The Reliability of Survivor Narratives of the Holocaust Are survivor narratives of the Holocaust reliable as historical evidence? Viewpoint: Yes

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The Reliability of Survivor Narratives of the Holocaust

Are survivor narratives of the Holocaust reliable as historical evidence?

Viewpoint: Yes. Survivor narratives are a rich source of evidence that provides both eyewitness testimony and a measure of the emotional effect of the Holocaust.

Viewpoint: Not necessarily. While their importance is undeniable, survivor narratives are filtered by the emotional trauma of the Holocaust, which can distort memories and limit perspectives.

Source Database: History in Dispute

Table of Contents
Introduction | Viewpoint 1 | Viewpoint 2 | Further Readings | Source Citation

The status of survivor narratives as historical evidence is an often- debated question in work on the Holocaust. In the absence of extensive Nazi documents about the operation of the camps or copies of orders to exterminate the Jews, survivor testimony becomes a centrally important resource for historians and laypeople attempting to understand the events of the Holocaust. Some scholars have emphasized these narratives, taking them to be transparent documents of the horrors they discuss, while others subject them to the same scrutiny any other historical documents receive. These positions tend to be represented as mutually exclusive--in other words, either you accept the narratives as evidence or you do not, and if you do not you are questioning the whole of the Holocaust. This question is one of the more divisive in studies about the Shoah.

Traditionally, historians treat all documentary evidence with a degree of skepticism as they develop an understanding of the past--viewpoints are partial; stories can be either deliberately or unintentionally distorted; and documents can be forged. The Holocaust--one of the most singular events of the twentieth century, if not of all western history--can either be regarded as a unique event, inexplicable except as horror, or as a particularly evil outgrowth of tendencies within western culture. Those who regard the Holocaust as unique tend to view survivor narratives as the best access to what happened, while those who see the Holocaust as an expression of latent tendencies in the culture look at the narratives as documents subject to scrutiny.
Both essays in this section hold that survivor narratives offer insights into the horror of the camps. Neither contributor, in other words, questions the evidentiary use of the narratives. However, the writers take different positions on the status of narratives as evidence. Both suggest that their positions have political resonances, though again of different kinds.
Caroline Schaumann argues that survivor narratives are the best evidence of what happened in the camps and that to question them provides fodder for Holocaust denial. Her argument is two-pronged. First, in the absence of Nazi documents about the Final Solution, the only real evidence is the narratives of guards and inmates. These narratives, she argues, show both the facts of the Holocaust--the images of horror--and "something fundamental about its nature" that other documents cannot. That fundamental something is the way the Holocaust breaks radically with normal experience, taking the events somehow outside history and into the narrative of trauma. To downplay the narratives is thus to downplay the horror, what Schaumann calls the "magnitude of the horror." Second, by questioning the validity of the narratives, one questions the reality of the events narrated. Following Jean François Lyotard, she suggests that raising questions about the "truth" of the narratives effectively silences and marginalizes the victims and thus enables those who would deny the Holocaust to make their cases. For her, the choice to give added weight to survivor narratives is both historical (they are better documents than anything else) and political (their veracity disables those who would deny the Holocaust happened).
Meili Steele begins from the premise that survivor testimony provides invaluable information about the Holocaust and that the question is not whether such testimony is important but if it is adequate. Is the testimony of survivors, in other words, sufficient to the project of understanding the Holocaust, or does it need to be supplemented by other forms of evidence? Steele answers in the affirmative, asserting that historians and citizens need context to supplement the powerful impact of the writing of survivors. Looking at Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), and Christopher R. Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), Steele argues that historical and philosophical works that supplement the testimonies of survivors with other kinds of evidence offers a way for readers to think about the trauma of the genocide. In other words, the survivor narratives by themselves show the trauma of the Holocaust but do not allow one to truly understand what it means in political, historical, and ethical terms. Steele writes: "testimony alone is never enough. It is only the beginning of our reengagement with the past and ourselves." In this view, testimony offers guidelines for that reengagement, but the reengagement needs to go beyond that testimony in order to do full justice to it.
Neither essay questions the importance of the testimony of survivors; they differ on what to do with it. This distinction is an important one and characterizes the work of history in many areas. The historian's or the citizen's relation to evidence is a matter for careful thought and has ramifications beyond the immediate confines of discipline or period.

