To Bear Witness:

Extraordinary Lives: Stories of Holocaust and Genocide Survivors

“To Bear Witness: Extraordinary Lives” offers multimedia accounts from survivors of genocide, the Holocaust and the atrocities of war who eventually made their homes in the United States. “To Bear Witness” includes 12-14 stories from Myanmar, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Syria, Sudan, Nazi-occupied Hungary, Germany, and Austria and other regions of modern-day genocide. The stories were written by prominent journalists such as Elizabeth Mehren (formerly of the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and a former Boston University journalism professor). Well-known photographers such as Jim Lommasson also have contributed to this project.

Sankar Raman
Holocaust survivors Eva and Les Aigner in their home in Tualatin, Oregon. Photo: Sankar Raman

Each of the survivors’ profiles will include one or more of the following four elements: 

  • Long form narrative: Some of the stories are already available online at:  https://theimmigrantstory.org/category/bear-witness/. We devoted a great deal of  time to collecting these survivors’ testimonies. The stories were crafted in an accessible form with historically accurate information to give the readers full accounts of the genocides. Each story is richly illustrated with carefully curated images from top photojournalists and photographers. Pictures from the personal archives of these survivors add context, providing a sense of place, time and  intimacy. Though each story in “To Bear Witness” illuminates a vast global crisis, the focus remains intimate, examining each survivor’s personal history. Each story follows the survivor’s journey from growing up in their native country to making a new home in the U.S.
  • Objects survivors carried: We have collaborated with Jim Lommasson, building upon his project, “Stories of Survival,” originally produced in collaboration with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.  His work focuses on objects survivors were able to carry with them on their perilous journeys. From his photographs of the objects, the participants respond with handwritten testimonies — stories, memories, poems, drawings. Their stories speak to the luminous inner life of these ordinary things and testify to the unspeakable anguish of  lives forever left behind. Ordinary objects become sacred objects.
  • Short film documentary: We are producing six short docu-series films by well-known video producers from the Pacific Northwest, in collaboration with NW Documentary. The powerful, visceral personal stories featured in these short films will emphasize the individual humanity of genocide survivors, forcing viewers to look beyond cold facts and statistics and confront the immense emotional, spiritual, and physical violence that genocide inflicts. We have raised almost all of the money needed to successfully execute this project. The first film (not yet publicly released) can be viewed at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJ0HVOXolLA&feature=youtu.be.
  • Audio podcast:  We are creating six compelling podcasts that will allow participants to hear survivors’ stories in their own voices. These episodes will be produced from the interviews we have conducted with the survivors over the last three years. They collectively represent some of the most candid testimonies recorded, and provide a means by which the public can hear these survivors, in their own words. You can listen to an example of a survivor podcast here:  https://theimmigrantstory.org/there-is-a-tomorrow/

Additionally, we are tentatively planning a live storytelling event in Portland on September 17, 2021. It is titled, “I Am My Story: Voices of Hope,” and will feature survivors from Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, as well as live music. We will be replicating the Sarajevo String Quartet that played more than 200 concerts during the three years when Sarajevo was under siege during the Bosnian War.

Process of Collecting and the Body of Work
The project is an extensive body of work that will be an intersection of oral history, visual and literary arts, and audio and video storytelling. We have been collecting these testimonies and recording them for the last three years. These candid conversations offer documentation from an oral historical perspective. When possible, they have been recorded on video as well. Our main aim is to capture these voices, not only for historical purposes, but to provide a platform for voices that would otherwise go unheard.

Lommasson’s methodology was to photograph objects carried by “To Bear Witness” participants, and then to give them a 13-inch by 19-inch archival print with white space around the image of the carried object. In this space, the participant can contextualize the image by writing directly on the print. The object gives participants a focus or a point of departure for personal storytelling.

Dijana Ihas’ hand-written story describes the significance of the bow and viola photographed by Jim Lommasson. Ihas, a professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, learned to play violin and viola in communist Yugoslavia. During the three-year siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, Ihas and three other musicians performed as the Sarajevo String Quartet. Jim Lommasson / To Bear Witness

At present, the majority of these stories of survivors come from Oregon. But when Covid-imposed restrictions relax, we intend to travel to other states to collect compelling stories that need to be told. We believe this body of work will be an ongoing, comprehensive project that can provide deep insight to historical events. 

Why it Matters

Through these displays, our main objective is to educate. But we also aim to ask probing questions as to why humanitarian crises that lead to genocides continue, even into the 21st century. Our hope is that by bringing attention to these atrocities, viewers will have an opportunity to reflect on these important issues.

This goal feels especially urgent at a time when people denying historical events such as the Holocaust have achieved political traction, and when survivors of these events are themselves fading with the years.

If ever there were a moment “To Bear Witness,” it is now.

Rough Timeline:

  • August 2018: Start Date
  • August 2021: End Date
  • January 2021: Final stretch
  • April 2021: First Show 
  • April 2021 – September 2021: Additional Stories, Edits, Final Preparation, and Completion.
  • October 2021: Final Presentation 
  • Jan 2022: National tour start; other venues