Note on Holocaust survivor memoirs: One of the most valuable sources for information about the Holocaust is the survivor memoir. Reading the story of one individual and how his or her life was changed by the events of the Holocaust enables us to personalize six million deaths, presenting the story at a level that people can grasp. We learn about families, losses, struggles to survive and struggles to carry on after liberation. In this way, survivors demonstrate how they were able to work through their emotions and move forward with their lives after the war. While some do this by emphasizing lessons of hope and faith, and others by emphasizing lessons of tolerance, and still others by their belief in the need to resist, all express their need to speak for those murdered by the Nazis. It is this act of witnessing that drives them to relive their own pain and tell their story. This kind of personal testimony is one of the best resources for teaching the human story of the Holocaust.
Although survivor memoirs, by definition, were written after 1945, they are not intended to be comprehensive histories of the Holocaust. Rather, they are first person accounts of individuals who experienced the Holocaust from a particular – often limited – vantage point. On the one hand, survivors, by virtue of their survival are part of a very small, specific group of victims, none of whom had the normative Holocaust experience, which was death. As David Boder noted while collecting early survivor testimony in 1946, the typical Holocaust experience was not represented because he “did not interview the dead.” On the other hand, their accounts are based on traumatic events, usually experienced during childhood or adolescence, and are generally recounted as fragments or as a series anecdotes within a broad chronological framework. While these personal experiences are unquestionably authentic, the historical details they rely on to support their own feelings and perceptions are not always as accurate. In addition, the very act of writing sets the memoirs apart from other forms of testimony by imposing order and form on the memories – giving them a sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end – when the lives of the survivors do not mirror that sense of closure.
Historical inaccuracies do not diminish the value of survivor testimony, but it is the educator’s responsibility to understand where survivors make mistakes and why, so that they can guide their students through this history more effectively. Among the most common reasons for historical inaccuracies are the following: survivors lived under constant duress in conditions where they received little or no reliable outside news; they lived in constant fear of dying or of their loved ones being killed; they were subject to camp rumors, often started as deliberate misinformation by the Nazis. This traumatic situation exacerbated the natural fading of memory over time, especially since most survivors wrote their memoirs several decades after the Holocaust.
Historical inaccuracies do not make the survivors unreliable witnesses – it makes them survivors – witnesses to events they could neither comprehend when they were happening nor reconcile with their post-war lives. For survivors, reality is divided into three distinct and disconnected spheres – prewar, the Holocaust, and post-war – each one having no clear bearing on the others. Moreover, they struggle to describe these events – for which they lack an adequate vocabulary and for which no prewar experience could have prepared them adequately – in what are often their second, third or fourth languages and from their dramatically different postwar perspective.
Thus, while survivor memoirs tell a true story, it is a story nonetheless. They are crafted works whose anecdotes are chosen – whether consciously or because they are the ones remembered best – to demonstrate individual survival. Understanding the inherent values and limitations of survivor memoirs will allow you to teach the history of the Holocaust more accurately and to personalize the experiences of the victims more successfully.
For further reading on memory, traumatic memory, and survivor memory you may want to consult the following sources:
Brostoff, Anita and Sheila Chamovitz. Flares of Memory: Childhood Stories Written by
Eckardt, Alice. Burning Memory: Times of Testing and Reckoning.
Friedman, Jonathan. Speaking the Unspeakable: Essays on Sexuality, Gender and
Holocaust Survivor Memory.
Greenspan, Henry. The Awakening of Memory: Survivor Testimony in the First Years
after the Holocaust, and Today.
Hoffman, Eva. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History and the Legacy of the
Kraft. Robert. Memory Perceived: Recalling the Holocaust.
Langer, Lawrence. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.
Langer, Lawrence. Versions of Survival.
Library of Congress Slave Narratives - www.memory.loc.gov/cgi_bin/query
Niewyk, Donald (ed.). Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival.