Conducting Interviews with Holocaust Survivors (Stiftung Denkmal)
„Speak out against the horrors“
By Mario Müller-Dofel*
Let us begin with an appeal to all our readers: „Alles über Interviews“ kindly asks you to disseminate the following interview as it marks an important contribution to respectful dialogue and sends a message against oblivion.
The framework of the interview project:
Between 2007 and 2014 the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe („Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas“) conducted interviews with 72 survivors of the National Socialist persecution who were born between 1913 and 1942. Representing all Jews murdered by the Nazis they gave testimony to the holocaust memorial in Berlin that was established almost ten years ago. The briefest interview (with Rudolf Amariglio) lasted 61 minutes while the longest with Regina Steinitz lasted 7 hours and 48 minutes. In total, 220 hours, 43 minutes and 57 seconds of interview material were recorded. For the publication on the interview project “Sprechen trotz allem”, please click here .
The main objective of the foundation’s eight interviewers, who were 30 to 60 years younger than their interview partners, was to explore their eradicated past through empathic listening. Interview partner Lennart Bohne (32), a political scientist, has been heading the monument’s video archive since July 2014 and participated in 17 interviews. The experiences of Lennart Bohne and his colleagues have been documented in the foundation’s ideo archive.
In an interview with Mario-Müller Dofel Lennart Bohne recalls how they designed the interview process, how they handled emotional outbursts and which elements of their approach the survivors appreciated the most.
„For some time I really thought…to give testimony might be the only reason why I am still alive.“
Mario Müller-Dofel: Mister Bohne, how many holocaust survivors did you contact prior to the interviews with the 72 persons?
Lennart Bohne: We contacted around 100 survivors.
How did you do that?
We followed a consistent pattern. Most importantly, we did not put pressure on our potential interview partners. The initial contact was always based upon a written letter.
Why did you sent letters?
Most of the potential persons to be interviewed were more than 80 years old. As a result few had access or were able to communicate via email. An initial written request also has the advantage that the addressees can read the letter first, put it aside, think the whole issue over, re-read the letter once again prior to taking a decision of whether or not to participate in the project. A request via telephone could have unnecessarily pushed the survivors into giving a quick, un-thought through response.
What were the contents of these letters?
The letter included information on the work of the foundation and explained why we wanted to talk to the holocaust survivors also using the video camera as part of the foundation’s project “Sprechen trotz allem”. Furthermore, we also included a list of the foundation’s publications, the video archive and the holocaust memorial in Berlin for their information.
„It was clear to us interviewers that the overall tone of the interviews would already be set through the initial contact.”
Did you follow-up when a potential interview partner declined your request or did not respond to your letter?
No, we did not, as this indeed would have pressurized the survivors. Furthermore, we assumed that the addressees of our letters had good reasons not to participate in our project. We must not forget that many of these people have been silent about their traumatic experiences since decades.
Many journalists might say: It’s about time for an interview after so many years of silence.
To us it’s a question of respect to accept the on-going silence without enquiring about the reasons for this silence. Only those persons who showed an interest in being interviewed we provided successively with further information.
What kind of information were they provided with?
In additional letters we introduced the interview teams that always comprised of two interviewers and one camera operator. We described our technical backgrounds and outlined that we were interested to hear our interview partners’ complete and specific life stories in order to avoid reducing them to mere victims of the Nazi regime.
What did you explicitly expect from the survivors?
We did not expect to get a scientific overall summary of the holocaust history. We were rather interested to find out how our interviewees were able to survive personal persecution and how they themselves perceived those years. However, we were also interested to hear about all aspects before and after the holocaust that were important for their specific biographical contexts.
You mentioned that your interview requests were not to put pressure on the survivors. Did you take any other assumptions into account?
Of course, we needed to create the necessary foundation of trust already during the initial contacts with the potential interviewees. As an interviewer I can build up confidence whenever I present, from the very beginning of the interview process onwards, the planned approach and my intention to the interview partner as transparently as possible. This implies a high degree of attention and respect as well as open communication. It was clear to us interviewers that the overall tone of the interviews would already be set through the initial contact.
What were the motives of the survivors that granted you an interview?
Above all, the survivors wanted to give testimony so that the events would not be forgotten. They wanted the younger generations to know about their history and to show them clearly that a holocaust must never happen again. Through their interviews they wanted to commemorate the millions of victims of World War II. Some also mentioned a sense of duty towards their slain families. Furthermore, although it may sound absurd, many of the survivors felt guilty simply because they had survived the holocaust.
They felt guilty towards whom?
Many of our interviewees are the sole holocaust survivors of their families. For 70 years they have been asking themselves the same painstaking question: “Why me?”
Did the survivors raise this question towards you during the interviews?
