that must otherwise be really upsetting,” Salkind said. “A comedian’s role is to take problems and show [audiences] these faults.”
There is often the misconception that Holocaust survivors have been silent about their experiences during World War II, Smith said.
“People commonly believe that these survivors remained silent for 50 years,” Smith said. “But if you look at the mass of unpublished work of people who were told that the world ‘wasn’t interested in World War II,’ you realize these survivors weren’t silent. They were silenced.”
Chaiken said the Shoah Foundation’s visual history archives and the Doheny Memorial Library’s and Von KleinSmid Center’s Library’s collections of written and visual Holocaust and genocide testimonies are important resources for students and artists.
“[These genocides] are not something from the past because they continue to happen again and again. There are places still in danger,” said Chaiken.
Kyungseo Min, a freshman majoring in theatre, said artists play an important role in portraying positive events in Jewish history.
“Jewish history is marked by such negative things, and I really want to learn more about the brighter side through the theater aspect,” said Min.