Viewpoint: Yes. Survivor narratives are a rich source of evidence that provides both eyewitness testimony and a measure of the emotional effect of the Holocaust.

To prevent and counter attempts of Holocaust denial, one needs to recognize survivors as the most reliable eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. Since few authentic documents exist that are historical proof of the Holocaust, people depend on survivor testimony for its documentation. Survivor testimony teaches not only the historical facts of the Holocaust but also something fundamental about its nature that cannot be conveyed in other historical documentation.

While historians usually rely on archival data, material evidence, and authenticated documentation, those sources are not available to prove the Holocaust. There exists no written order by Adolf Hitler pertaining to the final extermination of Jews. Nazi documents carefully avoid unmistakable terminology, using euphemisms such as "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," "special treatment," "resettlement," or "euthanasia" for murder, killing, and extermination. There is also no extant formal authorization by Hitler delegating to Heinrich Himmler the execution of his plans, perhaps because after public protest and the abandonment of the "euthanasia" program, Hitler was concerned that evidence of another mass murder could reduce his popularity. Furthermore, during the last weeks of World War II (1939-1945), the Nazis conscientiously destroyed any evidence of their crimes. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, SS men destroyed "the paper mountains that testified to six years of systematic murder," and Adolf Eichmann's department methodically burned possibly incriminating files. When the threat of advancing Russian troops put an end to further gassing of prisoners, Himmler immediately ordered the crematoria in Auschwitz destroyed. Thus, the material and documentary record of the Holocaust has not been fully established and can never be sufficiently documented. This lack of incriminating evidence for the extermination of the European Jews has made the prosecution of Nazi perpetrators difficult and has led to endless debates by revisionist historians about the exact numbers of people killed. It has also deeply affected scholarly approaches to the Holocaust, as primary sources for understanding the Holocaust are the testimonies by survivors.

Jean-François Lyotard points out a perpetual dilemma for the Holocaust witness. In his philosophical inquiry on the public reception of Holocaust testimonies, Lyotard reveals that the term "testimony" originates in the judicial system where it constitutes a demand for reparation of damages, addressed to a third party, namely a judge. Since the U.S. legal system is based on the presumption of innocence, the prosecution must establish the facts of the crime and prove that it has happened, while the accused does not have to prove anything. Lyotard points out that this legal practice has put Holocaust survivors in an impossible situation; according to its logic, the only eyewitness who could prove the facts of Auschwitz would be ones who died in its gas chambers. Since the Nazis themselves proclaimed that nobody could return alive from a death camp, there could in theory not be any such thing as a survivor, which also renders their testimonies invalid. Ruth Klüger supports this sentiment, pointing out that her contemporaries often doubt the severity of the horrors she experienced: Ehre den Toten, den Lebenden eher Misztrauen (honor to the dead, but mistrust to the living). While the dead are final proof of persecution and mass murder, the living cannot supply such proof. Therefore, Lyotard concludes, the reality of Auschwitz cannot be established. Indeed, the dismantling of the crematoria by the SS, the destruction of incriminating files, and the absence of written orders by Hitler quite literally efface the murderers' instruments and impair the ability to grasp the magnitude of the crimes committed. In Auschwitz and After (1995) Charlotte Delbo candidly declares:
You don't believe what we say


if what we say were true

we wouldn't be here to say it.

We'd have to explain

the inexplicable

Lyotard suggests that putting the burden of proof on survivors has led to their silencing and marginalization. To leave survivors in this precarious condition and thus effectively silence them, the Nazis would have committed the perfect crime, one that Himmler envisioned in his infamous speech of 3 October 1943 as ein niemals geschriebenes und niemals zu schreibendes Ruhmesblatt unserer Geschichte (a never-written and never-to-be-written page of glory in our [SS] history).

Lyotard's analysis and Himmler's words emphasize that one needs to listen to the survivors' stories if they are to defy the Nazi goals. The events of the Holocaust are frightfully close to "the perfect crime" in that most stories could not have been written; history lost forever the possibility of hearing more than six million stories of those murdered. The world cannot afford to lose or forget the stories of the few remaining survivors, even though they cannot replace or make up for the millions of untold stories. As James Young illustrates, Holocaust witnesses have not only the choice but also the obligation to tell what they know. In this way Holocaust testimonies become historiographic contributions, each one extending knowledge of the Holocaust, and at the same time they underscore that one can never fully come to know the Holocaust.