I will read out a few sentences of Ruth Michel, who was born in 1928, that have been smoothened. During the interview she said: „I have got the feeling that this is my duty. … I have got the feeling that my life was not given to me for free, I have to do something to deserve it. I am obliged to speak out for those who cannot be heard anymore. … .For some time I really thought – that is what came to my mind last night – that to give testimony might be the only reason why I am still alive.”
„We as interviewers are not psychotherapists. Consequently, during the whole interview process we tried to avoid situations that we might have not been able to handle professionally.“
How did you prepare yourself for the interviews?
Based on the information from the initial correspondence we made ourselves familiar with the life stories of our interview partners. Two or three weeks prior to the interviews, which took place approximately two months after the initial contact, we telephoned with each other in order to fill any information gaps regarding personal data, location names, the fate of specific family members and any other data. Apart from inquiring the necessary information these telephone conversations also fulfilled a social function: We were given the opportunity to introduce ourselves personally, to verbally express appreciation and professionalism and to hear each other’s voices. We as interviewers could then adapt our communication according to our specific interview partner.
What do you mean with “adapt our communication”?
Due to their age many of our interview partners cannot hear so well. Furthermore, some of them have lived for many years in the US or in Israel and, thus, do not speak German well anymore. An interviewer has to adapt his communication accordingly.
„Today, I suffered from a headache during our conversation. …Dizziness, high pressure in my eyes as if my eyes were so far outside.”
Did you notice feelings of anxiety amongst the survivors during the interview preparations?
Oh yes, we did. Many survivors, for example, were unsure whether they would be able at all to express their experiences and feelings. Some were scared to re-live all their traumatic experiences. 1934 born Harry Likwornik, for example, said during his interview: „My dreams haunt me. … Prior to the interview, I did not know what to expect. …Today, I suffered from a headache during our conversation. … Dizziness, high pressure in my eyes as if my eyes were so far outside. I have a stinging sensation like a lot of ants on my face in my mouth and possibly in my whole body.”
Where you able to ease these anxieties during the interview preparations?
We tried to do so by reassuring our interview partners from the beginning that it was them who decided how far they wanted to go and what they wanted to tell us. They could have halted the interview at any time.
This approach did not allow intensive questioning, did it?
We strictly ruled out pressurizing the survivors. That would have been unethical and the interview partners would have emotionally blocked off. Furthermore, we interviewers are linguists, historians and political scientists but not psychotherapists or psychoanalysts. Consequently, during the whole interview process we tried to avoid situations that we might had not been able to handle professionally. This is a question of responsibility awareness.
The interview preparation of a journalistic interview process is followed by the so-called warm-up phase in which the interviewee is being tuned into the upcoming interview. Did you make use of such a warm-up phase?
Yes, we did, although our warm-up phase was probably more elaborate in contrast to everyday journalism. One or two days prior to the interviews taking place in Berlin we met up with the respective interview partner, introduced ourselves in person, organised a visit to our information centre, to the exhibition under the field of stelae as well as to the premises of the video archive and discussed legal issues. This helped to visualize the institutional framework as well as how the interviews would be presented in future. Furthermore, it also contributed to the creation of a trustful environment.
Where were the interviews being held?
The interviews of the holocaust survivors who had come all the way to Berlin were conducted in a room of the video archive. Several times we travelled abroad, mostly to Israel. When an interview was held outside of Berlin we took our interviewees on a virtual tour of our memorial.
Did you conduct the interviews abroad at the interview partners‘ homes?
Most of the time we did so. However a few refused to do this so that we had to find other locations. Once, for example, we were allowed to use a room at the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.
Let us talk about the interview approach within the interview itself: Had you received specific training?
To a certain extent we followed the guidelines that Eva Lezzi and Cathy Gelbin had formulated as a foundation for the Archive of Memory at the Potsdam University.
„The interviewer’s role is less to retrieve information regarding specific subjects but rather to listen with empathy and, thus, enable the testimonial to unfold.“
What do these guidelines specifically indicate?
Lezzi and Gelbin combine two methodological approaches: The therapeutic interventions (“therapeutic rescue”) of the psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor Dori Laub and the narrative biographical interview approach of the sociologist Gabriele Rosenthal. Quote Lezzi and Gelbin:
„Based on the therapeutic interventions the interviewers ask their questions intuitively, embedded into the survivors’ testimonials, in order to directly or indirectly deepen subjects that were mentioned and/or to guide specifically emotional phases of the interview. The interviewers’ role is less to retrieve information regarding specific subjects but rather to listen with empathy and, thus, enable the testimonial to unfold.” Based on this approach we included the expectations and needs of the interviewees into the conversation process.
Did you take any notes during the interviews?
No, I did not.
Our main priority was not to disturb the survivor’s flow of words. We were sitting in front of each other, face to face.
You specifically emphasized that you were facing each other.
Yes, because the eye contact was vital. It signalled the interviewees that we were listening carefully to their testimonials. We underlined this through deliberate nodding or other silent mimics or gestures.
