Were the House Still Standing
Maine Survivors and Liberators Remember the Holocaust
Were the House Still Standing is a project inspired by words… The installation incorporates an innovative approach to storytelling through image, text, sound, and space…enabling us to construct a documentary and visually poetic experience in which individual testimony, collective memory, and history merge within a three dimensional format.
– Robert Katz, Artist
To preserve the oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors and liberators living in Maine, in 2005 HHRC commissioned the widely respected Maine sculptor, Robert Katz, to create an exhibition – the centerpiece of HHRC’s new home in the Michael Klahr Center.
Were the House Still Standing, an 80 minute multimedia installation developed in collaboration with sound designer Douglas Quin and videographer Matt Dibble, represents an extraordinary achievement in digital storytelling, combining four synchronized video streams, sixteen audio channels, complex theatrical lighting, and a portrait gallery by Maine photographer Jack Montgomery.
The complete, unedited video testimonies shown in Were the House Still Standing are available for viewing at HHRC.
To arrange a special student showing of Were the House Still Standing at HHRC, contact:
207.621.3530 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Were the House Still Standing
Maine Survivors and Liberators Remember the Holocaust
Digital Technology and New Media as a Means of Storytelling in Creating an Imaginative Template to Preserve Holocaust Testimony
Professor of Art, University of Maine at Augusta
Associate Professor of Television, Radio and Film, Syracuse University
When visitors come to see our multi-media installation, they notice the words of Rabbi Nachum Yanchiker illuminated on the back wall of the exhibition hall. The Rabbi, who was Headmaster of the Slabodka Musar-Yeshiva near Kovno, Lithuania, supposedly stood up amid screams that “the Germans are coming” and told his students to save themselves. Students who survived recollect the Rabbi’s last words:
Pour forth your words and cast them into letters. This will be the raging wrath of our foes and the holy souls of your brothers and sisters will remain alive. These evil ones schemed to blot out our names from the face of the earth but a man cannot destroy letters. For words have wings and they endure for eternity.1
Were the House Still Standing: Maine Survivors and Liberators Remember the Holocaust is a project inspired by words. The installation incorporates an innovative approach to storytelling through image, text, sound and space. Advances in digital technologies augment traditional art forms, enabling us to construct a documentary and visually poetic experience in which individual testimony, collective memory, and history merge within a three dimensional format.
Karen Kelly, a student at UMA Augusta, viewed the project and commented:
Everything echoed: footsteps, the rustle of people’s clothing as they walked to their seats, the murmuring of voices hushed in an expectation of secrecy. Against the back wall were the words of Rabbi Yanchicker. As it begins, a haunting melody from a flute and the echo of waves and the mournful call of the loon cry out and surround me. There is a feeling of peace. And then the sirens begin. The rushing of water projected onto the screen on the floor contrasts with the gravestones projected onto the walls. A cacophony of voices imposed upon the images of the stones, each voice trying to be heard over the din of others, souls crying out to be saved. As I watched the story unfold from my seat in the back of the theater, my heart began to break. Tears fell silently from my eyes in helpless frustration. 2
Through their words, this generation of Holocaust survivors is leaving us a powerful insight into history. As we bear witness to their life stories and become stewards of their testimony, we have a responsibility and opportunity to engage and educate those who come after us through the language and forms of our time: digitally-enhanced video, photography, and audio
This project conveys the Holocaust journey of individuals who chose to settle in Maine, where they raised families, built careers, and contributed to the civic activities in their neighborhoods while maintaining their religious traditions.
Since the founding of the HHRC in 1985, a dedicated group of citizens has traveled the length and breadth of the state to visit schools and civic organizations. Some in this group are Holocaust survivors, and others are World War II veterans who took part in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. They have shared their extraordinary stories of survival, bearing witness to one of the darkest periods of human history, with thousands of Maine students, teachers, and community organizations.
Today, many of these individuals can no longer endure the rigors of long distance travel and others have passed away. Their stories, nevertheless, must be told. In an attempt to preserve these testimonies as a significant resource and contribute to the educational mission of the organization, HHRC’s Board of Directors commissioned Robert Katz to create an installation that weaves together a rich fabric of narrative, sound, and imagery for future generations. To create this installation, the University of Maine at Augusta granted Katz a Trustee Professorship Award in 2004 that allowed him uninterrupted time to conceptualize and research this project.
Katz collaborated and consulted with educators on the HHRC’s Education Committee, who first deliberated with him on various titles for the installation until Were the House Still Standing was selected. These suggestive words come from a poetic narrative that Katz found in a High Holiday supplement at a local synagogue.3
The title of the installation evokes the loss of individual and collective memory of family and friends, as well as the loss of whole communities. In a fuller context, the title refers to the possibilities that were lost as a result of the Holocaust.
