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L.A. Museum of the Holocaust's Tree of Testimony Tells Survivors' Stories Through Video Art

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Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 2:26 PM

click to enlarge The new Tree of Testimony exhibit at the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust - ADAM FRIEDMAN
  • Adam Friedman
  • The new Tree of Testimony exhibit at the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust

Last week was Yom HaShoah, the official day of Holocaust remembrance, a commemoration with good intentions that nonetheless brings up feelings of ambivalence in many Jews I know.

One friend remarked, "Every day is Holocaust remembrance day at my house," indicating she does not share her parents' passion for the subject. Another friend claimed it had been discussed at her Jewish middle school so often that she didn't engage with the subject or talk about it for nearly 10 years afterwards. Though we want to remember the Holocaust, sometimes you can't help feeling desensitized if you talk about it too often.

But no matter how frequently you'd like to deeply consider the Holocaust, a particularly meaningful way to do it is by visiting the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust's new Tree of Testimony exhibit, which opened this past weekend.

I've been to at least 10 Holocaust-related museums on one field trip or another, and thus can't help but compare. Naturally, I recall perusing an insufficient collection of photographs in two or three musty, carpeted rooms somewhere in an office building in Canada with less enthusiasm than I do gliding through Yad Vashem, Moishe Safdie's gorgeous and solemn mountain prism in Jerusalem, where the constricted path you take through the exhibits primes you for the discomfort of the content.

A lot of Holocaust museums make the mistake of awkwardly trying to re-create the experience, allowing you to explore a facsimile of Auschwitz's gas chambers (Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles) or an actual rail car used to transport cramped and starving Jews (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C). Somehow confronting these empty, nightmarish symbols increases my sense of dissociation. What's missing is the people. Thanks to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute's extensive collection of survivor testimonies, the human beings who experienced the horror of the Holocaust become the central focus of the Tree of Testimony.

Inspired by Nam June Paik's video art and Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin's data visualization sculpture in the lobby of the New York Times building, the Tree of Testimony consists of 70 television screens of various shapes and sizes piping interviews with Holocaust survivors into the headphones of museumgoers. Thick black tubes squiggle on the wall behind the TVs, and keywords like "ghetto cultural activities," "sisters" and "wartime photographs" pop up on the screens to help you decide whose private miseries to experience, meaning which testimony's code to enter into your free iPod Touch audio guide.

Conceived by museum board president Randy Schoenberg and executed by architect Hagey Belzberg, the Tree of Testimony represents the first attempt to display the 52,000 Shoah Foundation testimonies outside of stand-alone screens. (Over the course of a year, the exhibit will shuffle through the entire collection.)

"A lot of people use the [Shoah] archives, but it's hard to imagine how large [the collection] is, sitting at a terminal," Schoenberg says.

About half of the testimonies aren't in English, but Schoenberg and the museum's executive director, Mark Rothman, insist international visitors and cosmopolitan, multilingual Angelenos will appreciate hearing stories told in their native languages. Regardless of whether you can understand the content of each individual screen, to sit at the Tree of Testimony is to participate in a concert of conversations, engaging with history on a personal level surrounded by other people silently doing the same.

Here are three reasons why L.A. MOTH's new exhibit is worth checking out:

1. You feel the vastness.

Trying to sit still and watch one individual testimony was incredibly distracting at first. While you attempt to concentrate on one person's tale, 69 other survivors clamor for your attention and occupy your visual space, reminding you of the context: This is just one of tens of millions of stories.

2. You feel the randomness.

Even after ruling out testimonies you can't understand due to language barriers, the process of choosing which person to listen to, which life to reflect on, can be an overwhelming burden. This forced act of random choosing parallels the choices made about who was chosen to die, who was chosen to work, who managed to survive. By choosing who to listen to, you choose to a certain extent who gets to live on in your own memory and who doesn't, condemning 50 even while preserving the memories of five.

3. You feel the banality.

Staring at photographs of charred bodies in a ditch is not the same as listening to an interview with an old lady in a sweater set who lives in Florida. The scariest part of these testimonies, especially when experienced one after another in a series, is how seamlessly the survivors alternate between the horrifying and the mundane. Confining your remembrance to the atrocities makes the Holocaust feel surreal and removes you from its reality; listening to an actual person tell his or her entire story in fits and starts, full of digressions and personal tragedies, brings you much closer than any shocking exhibit ever could.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park is free to the public and open Mon-Thurs and Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Friday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Follow me on Twitter at @adelaidelaments, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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