„Interviewing the survivors in a team of two worked well because there were no differences in hierarchy or personal animosities.“
How did you manage to ask your questions while paying so much attention to silent interaction?
We asked a question whenever we had the feeling that the moment was right to hook into the survivor’s testimony.
Didn’t it sometimes take quite a while until such a suitable occasion occurred?
Yes, it did. Sometimes we had to memorize our questions for quite a long while. This procedure required the presence of two interviewers. Some interviews were held to a large extent as a monologue while many other interviews required a lot of questions.
If two journalists as a team interview somebody, quite often they get in each other’s way, for example, due to hierarchical differences or a lack of discipline. How did this work in your case?
Interviewing the survivors in a team of two worked well because there were no differences in hierarchy or personal animosities. Each team explicitly discussed these issues prior to the interview.
Why did you not conduct the interviews with a team of three interviewers?
We did not opt for a team of three interviewers because it would have become too difficult for the interviewee to focus his/her attention.
Did you experience any emotionally extreme situations during the conversations?
Oh yes, we certainly did. For example, some interviewees got very angry, in particular towards the end of the interviews.
Why did they get angry?
They got angry mostly about the political developments in the Middle East but also about the on-going anti-Semitism and right-wing radicalism in Germany.
Did some of the interviewees cry?
Yes, they also cried.
„Often and in particular when the interview partner started to cry we would switch off the camera and take a break.“
How did you handle these situations?
It may sound harsh but we as interviewers were not there to pity our interview partners or to commiserate their suffering. We were witnesses of the witnesses. In emotionally extreme situations, however, it pays off when, resulting from a careful interview preparation, the interview participants know each other relatively well. Often and in particular when an interview partner started to cry we would switch off the camera and take a break.
Did you ask crying interviewees whether they wanted to take a break or did you decide that on your own?
The decision for or against a break was mostly taken intuitively by the interviewers. However, there were situations when the survivor was struggling to hold back his/her tears and in which case we continued filming as we had the feeling that the interviewee was going to recover without a break.
How did you experience these moments of silence?
For us as interviewers these moments of silence were emotionally and even physically extremely challenging.
It seems that there was a certain likeliness that you as the interviewer would also be overcome by tears.
Tears came to my eyes once, however, I managed to hide this from my interview partner.
Did any of the holocaust survivors want to terminate the interview?
No, none of them did.
„A day after an interview we would conduct a team meeting during which we would analyse our emotions; that helped a great deal.“
Did the interviews have any after-effects on you and the other interviewers?
I can only answer this question for myself: All the things I had heard during the interviews only sank in at a later stage as I had been focusing on my work during the interview itself. We had professionally planned how to deal with these feelings: Following each interview we documented how the interview went technically and emotionally. This already enabled us to express our feelings. Furthermore, a day after an interview we would conduct a team meeting during which we would analyse our emotions; that helped a great deal.
The shortest interview took one hour and the lengthiest one lasted for almost eight hours. Why did these discrepancies occur?
I assume that these discrepancies depended on the interviewees‘ different motives. The lady who gave us the lengthiest interview had survived the holocaust hiding in Berlin. She used the opportunity to acknowledge many persons who had played an outstanding role in her life and she remembered their fates in elaborate detail.
What about the shorter interviews with Holocaust survivors?
During the shorter interviews the survivors stuck more to their own stories of life and rather chronologically recounted their lives.
Do the different interview durations imply any quality difference of the interviews?
Not at all. It only outlines different story-telling approaches and focal points.
Did you receive any feedbacks from the interviewees following the video interview?
Very often we received feedbacks. Above all, the survivors acknowledged our stepwise, transparent and respectful interview preparations as well as our professional organisation processes. Furthermore, they highly appreciated that we had enriched the interviews with transcripts, CVs, summaries and lists of content prior to the presentation at our exhibition.
Why did they specifically appreciate the latter?
This approach enabled the visitors to connect with the individual life stories in many different ways. The inclusion of the interviews into the foundation’s various pedagogic services was also widely acknowledged.
How would you describe your personal lessons learnt?
The National Socialists systematically murdered approximately six million Jews. This figure is both inconceivable and abstract. Who of the younger generations can really grasp such a number? It needed direct encounters with persons who survived the holocaust to make me uncannily realise that, according to the Nazi’s will, all these people should have been actually dead. And yet they did survive and demonstrate the strength to testify their experiences. I have perceived the chance to meet these survivors and to talk to them about their lives as tremendously rewarding. Let me take this opportunity to bring to attention our online video archive of the Foundation Memorial where interest persons can watch large parts of the interviews.
Mister Bohne, thank you very much for this interview.
* Mario Müller-Dofel is Co-Initiator for the web portal “Alles über Interviews“.
 The project title can be loosely translated as „Speak out against the horrors“