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'So, Did You See Me?':
Testimony, Memory and Re-Making Film History

Stephen Goddard


My parents experienced much of World War II in different locations – only reunited after many months. In 1997, my mother engaged in a process of remembering, narrating and reconsidering her histories when her video testimony was recorded by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. (1) According to the Shoah Foundation interviewing guidelines, all of the testimonies were to be recorded individually. Presumably, this was to protect the narrator from the possibility of interruption and contradiction. My father’s video testimony was recorded on 7 November 1996; my mother’s testimony was recorded on 8 May 1997. (Separated, once again.) Before my mother’s testimony was to be recorded, my father and I were asked to leave the family home. (Another exodus.)



1. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, (December 2008).

In Chris Marker’s Sunless (1983) the narrator states: ‘We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten’. By reconsidering my mother’s testimony – and the relationships between her experiences, the testimony based on these experiences, and the impact of memory on the performance of remembering – I wish to reconsider what was said, what was not said, what was unspeakable, and what was unknowable. I am also interested in the uncertainties, the gaps, and the different ways in which she attempted to re-make her own histories, whilst in the midst of storytelling.



Instead of the usual use of historical footage and dramatised re-enactment, Claude Lanzmann’s nine and a half hour film Shoah (1985) is primarily based on a range of testimonies. (Shoah is a Hebrew word for calamity or catastrophe, and it is often used in reference to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.)


In 1992, the Jewish survivor community was in the process of discussing the impact of Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark. (The book was published in the United States as Schindler’s List.) Doubts were raised when it won the Booker Prize for best fiction. Was it fiction, a historical novel, or something else? What was not doubted was the role and impact of Leopold Pfefferberg’s testimonies. When Keneally walked into Pfefferberg’s Beverly Hills shop, seeking to purchase a briefcase, he did not bargain for the (not so brief) case history, and the copy of Oskar Schindler’s list waiting in the filing cabinets. In local discussions about the book, Keneally’s Australian connection was often cited. Part of the book’s poignancy also rested on the fact that some of those named on ‘the list’ were still living in Melbourne. When Keneally’s book was adapted into the film Schindler’s List (1993), a new round of discussions began.


After completing Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994. The initial aim of the Foundation was to record testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. In a video from the University of Southern California website, Spielberg explains that, during the production of Schindler’s List, he kept encountering survivors who wanted to tell him their stories. Subsequently, he decided to establish the non-profit Foundation, in order to facilitate the recording of these and other testimonies. From 1994-1999, 52,000 Shoah Foundation testimonies were recorded in 56 countries and in 32 languages. Of these, 2484 testimonies were recorded in Australia, 2840 in Canada, and 19,841 in the United States.


Since October 2005, these videotaped testimonies are part of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Although housed within the University of Southern California, these tapes are still conventionally referred to as the Shoah Foundation testimonies.


A Mother’s Story

When both of my parents were invited to provide their individual testimonies by the Shoah Visual History Foundation, my father agreed immediately. He felt that it was his duty. My father, his two brothers and his mother were selected to work at Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory and were named on ‘the list’. (The concept of ‘the list’ may be misleading, as there were multiple versions.) Although originally listed, my mother’s name, along with others, was mysteriously removed. For both my father and my mother, her removal was another tumultuous separation.


My mother was initially reticent about agreeing to provide her testimony for the Shoah Foundation, and only finally agreed after a certain amount of peer pressure. In her testimony, my mother referred to two forms of impending loss: the fear of being separated from her husband, and the fear of being separated from life itself (on the way to Auschwitz). These were the days when a sense of foreboding haunted a community of souls. These were the days when seemingly arbitrary decisions could mean the difference between existence and disappearance.


There was no reference to Oskar Schindler in my mother’s testimony. Instead, her stories were about Amon Göth, the commander of the Plaszów forced labour camp built on Abrahams Street – on top of the local Jewish cemetery. Her stories were of movement and displacement: of cattle trains; of transportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau; and of walking, endlessly, from here to there.