In the epilogue of Were the House Still Standing, we listen to actors recite the words of a young child speaking to his father. This narrative comes from a paragraph found in Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev. The child asks his father why the Torah considers the killing of an individual as if a whole world has perished. The father responds that the killing of one person is like killing a whole world because one also kills all the children, and the children’s children, who might come from that person.4 This reaffirms the understanding that this great tragedy goes well beyond the eleven million victims of the Nazis, including some 1.5 million Jewish children.
For Robert Katz, it was an honor to be asked to develop the concept and direct this project. For the past twenty-five years, Katz has been deeply involved on a personal and professional level with Holocaust memorials and issues of remembrance. In 1989, Katz was awarded a commission to design and build an outdoor Holocaust memorial – called Dwelling of Remembrance – for the Jewish community in Scarsdale, New York. Since then, he has traveled to Eastern Europe over a dozen times to explore his family’s roots, to walk the paths in his grandfather’s shtetl in Poland, and to learn of the fate of his ancestors.
These journeys contributed to Katz’s understanding of the Holocaust, and from these experiences the artist fabricated a series of installations, including a project called Fragments of Dispersion, exhibited at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Art critic Sal Scalora wrote about this piece: “…Katz’s ‘sparrow song’ is replete with grief, pain, sadness, discovery, respect, and yes, even healing… Katz has traveled the rails of his own history within the great pool of human experience.”
When Rochelle and Jerry Slivka, Holocaust survivors who settled in Maine, wanted to have a memorial built in Maine to commemorate their losses, they approached Katz for a vision. After reviewing numerous drawings, they settled upon a minimalist sculptural design. The Slivka Holocaust Memorial, composed of granite, steel and dogwood trees, is now permanently installed on the grounds of Temple Beth El in Portland, and is the only Holocaust memorial in Maine.
To create Were the House Still Standing, Katz soon realized that he would need to consult with a Holocaust historian, and bring together a design team experienced in multimedia exhibitions, as well as engineers who would be able to fabricate a delivery system. Holocaust historian Robert Bernheim, current Executive Director of HHRC, served as historical consultant for Were the House Still Standing.
Sound designer Douglas Quin, founder of dqmedia, is the co-creator of this project, responsible for fabricating a harrowing and insightful soundscape for Were the House Still Standing. Quin, who traveled extensively throughout Europe to collect sound recordings for this installation, holds a doctorate in Acoustic Ecology, and has worked on multimedia exhibit designs at numerous venues, including the Smithsonian Institution and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America for the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site. Quin designed and mixed the sound for Werner Herzog’s 2009 Oscar-nominated film about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World.
Matt Dibble (Dockyard Media), a documentary filmmaker based in Oakland, California, was the videographer for the project. His work on installation projects has been exhibited at museums throughout the country, including the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Dibble’s most recent film – shot, edited, and co-directed with Y. David Chung – is Koryo Saram, The Unreliable People, a one-hour documentary about the fate of Koreans who were ethnically cleansed from Russia by the Stalin regime in 1937, and re-located to desolate regions of Central Asia. In 2008, the film won a Best Documentary award from the National Film Board of Canada.
Katz challenged the team to weave together an artistic vision that would seamlessly integrate storytelling and documentary. To achieve such a synthesis, the piece incorporates four synchronized video streams projected onto three wall-mounted screens and a sculptural ramp located at an inclined angle on the floor of the space.
Were the House Still Standing is structured around a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue, with five entr’actes (“between acts”). The acts are organized more or less chronologically. Act 1 covers the pre-war period. Act II spans the period from 1938 through the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939 and the early war years. Act III focuses on concentration camp experiences and stories of survival. Act IV presents accounts of liberation and subsequent emigration.
In addition to the narrative testimonies from Holocaust survivors, the elements of music and soundscape, channeled through an array of sixteen audio speakers mounted in the wall and ceiling, play key roles in drawing visitors into the installation’s space and message. Finally, the exhibit includes fifteen large portraits, photographed by Jack Armstrong, of the Maine survivors in Were the House Still Standing. As their stories unfolds, their portraits illuminate at significant moments in the piece.
Every esthetic choice made in Were the House Still Standing was carefully considered. From the choice of archival photographs and motion picture images to each musical passage and sound effect, an ‘ethic of selection’ guided the design process.
The authentic survivors’ testimony was of primary importance, and guided all other choices with regard to soundscape, music, and effects. The first decision we made was to use available audio testimony from the survivors themselves, as opposed to studio readings by actors of written transcripts. Given the inconsistent technical quality of interviews recorded over a period of two decades, our work turned to extracting, restoring, editing, and conforming audio from more than thirty hours of videotaped interviews.
Soundscapes and sound effects heard in Were the House Still Standing include site-specific recordings made in the United States, Poland, Holland, and France, as well as archival audio recordings. To bring visitors into the heart of the stories, these effects were integrated into the whole to illustrate or underscore the narrative, and to reveal complementary truths through the visceral experience of sound.