In the immediate postwar era, survivors faced great difficulties when trying to speak about the Holocaust. As the postwar societies of Germany, Israel, and the United States were concerned with their new roles in world politics, they remained for a long time ignorant of survivors' damages and needs. It was not until 1953 that Germany passed its restitution law, its first official admission of guilt. Although physically sick persons were now entitled to reparations, in order to receive payments survivors had to be examined by German doctors and had to prove a causal link between their symptoms and their maltreatment in the camps. As incomprehensible as it sounds, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in Germany and the United States did not view the Holocaust as a cause of psychological damage. In the United States, according to Aaron Hass, survivors "encountered a culture which glorifies success, optimism, and happiness, while shunning failure, pessimism, and suffering." Even though Israel created commemoration days such as Yom Hashoah in 1951, the Holocaust was not discussed publicly, taught in schools, or researched at universities. As a whole, neither perpetrators nor bystanders took responsibility for their actions. Raul Hilberg observes:

The postwar societies of Israel and the United States were forward looking, and these countries were also confronted with new adversaries: Israel with the Arabs, the United States with the Soviet Union. The survivor had no audience and frequently felt the isolation of someone who cannot be understood. Many memoirs were written, but not for large audiences.

Elie Wiesel, who composed Night in 1955, had trouble finding a publisher, and Primo Levi's If This Is a Man (1959) was first published in an edition of only 2,500 copies. In the 1960s the success of Wiesel and Levi gave way to a wave of interest in the Holocaust, making the current attention to the Holocaust in history, literature, politics, philosophy, religion, and psychology partly the result of their extraordinary testimonies.

While survivors, as Lyotard suggests, have been criticized for not adhering to historical facts, many incorporate a discussion of historical truth in their testimonies. In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi never disputes the truth-value and the cohesion of his text, but belatedly, in an interview in 1985, he asserts:

Please grant me the right to inconsistency: in the camp our state of mind was unstable, it oscillated from hour to hour between hope and despair. The coherence I think one notes in my books is an artifact, a rationalization a posteriori.

In this belated reflection, Levi reveals that the traumatic experience of camp life caused discrepancies in his memory and that the organization and rationalization of his account are artificial. Levi's initial insistence on a "coherent" style may be attributed to the burden of proof Lyotard describes, and to the need to validate the facts of the Holocaust. In contrast to Levi, Delbo from the outset questions a definition of truth based solely on historical facts. Prefacing her memoir, she writes: "Today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful." Delbo reveals that "truthful" can be different from "true." "Truthful" encompasses her experiences and her interpretations of the facts, but "true" corresponds only to the facts. Delbo also suggests that "truthful" may indicate a state of flux, different from one day to the next. As Young adds, "truthfulness" may also mean something different for each survivor: "But each victim "saw"--i.e. understood and witnessed--his predicament differently, depending on his own historical past, religious paradigms, and ideological explanations."

Each testimony represents a different way of understanding the Holocaust. In contrast to historical data, Holocaust testimonies thus narrate not only the events but also their impact on the human body and soul, as well as disclose the interpretative framework through which the author understands the Holocaust. As historian Omer Bartov observes, "the experience and memories of survivors give them insight not only into the event itself, but also into some aspects of human behavior and psychology, into the potential of each of us and into the potential of human society to create hell on this earth." This argument is perhaps the strongest reason for reading Holocaust testimonies in addition to history books. People have come to view the Holocaust as the most influential crime of the twentieth century, as an event that cannot be compared to other man-made disasters and that has led to the limits of understanding, interpretation, and representation. In such an "exceptional situation," Saul Friedländer argues, one cannot, and should not, separate the events from their moral implications:

Let me clarify the questions raised by such limitations on interpretive strategies by one simple illustration: Could one write the history of the science produced by experiments made on human beings in Nazi camps as genuine history of science, or can one use the results of such experiments as elements in ongoing, normal scientific discourse?