  We knew that the war was ending, but whether we would survive or whether they would finish ... [or] take us with them, we didn’t know. [Big breath.] So, some time, in the middle of January, we were walking, all night to Auschwitz ... and we saw that famous ... entrance: Arbeit macht ... something ... what is it? ... and a group of women were coming out. It was early in the morning, and the women were going out to work: it was still dark, January, it’s winter. So they started to call: ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ We said: ‘We’re coming from Plaszów’. They said: ‘Don’t worry, they don’t burn anymore. The crematorium is not working anymore. Don’t worry’. So, we went in, and went to that bath. We still didn’t know whether it was true or not. We had the bath, and they didn’t kill us. We stayed a very short time: not in Auschwitz, but in a place called Brezinka, and then we were rounded up again, and we were going ... We went from morning to late, late evening, and there were cattle trains waiting for us. We were loaded very, very tightly. In that wagon, where I was with my mother and the rest of my family ... [springs to life and leans forward] because I found my mother there. I forgot to tell you. As we were walking (masses of walking, towards something, we didn’t know what) I saw a girl who worked with my mother, in the sewing place, in the tailor’s place. She said: ‘Did you see your mother?’ I didn’t know she was alive. So people were walking one way and I turned the other way to find my mother, and I really did find my mother [beaming]. You can imagine the joy. I said: ‘Where is Lucy?’ She said: ‘Lucy [the eldest sister] was taken somewhere, before’ ... So they packed us into those terrible, terrible, squashed places. There was hardly room for two legs, really, for two feet to stand on. In the same wagon (I don’t know where they came from) were women, peasant women. Tucked into their shawls, and under their shawls they had little stools. And when they came to the wagon, they put their stool down and sat on it. And when you sit, you take twice as much place as when you stand up. So women started to call: ‘Stand up! Stand up! We haven’t got room for two feet.’ First, they (the peasant women) didn’t say anything. Then suddenly they got up, they took their stools in their hands, and they started to hit the women, [gesturing with a clenched right fist] left, right and centre, and screams and beatings, and blood, and [closes eyes] I couldn’t swear, but I think one body was thrown over [nodding and sighing] ... At that time it was already very dark, at night, and we were going, we didn’t know where to ... [shaking her head]. I was so, y’know, so disappointed with all that: they were also ... well they must have been there for some black market, they were not there for political [reasons] ... Maybe they didn’t give enough, you know, their quota, three quarters of their grain or meat. Maybe that was the reason they were in Auschwitz: they weren’t political [prisoners], for sure ... Anyway, then it started to snow. We were licking each other’s back[s], to have a bit of liquid in our ...  Somebody licked mine, and I said [gesturing to her back] ... And then came the first ray of sunshine, and those women came down on their knees, and they stated to sing the most beautiful, pathetic (it was pathetic), the most beautiful song, which was also a poem which they adopted as a prayer. Which meant, when the first sun comes up, we give you thanks for our life, for our existence, for what you give us: it was prayer to god ...  and I cried [on the verge of crying again], because I remembered, that just two hours ago, how cruel they were, and this is what religion is; this is what, what the order of ... world ... exists [two hands raised, palms to the camera, in exasperation]. I didn’t want to know any more about religion ... (2)  























2. Felice Goddard, Interview by Yvonne Hershan, Shoah Visual History Foundation, Melbourne, Australia (8 May 1997).

In this four-minute excerpt (from the longer 170-minute testimony), a number of issues were raised relating to remembering, forgetting and speculation. My mother almost forgot to tell the story of how she found her own mother. In the middle of a sentence, something reminds her of what she had often referred to as one of the most poignant moments of her life. (What triggered her remembering? Was it a word, an image, a sense of something missing?) During her testimony, this remembrance is almost forgotten, amidst all of the other minute-by-minute traumas. She seems almost relieved to have remembered this important story. The way the story arises, seemingly from nowhere, as another story on the road to nowhere, also inflects this story with a haunted tone. Just after narrating this excerpt, my mother tells the story of how she saw her mother for the final time. Within the context of daily trauma, it seemed like the most ordinary thing to either find or lose your mother.


Notably, in the midst of her testimony, my mother could not remember the missing final word from the infamous Arbeit macht frei sign over the gates at Auschwitz. She temporarily lost the word that she continuously sought to find: frei (free). At the end of her testimony, my mother acknowledges that her life was a continuous search for freedom.


It was interesting to hear the way in which she used the word ‘religion’, as the source and pretext for centuries of hostilities directed by Polish peasants towards Polish Jews. In those darkened days, as part of their survival strategy, it was understandable (and often necessary) for many to abandon the outward trappings of their faith. At the same time, they quietly refused to abandon their sense of hope. Both at the time and during the retelling of her narrative, my mother was able to recall and appreciate the ‘pathetic beauty’ of those plaintive thanksgiving voices, as they prayed in unison. It was a sign of her own desire to see the sun shining, and her ability to rewrite herself into a new dawn.


Whilst I had watched many World War II documentaries and dramatic re-enactments with my parents, I did not go with them to the cinema to watch Schindler’s List. I went to many films with my parents, but this was not one of them. When I told my mother that I had seen the film, she asked: ‘So, did you see me? Did you see me in the cattle train?’