In the prologue, for example, the visitor first hears a niggun (melodic instrumental composition) followed by ocean waves. The motif of water, both in image and sound, symbolizes the journeys undertaken by survivors, as well as the flow or passage of time. The ocean waves subside as visitors see a triptych of a brilliant sunrise in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. The dawn chorus includes a loon, heard both here and in the epilogue.
From this peaceful place, the soundscape dissolves into the stillness of a mid-morning forest scene in Maine, before shifting to a Jewish cemetery in Lutowiska in Eastern Poland near the Ukrainian border. It was in Lutowiska, in either June or July of 1942, that the Gestapo murdered 800 of the town’s 1,300 Jews in the marketplace. Insects and ravens recorded near this area can be heard as distant thunder rolls across the Biesczady Mountains and a train passes by – first of many train recordings heard during the course of the narrative.
As the train fades, an air raid siren sounds a warning, which segues into the voice of Esther van Peer, a twelve year-old Dutch girl, who reads from Anne Frank’s diary entry of Saturday, July 15, 1944: “…I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions…” Thunder booms and the soundscape dissolves into the cacophony of a police car siren, mobbing rooks, church bells recorded in Krakow, and goose-stepping German troops. The prologue soundscape concludes with sounds of waves, underscoring a view of the ocean at Pemaquid Point, a rustic setting of granite outcroppings along the Maine coast.
Throughout Were the House Still Standing, sound is used to focus attention on what Robert Bernheim describes as “industrial killing on an unprecedented scale.” Juxtaposed with both image and narrative, the sounds of modern warfare permeate the installation – tanks, rockets, airplanes, machine guns, flame throwers, crematorium ovens and doors, vintage air raid sirens and Doppler-shifting horns of German police cars.
During the third entr’acte trains appear to crisscross the space. This train motif repeats, sonically and visually, throughout the presentation, from the image of railroad tracks near Belzec extermination camp at the entrance to the exhibit hall to the recurring image of tracks entering Auschwitz II (Birkenau) on the floor ramp screen.
To execute the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, the Nazis relied on a vast network of railroads throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, carrying millions of souls to their deaths. Train sounds, recorded in Poland, dissolve into the screeching of gurneys on tracks that lead to the ovens of the crematoria at Auschwitz I. We hear the oven doors groan on their rusty hinges and slam shut. A match strikes, fire crackles and roars, fading to wind.
A single match, the solo clarinet, the reading of individual names, a solitary cricket – these exemplify the sonic gestures throughout the piece that evoke the primacy of individual experience, and serve as reminders of the singular identity of the victims of the Holocaust
In reviewing the installation, Professor David Scrase of the University of Vermont writes:
As each individual begins to speak, a portrait of that person lights up. At the same time pictures of the survivor or liberator appear on the screens. Such pictures are sometimes from the dark days of the events – a small child, a young adult… We accordingly see people in their gardens, with their grandchildren, sitting at home. In addition, there are scenes from the Maine landscape, scenes of the lakes, rivers and streams, of the sea, of islands, of trees and flowers. Sometimes it is Winter. Sometimes it is Spring, Summer or Fall. One overall effect is of continuity. The generations reflect what a grandfather explained to a child, that one human life is never just one being but always contains the lives of future generations. The seasonal changes also reflect the continuity and renewal of life. The water beneath the icy surface of a frozen stream continues to flow and, after the thaw, is revealed as living water in motion. We hear Yiddish, Hebrew prayers, and the sounds of nature. Again, the effect is of continuity as well as devastation. Were the House Still Standing is a tour de force, a work of art. 6
Through the medium of modern technology, we have crafted a collage of oral histories that lead the viewer through a prism of stories recalling youthful dreams, memories of shattered communities, lost friends and families. These stories also reveal acts of courage, faith, survival, dispersion and reconstruction.
We bind together stories told to us by our neighbors, people who once faced a world of indifference, silence, and collective reluctance to help save millions of Jews and other innocent victims of Nazi genocide. By embracing and pushing postmodern boundaries, new technology allows us to explore and preserve Holocaust testimony, create unexpected forms of storytelling, and connect with the next generation.
1 Seidler, Victor. Shadows of the Shoah: Jewish Identity and Belonging (New York: Berg Publishers, 2000) 95-96.
2 Exhibit exit survey, 2007.
3 High Holiday reading supplement of Temple Shalom, Auburn, Maine, 2003.
4 Potok, Chaim. My Name Is Asher Lev (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1973).
5 Frank, Anne. The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition (New York: Doubleday, 2003) 716.
6 Scrase, David. “Were the House Still Standing: Maine Survivors and Liberators Remember the Holocaust.” Review in A Place to Stand, Newsletter of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, Winter 2008.