In other words, one should look not only at the events themselves but also ethical and moral considerations. By focusing exclusively on the factual record of the Holocaust, one will fail to see its most crucial impact, namely the reality of the victims' experiences. A survivor undoubtedly knows more about the Holocaust than an historian. Holocaust testimonies can convey more adequately a sense of the magnitude of the horrors than documentary data ever could. When Levi calls survivors' testimonies "stories of a new Bible," he suggests that both texts provide humankind with paradigmatic parables that reveal something fundamentally true that cannot be verified. The Bible and Holocaust testimonies thus convey not only facts but also their existential interpretations, since without interpretation, the Holocaust can neither be represented by the survivors nor can it be grasped by their audience. In this way Holocaust testimonies not only further knowledge of the Holocaust but also reveal something about the nature of the Holocaust; people depend on the survivors' memories, since they cannot imagine such evil.

If the Holocaust takes one to the limits of understanding and interpretation, then perhaps new approaches to representation must be found. Holocaust survivors had to arrange their isolated, traumatic memories into coherent stories and give them a dimension in space and time, thus transforming and distorting the events. But their testimonies often show an increased awareness of this distortion. Many witnesses, faced with the dilemma of having to narrate the inexplicable, were led to reflection on and analysis of the process of writing itself. Questioning the capacity of language, survivors use styles that demand the readers' involvement. Instead of simply recounting their memories in chronological and linear order, they interrupt their texts to examine both the process of remembering and the problems of representing their memories. For instance, Delbo's narrative is no chronological, cohesive story but consists of poems, autobiographical vignettes, and fiction, and it often blurs the boundaries between these genres. Delbo also frequently interrupts her text to contrast her memories with a critical analysis of her present life: "Presently I am writing this story in a café--it is turning into a story." Sitting in the café and remembering the Holocaust are two different realities that seem impossible for her to think of simultaneously. As a result, Delbo recognizes that she is making her memories into a story, thus necessarily structuring and transforming them. Some testimonies also contain reflections on the capacity of language. Instead of regarding language as a tool for expression, survivors come to see it as an impediment. Even worse, words can distort and displace the reality and authenticity of events. Levi comments on the fallible character of language:

Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say "hunger," we say "tiredness," "fear," "pain," we say "winter" and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.

Similarly, Delbo asserts: "There are people who say, 'I'm thirsty.' They step into a café and order a beer." While readers think they know what the words "hunger," "thirst," "cold," or "pain" mean, such language is insufficient to express the atrocities in the camps. Since those words are typically used in an ordinary context, they are inadequate to represent something completely inconceivable to those who have not shared the experience. Just as historical facts acquire meaning only if they are interpreted and put into a context, words by themselves are empty and need the readers' emotional involvement to convey meaning.

Some scholars have reasoned that each testimony is a product of traumatic circumstances and thus represents a highly biased and fragmentary perspective. Bartov claims, "Hence, while we must take into account what survivors tell us about human behavior, we must also remember that this is a partial view, formed under the most extreme conditions," while Michael André Bernstein concludes, "Moreover, since one of the Nazi mechanisms of controlling the prisoners depended on isolating each of them as much and for as long as possible to keep them ignorant of the full scale of their predicament, the testimony of any single survivor, no matter how vivid and thoughtful, will be fragmentary and in need of supplementation from other sources and narratives." This perspective is indeed true; each survivor faced a different camp reality and absorbed these experiences differently, and as a result there are many different, perhaps even contradictory, testimonies instead of one single true story. All information on the Holocaust remains to a certain degree fragmentary, and any attempt to present a uniform picture would be presumptuous at best. If the process of remembering traumatic events interprets and transforms the original experience, tools for expressing that experience distort it even further. The writing of memories is not an impartial activity; it is dependent on context and subject to conscious and unconscious selection and interpretation. Instead of presenting the illusion of complete stories, the authors of Holocaust testimonies are aware that coherence and closure are impossible. Hence, the narrators make little attempt to cover up gaps and omissions in their texts. For instance, Wiesel at times uses an elliptical style to describe Auschwitz: "An open tomb / A hot summer sun." Rather than attempting a long and detailed description, Wiesel uses only fragments. These fragments, left open to readers' interpretations, responses, and emotions, demand active involvement rather than passive reception.

As Kenneth Seeskin and Irving Howe point out in articles in Writing and the Holocaust, edited by Berel Lang (1988), the fundamentally unintelligible nature of the Holocaust leaves anyone concerned with Holocaust testimony disarmed and helpless. Even survivors, who should know the most about the horrors they endured, acknowledge the inexplicability of the Holocaust. If the survivors themselves cannot explain what has happened to them or how the Holocaust could have happened, how then can listeners and readers of their testimonies or anyone else ever come to such an understanding? In a similar vein, Bartov wonders how one can teach the Holocaust; neither author nor reader, neither teacher nor student can ever hope to understand. Yet, one cannot leave this dilemma as it stands. Silence or withdrawal from these questions cannot be an option; something so fundamentally horrifying as the Holocaust demands attention and engagement. Roger S. Gottlieb asserts:

There will always be a painful gap between theoretical explanation and human understanding. We cannot master the Holocaust with our thinking, we can only deepen ourselves in our relation to it. Even if all our intellectual questions were answered, we would still cry: "But how can this be?" Nevertheless, if we are to find meanings as well as sorrow and despair, to alter our lives as well as mourn the victims, we must try to think this unthinkable event.

While scholars might be inclined to intellectually process information, the Holocaust forces scholars to go beyond a purely intellectual analysis and to incorporate emotional responses. Emotions are needed to access the nature of the Holocaust, but if these emotions are not intellectually processed, one will remain overwhelmed by them. Thus, the topic of the Holocaust challenges one to become involved both intellectually and emotionally, a task with which Holocaust testimonies can help best.

-- Caroline Schaumann, Emory University

Viewpoint: Not necessarily. While their importance is undeniable, survivor narratives are filtered by the emotional trauma of the Holocaust, which can distort memories and limit perspectives.

The question of survivor testimony in the interpretation of the Holocaust is not whether it is important but whether it is adequate. Survivor testimony undoubtedly contributes indispensable documentary evidence at the same time that it helps one orient oneself toward these events. However, it should not replace research into the social, political, economic, and cultural processes at work during this period and modern times.

While survivor testimony helps in confronting the historical, interpretive, ethical, and political questions posed by the Holocaust, the significance and interpretation of these testimonies depend upon many other factors. The simplest way into the debates is to note that the survivor testimony breaks with the basic presupposition of normal testimony--that speaker and listener share meaning and a world. Does one require a new language of representation to capture what took place from either the victim's or the perpetrator's perspective?

On the one hand, there are those who make the world of the Holocaust contiguous with the everyday world, such as Tzvetan Todorov, who investigates the moral world of the camps, or Zygmunt Bauman, who seeks to explain how the Holocaust "brings together some ordinary factors of modernity which normally are kept apart. . . . Only the combination of factors is unusual and rare, not the factors that are combined." In this case, survivor testimony becomes part of a larger picture that includes perpetrator testimony and sociopolitical analysis. On the other hand, there are those who think the Holocaust is such a profound rupture in the fabric of history that people have a moral and epistemological obligation not to attempt to re-create it. Claude Lanzmann, who made the documentary movie Shoah (1985) says that between the preexisting conditions and the Holocaust there is "a gap, an abyss, and this abyss will never be bridged." Even to try to understand and represent the Holocaust is to become complicit with making it acceptable: "It is enough to formulate the question in simplistic terms--Why have Jews been killed?--for the question to reveal right away its obscenity. There is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding." Others such as Elie Wiesel, while less extreme than Lanzmann, nonetheless, want to place the Holocaust beyond historiography, "Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. . . . [ T]he Holocaust transcends history." Writers and movie makers such as Wiesel and Lanzmann are not interested in establishing facts and explanatory mechanisms but in exploring a new vocabulary that will touch off a new psychological ethical, psychological, or referential relationship to these events. These challenging forms of testimony do not stand by themselves as self-evident forms of meaning; they depend upon the discourses that they are calling into question. Thus, whether one is using survivor testimony as part of an account of modernity or as a way to reconfigure the languages of representation, the testimony never stands by itself. It is always about how to understand the relationship of these texts to other texts and historical factors.