As a film, Schindler’s List became the foremost version of the Holocaust during an important period in history. It was certainly in the foreground of public consciousness during the recording of her testimony. As the film became more popular and more discussed, it appeared to occupy the places where fading memories once resided: almost acting as an all-too-convenient surrogate for some of the individual, distinctive memories of actual survivors. More than anything, Schindler’s List reminded my mother that she was inexplicably removed from Oskar Schindler’s list. By asking whether I had seen her in the film, she was not only casting herself as an extra in the Hollywood version, she was also re-imaging and rewriting herself back on to ‘the list’. By inventing a character for herself in the film (and in history), she was searching for a way of being seen and recognised as part of history. She not only rewrote herself back into her history, and virtually recast herself into Schindler’s List, she also reasserted and reiterated her role as a survivor – as one amongst the living.


My mother’s rhetorical question to me (about whether I had seen her on the cattle train in Schindler’s List) was not mentioned during her Shoah testimony. It is a small but poignant fragment of a story that exists beyond recorded testimony. It stands, next to all the other stories, representing the stories that were inadvertently, conveniently or necessarily forgotten: the stories erased by time – forever waiting in the wings.


The stories behind my mother’s haunting question are part of her unrecorded and unrecordable private testimonies. The most important stories that my mother told remain in the private domain of the family. This raises questions to do with the differences between family narratives produced in private and in public domains, and the relationship between these domains. Whilst some of the stories have been made public, others remain private. When she told her wartime stories in a private family setting, they were anecdotes and part of our family history. When recorded by the Shoah Foundation, they became transformed into public testimonies.


My mother often declared her allegiance to Australia. She admired the best of Australia’s traditions and customs, and was keen to be considered Australian. In her testimony, she spoke of leaving Europe and arriving in Australia:



I forgot so much [about the old world]; I didn’t need to remember. I wanted to start being normal.
I loved Australia; I loved my freedom. [At last] I wasn’t afraid of anyone ...


At the time of the recording of her testimony, my mother also wanted (and perhaps needed) to forget certain aspects of her days in old Europe, in order, once again, to keep walking – towards the future. With her advancing years, she was also becoming uncertain of details long forgotten. She was starting to forget what was, and starting to invent what might have been. Nevertheless, by papering over some of the gaps and reimagining aspects of her Shoah Foundation testimony, she was also reinventing and reshaping herself (as we all do) into a continuing and plausible character.


Although she was not always keen to recount stories of the Holocaust, my mother agreed to add her stories to the myriad testimonies recorded and collected by the Shoah Foundation: one more piece of the mosaic for the light to shine though. She committed her stories to this audiovisual history in the hope of leaving a lasting legacy; she also hoped that it might set her free. She always wanted to be set free ...


Testimony (as Memoir)

My mother’s testimony is closer to memoir than fully-fashioned autobiography. Judith Barrington provides a clear and useful distinction: ‘An autobiography is the story of a life ... Memoir, on the other hand, makes no pretense of replicating a whole life’. (3) My mother’s testimony does not present either the story or even a complete life-story. Rather than autobiography, her testimony is presented as a series of episodic scenes. And whilst her testimony is the result of both a conscious sense of selection and a performative sense of improvisation, there is never a sense that these selections are guided by the need to develop and maintain a singular thematic coherence.



3. Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir (St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 2000), p. 23.

Testimonies, as a form of oral memoir, are also based on how one perceives one’s own life. A testimony provides an accounting and a sense of witnessing, from one’s own vantage points. In this respect, it shares many of the characteristics of memoirs based on personal experience or personal knowledge. Paul Valéry poetically reminds us that experience is mediated by an autobiographical witness: ‘In my opinion it is more useful to speak of what one has experienced than to pretend to a knowledge that is entirely impersonal, an observation without an observer. In fact, there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography’. (4) For Valéry, it may not be a matter of trying to define what is or might be autobiographical; it may be a matter of considering whether we can exist outside the realm of the subjective and autobiographical.


My mother’s testimony is effectively an autobiographical video memoir – performed and improvised in one sitting. Across the years, I had heard fragments of her wartime stories. The presence of a camera, microphone and interviewer was an attempt to summon all of these stories (and emotions) in one session for a new audience. Instead of costume changes, the only interruptions to the storytelling were for changing videotapes. Although the interviewer compiled and selected questions based on a pre-testimony interview, the recorded testimony was unrehearsed. Inevitably, there was a theatrical sense of performativity, where the stories and the storytelling were continuously inflected with delicate improvisation. There were no second takes and no sense of providing a performance that could later be edited. What we see and hear in these testimonies is a mix of interviewer questions and testimonial responses. We also see and hear a human listening to her own improvising voice:  attempting with uncertainty to document and simultaneously understand her experiences, as well as her memories of those experiences.


4. Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry, trans. Denise Folliot (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 58.




Some families are able to gather around a family photo album, to hear the stories that surround the images of parents and relatives in earlier times. My parents did not have any photographs from their days before war. My mother’s prisoner number clothing tag is the earliest remaining image representing her identity. As an antidote to the lost images of her formative days, and as a way of representing the events that were never recorded, the stories and anecdotes from her Shoah testimonial have now become the soundtrack to a lost ‘home movie’.


Remembering (as Rewriting)

Testimonies, based on first-hand experiences, are often valued as primary source material. In a courtroom, an eyewitness testimony is also valued for its impact on jurors. And yet,
eyewitnesses and their testimony can be forgetful, interpretive and uncertain. In much the same way, a memoir based on testimony can proceed on the basis of conjecture, invention and partial knowledge. My mother’s testimony was an unscripted narration, which seemed, at times, to rely on speculation. From watching and listening to her testimony, I know that there is also a great deal of selective remembering. Some things are all-too-well-remembered; other things are either not-so-well-remembered, or appear not to be well-remembered, because they are not-so-well-performed. The gaps in her fading memory, and the lack of images from the period, motivated her attempts to (re)construct and narrate stories that were always in the process of being rewritten.


With reference to his own autobiographical project, Roland Barthes acknowledges the ways in which writing is also an act of rewriting: ‘I had no other solution than to rewrite myself – at a distance, a great distance – here and now: to add to the books, to the themes, to the memories, to the texts, another utterance, without my ever knowing whether it is about my past or present that I am speaking’. (5) My mother’s testimony was not a continuously retrospective narrative. Whilst reflecting upon and narrativising her life experiences, the focus was as much on the present as it was on past events. Although the representational image of my mother was firmly and relentlessly set in the present, her vocal narration moved between the introspective and retrospective: travelling freely between the distanced past and the living room of the present.



5. Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 104.

Testimony and telling a (life) story is as much a form of writing as a form of rewriting: rewriting the story, re-writing yourself, and rewriting history. Testimony, as narrated memoir, is inflected as much by authentic memory and eyewitness memories as it is informed by creative, performed, improvised, invented and rewritten narration. And there is something inherently rewriteable about oral histories and video testimonies, because there is always the possibility of adding to the rememberings, revelations and interpretations. Each subsequent generation can also add its own layers of annotation.


At the end of the Shoah Foundation recordings, family members are asked whether they wish to add a comment to the videotape. At the time, I remember thinking that whatever comments I might make would seem banal and trifling in relation to what had just transpired. Without having seen or heard the previous two hours of testimony, it seemed like a daunting task. Nevertheless, I added a short message: more as a way of speaking to my Mother than anything else. In many respects, I am now trying, in a slightly more considered way, to add my annotations to her testimony, and to speak to her again. It is also part of a continuing effort to speak to, and reconsider, the important legacies of her generation.


Storytelling often occurs in the presence of others – others who are also authoring and telling their stories. I am attempting to re-enter the room from which I was excluded when my mother provided her testimony. In attempting to communicate with her again, I’m also trying to remember her, and remember what she remembered. By remembering with her, I’m co-memorating.


For me, at the time, Schindler’s List seemed somewhat pale and all too distant compared to my mother’s graceful video testimony. Her story is a telling story, because it is a story she is telling – to me, for me, and for future generations. One of the legacies I have inherited from her testimony is the belief in the possibility of rewriting, reinterpreting, and starting again. My mother used video and the performative process of testimony to rewrite and re-envisage herself. When she told her stories, she regenerated herself and set herself free.


My mother agreed to provide her testimony for the Shoah Foundation six months after my Father had done so. It was not an automatic decision for her. I believe that she agreed to tell her side of her story because she felt that her stories had been appropriated and rewritten (by others), and that in order to survive (once again), she needed to narrate, rewrite and remake her own history (again). By looking at and listening to the video recordings of family testimonies, we can see and hear how the participants (collectively, members of our family), whilst bearing witness, are also in the process of rewriting their past(s) and reinventing themselves.


Whenever we remember one thing, we forget another ...

We are, therefore, constantly in the process of remembering ... and forgetting ...

To fill the gaps in our memories, to create stories of coherence, and to give an account of our selves,

we rewrite and remake our stories into our histories and into our futures ...


This article is based on a presentation at the XIVth Conference of the Film and History Association of Australia & New Zealand (University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, December, 2008); the theme of the Conference was ‘Remapping Cinema, Remaking History’.


from Issue 1: Histories


© Stephen Goddard and LOLA 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.