History After The Witnesses
Tue, 01/24/2012

When I first began teaching the history of the Holocaust in the 1970s I invited a survivor of Auschwitz to speak to my students. It was the first time she had ever spoken publicly about her experiences, and was a profoundly moving moment for her as well as for the students. After that, having witnessed the power of the voice of the person who can speak in the first-person singular, I invited survivors to the class regularly. Their stories — some would call it testimony — galvanized the students’ interest, putting a human face on the history that they had been studying during the semester. It left far more of an impression than any of my lectures.

I was reminded of the profound power of hearing the story of this genocide told firsthand when I was doing research on the Eichmann trial. The primary legacy of this trial was the testimony offered by close to 100 survivors whom prosecutor Gideon Hausner called as witnesses. Hausner was convinced that the only way he could capture the attention of, not just Israelis and diaspora Jewry, but the world at large, was to have survivors give testimony. Their voice had been virtually absent at Nuremberg, and Hausner was convinced that that was one of the reasons Nuremberg had failed to capture the imagination of the world.

It is often said that prior to Eichmann’s trial in 1961, survivors hardly spoke of their experiences. The trial is credited with having opened up the floodgates of their memories.

As recent scholarship has shown though, the Eichmann trial was not the first time survivors spoke out publicly. There was substantial discussion of the Holocaust during the 1950s. There were memoirs, books, newspaper articles and films. At one Yom HaShoah commemoration in Israel in the mid-1950s, 40,000 people were in attendance. This is hardly a “black hole of silence,” as some commentators have described it.

If indeed there was so much attention to the Holocaust, why are so many people under the impression that there was total silence before the Eichmann trial? Is this simply an instance of a widely accepted proposition that does not stand up to historical data? Or did something really change as a result of the trial?  

The answer to these questions may be found in a seeming conundrum about the trial. If this information was available, how was it that experienced and respected observers of the Israeli scene who attended many of the trial’s sessions were “amazed” by what they heard? If survivors had spoken freely, why was Hayim Gouri, one of Israel’s leading newspaper columnist and poets, convinced that the testimony of the survivors provoked a major upheaval in people’s understanding of the Holocaust. Why did Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s leading poets, experience as a result of the trial testimony a “sudden and clear realization” of the depth of the tragedy? In short, if the information was so readily available why did these astute observers of the Israeli and world Jewish scene react so strongly to what they heard?

For them and so many other people, the trial transformed the Final Solution from “history” to, in the words of the novelist and literary editor of Ma’ariv, Moshe Shamir, a “personal, moral, problem.” An abstract body of information became, not only real, but collective memory.

The historians who have argued that there was a black hole of silence until the trial are both right and wrong. They are wrong in that the story was told. But they are right in that it was not heard in the same way that it was at the trial and thereafter. The massive array of documents the prosecutor introduced into court did not effect this transformation. Nor did this change result from the fact that one of the major perpetrators was sitting, albeit in a glass booth, in the courtroom. The transformation occurred because an array of survivors, who generally spoke in unadorned language, told the court and the world beyond what happened to them, and the world listened. It was not their speaking out that constituted the radical act. It was the listening.

All this brings us back to the question of how will understanding of this event be different when there are no survivors to tell the story? I am reminded of the difference on a personal level. When my cousins were growing up in Cincinnati there was a gentleman who lived in their home and helped with some of the heavy chores in their house (shoveling coal and the like). Born a slave on a plantation, he told them stories from his childhood and the period immediately after the Civil War. One of his friends, who shared a similar history, used to sing slave ballads for them. For my cousins the story of slavery is more than “just” history. It is part of their childhood and directly linked to a man who was part of their young lives. For me, irrespective of what a significant blot I recognize it to be on our nation’s legacy, it is 19th-century history.

But that does not mean I do not feel the tragedy of this reprehensible institution. Though it may be less immediate than for my cousins, the history of slavery remains a powerful part of my consciousness.

We can imagine that the same thing will happen in regard to the Holocaust. Those of us born in the decades following the end of World War II, who grew up in Jewish communities, knew survivors as part of our daily lives. In early years we might have known them as “refugees” and only in later years as “Holocaust survivors.” In those early years we knew that they were somehow markedly different from our classmates’ American-born parents or even those who had immigrated before the war. Later — too much later — we came to understand what they had endured and treated them with far greater deference and respect.

It is hard to predict precisely what will happen when the only connection we have to survivors is through electronic media. We can be sure that the connection will be different. Time dictates that fact. However to assume that the immensity of the tragedy will be felt any less is to dismiss the power of the written word (think of the memoirs by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Ruth Kluger), of films (like “Shoah” and “Into the Arms of Strangers”), and of video testimony (think of Yale’s Fortunoff project as well as the interviews collected by Yad Vashem, the U.S Holocaust Museum and the Shoah Foundation). It will be harder for educators to convey the personal sense of the Holocaust when they can no longer turn to survivors. But with the array of visual and literary materials available, a good teacher will be able to do so. In recent years I have revised my courses on the Holocaust to increasingly include personal testimonies. One must be judicious in using them, since many contain historical mistakes. I say this not to cast doubt upon survivors’ memoirs, but to point out the difference between a testimony or memoir and a history of the event. Often a participant in an event experiences the event in a fashion that is different from the historian’s rendition.

Alan Rosen’s “The Wonder of Their Voices” tells the story of psychology professor David Boder, who in the summer of 1946 went to Europe to interview Holocaust survivors. While today we marvel at the immediacy of the stories the survivors shared, Boder saw it differently. He lamented the fact that he had come “too late.” He regretted that he had not come in the summer of 1945 when the stories were truly fresh. He interviewed young men and women who were looking forward to rebuilding their lives. The people we see on tape are generally older people who are looking back on their lives.

The cliché “history marches on” is correct, as clichés often are. Distances occur. Perspectives change. The stories told by those who have just emerged from a hellish whirlwind are different in tone than those told 50 years later when the person is older and has built a new life. Nonetheless they remain important and powerful. And, as was the case in Jerusalem in 1961 the hearing, listening, and absorbing remains the radical act.

That burden will be on us.

Deborah E Lipstadt  is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is “The Eichmann Trial” (Nextbook/Schocken).