To give some concreteness to this point, one can look at survivor testimony and the dispute between intentionalists and functionalists in the explanation of the Holocaust. This debate hinges on the interpretation of testimony by victims and perpetrators. On one side are those who claim that the anti-Semitic intentions of the German leadership and/or general populace were the principal cause of the Holocaust. On the other side are those who think that the principal causes of the Holocaust cannot be located in individuals or in their cultural beliefs but in the general processes of modernity that deprived perpetrator and victim of a world of moral action. Intentionalists portray perpetrators as "monsters," while functionalists portray them as "ordinary."

The most recent turn in this debate is the controversy surrounding Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996). Goldhagen maintains that the principal cause of the Holocaust was the intentions of the historical actors, intentions that were released in the political turmoil of the Third Reich. "My explanation--which is new to the scholarly literature on the perpetrators--is that the perpetrators, 'ordinary Germans,' were animated by antisemitism, by a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die." Goldhagen is not just saying that widespread anti-Semitism was an enabling condition of the Holocaust but that Germans made their "choices as members of an assenting genocidal community, in which the killing of Jews was normative and often celebrated." Goldhagen offers a dramatic phenomenology of perpetrators' minds during killings in order to assign them "responsibility" for their actions.

On the other side are the alternative phenomenologies of the perpetrator, provided by Hannah Arendt and Christopher R. Browning as well as the testimony of victims such as Levi. In their view, both perpetrator and victim "lost a world." This concept does not mean that their situations are similar or that that they should be presented in a similar way. Indeed, distinguishing victim and perpetrator is crucial. However, as Levi reminds his readers, if the perpetrators become inhuman monsters, then one can easily seal oneself off from the ways in which this potential is within modern society and the modern subject.

In Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) Browning attempts to show that it was not preexisting anti-Semitism but the extraordinary circumstances that produced their actions: "If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers in such circumstances what group of men cannot?" Arendt broadens the horizon of historical questions in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). She aims to show that Adolf Eichmann was an empty shell, a totalitarian subject whose depravity resulted from "thoughtlessness." Her notorious "banality of evil" does not mean that totalitarianism is not radically evil, only that the perpetrators' actions cannot be understood by referring only to his/her internal processes or even to German culture. Rather, totalitarianism is the culmination of the modern demands for freedom, not its opposite.

Goldhagen directly contests Arendt's claim that the perpetrators had lost a world. "Contrary to Arendt's assertions, the perpetrators were not such atomized, lonely beings. They decidedly belonged to their world and had plenty of opportunities, which they obviously used, to discuss and reflect upon their exploits." However, what accompanies this reading is a different account of modernity. For Goldhagen, the historical forces that shaped these events can be localized in an ideology and worked on; from Arendt's point of view, the forces, institutions, and self-understandings that produced the Holocaust continue to damage people today. These are not just matters for professional historians but for citizens trying to decide what politicians to vote for and what kinds of textbooks should be used.

Both survivor and perpetrator testimony are thus part of what Paul Ricoeur has called the "historiographical operation." There are three moments: the documentary phase, the phase of explanation and understanding, and the historical representation in an historian's text. These moments are not linear, but recursive--for example, the historian comes to the archive with some preconceptions about historical representation. Survivor testimony contributes to all three of these phases, not just the documentary one, for it suggests or blocks certain modes of explanation and representation. Moreover, survivor testimony figures in the second-order philosophical reflection on the conditions of these discourses--that is, on historicity, one's historical condition. Ricoeur shows how the speculative historical questions of the citizen and philosopher can never be driven out by historiographical operations of historians; rather, they must accompany such explanatory concerns.

Nevertheless the danger of occasional mistaken identity exists in using survivor narratives. The most notorious case involves John Ivan Demjanjuk, suspected of being the infamous Nazi guard "Ivan the Terrible." Stripped of his U.S. citizenship, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986. He was convicted there of war crimes and sentenced to death, but in 1993 the Israeli Supreme Court overturned that decision because of inconsistencies in corroborating documents and the testimony of eyewitnesses.

The importance of the context of interpretation to survivor testimony comes to the fore with the issue of trauma because it brings out an important dimension of the modern relationship to these testimonies. Trauma, as Cathy Caruth explains, is not an experience at all, but a skip in experience, in which the subject must shut down emotionally in order to survive. Traumatized persons, says Caruth, "become the symptom of history they cannot entirely possess." When survivors give their testimonies, they manifest the trauma, but they do not fully describe it. As Dori Laub articulates in his work with survivors, the task of the listener is to hear what cannot be spoken, to help the survivor reconstruct a self, a witness to the events that he/she had to leave psychically in order to survive. The effects of these traumas are passed on from generation to succeeding generations, as Art Spiegelmann's graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986) shows so well. The continuing appeal of survivor testimonies is that they bring one back to the events that have marked everyone in ways that they are still trying to understand. They serve as ethical guides when historians try to relativize the Holocaust by making comparisons with Stalinism or when artists trivialize it by making it the background noise in the depiction of life in the Third Reich. Testimony alone is never enough. It is only the beginning of our reengagement with the past and with ourselves.

-- Meili Steele, University of South Carolina


Roma Tcharnobroda, a Polish Jew, recalls in a 1946 interview a hanging she had witnessed while she was interned at Dachau:

Tcharnobroda: A . . . that happened . . . that was soon . . . two months . . . March . . . April, May, in May, a woman was brought in. She must have . . . all at once we noticed that in the middle of the field something was standing. We really did not know what it meant. And so they had . . . what do you call it?

Boder: The gallows . . .

Tcharnobroda: the gallows erected, and this woman . . . we all had to stand for appell, we stood forming a square, facing the gallows, and then . . . the woman was compelled to fetch the chair herself. She stood upon the chair and then the SS man asked: what would be her last wish.

Boder: Yes.

Tcharnobroda: I stood then very near. She said she had no wish from the Germans. So he asked her whether she regretted her deed. So she said, she was not attempting to escape, because that was absurd. But if she only had a chance, she would have done it. She regrets nothing at all, because life at any rate has no worth, and she dies readily. But to slap him in the face, she probably was too weak. She died calmly without a single outcry. That woman was twenty three years old. Then we had to stand as punishment,--we don't know what for--but as punishment we had to stand and look at the dead woman for three hours. When the appell was over . . .

Boder: Who performed the hanging?

Tcharnobroda: An SS man. He . . .

Boder: Did she suffer much?

Tcharnobroda: No. He only swung the noose around her neck and pushed the chair away with his foot.

Boder: Did he first cover her face?

Tcharnobroda: No. She died with open eyes.

Boder: So you saw the dead woman afterwards and the face of the dead woman?

Tcharnobroda: I stood for two hours afterwards, directly in front of her at a distance of about ten meters.

Boder: How did she look?

Tcharnobroda: Perfectly calm. Her hands were stretched downward and folded.

Boder: And her face?

Tcharnobroda: . . . her face downward, fixed like this looking downward and perfectly calm as if she would have been . . . no, perfectly calm as if she slept.

Boder: No.

Tcharnobroda: Afterwards we had to stand for several hours and look at the dead. When the appell was over we did not go away. There were at that time twenty thousand women at the appell.

Source: Interview with Roma Tcharnobroda, 24 September 1946, Munich, Germany, transcribed by David P. Boder, Spool 155-B, Voices of the Holocaust: A Documentary Project by Illinois Institute of Technology Interviews/&page=tchar&ext=_t.html.



  • Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised edition (New York: Penguin, 1963).

  • Peter Baldwin, ed., Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians' Debate (Boston: Beacon, 1990).

  • Omer Bartov, Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

  • Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).

  • Michael André Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

  • Randolph L. Braham, The Psychological Perspectives of the Holocaust and of its Aftermath (Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs / New York: Csengeri Institute for Holocaust Studies of the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, 1988).

  • Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

  • Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

  • Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., A Holocaust Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1976).

  • Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, translated by Rosette C. Lamont (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

  • Saul Friedländer, Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

  • Friedländer, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution" (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

  • Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996).

  • Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).

  • Michael Halberstam, Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

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Source Citation: "The Reliability of Survivor Narratives of the Holocaust." History in Dispute, Vol. 11: The Holocaust, 1933-1945. Benjamin Frankel, ed. St. James Press, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

Document Number: BT2306200398

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