Victims, Memory, and the Holocaust

When Raul Hilberg published the first academic study of the Holocaust in 1961, Jewish scholars and intellects harshly criticized the author in public forums.  The criticism focused on Hilberg’s adamancy that 6 million Jews passively accepted their extermination by the Nazi regime and offered no resistance.  Hilberg argued that his narrative of the Holocaust was justifiable because the evidence existed in the sources.[1]  This 1960s debate within Jewish intellectual circles reveals a crucial historiographical question in Holocaust scholarship.  If historians and scholars who study and focus on the Holocaust utilize only the documentary evidence available, the source base  derives almost entirely from the Nazi perspective, and, while this is important to historians understanding of the Holocaust, this methodology nullifies the experience of the Nazi victims whether political, homosexual, Jewish, Gypsy, or pacifist.  Reconciling this difficulty is an important goal in Holocaust studies as most victims did not leave written evidence.  To resolve this problem, historians have and continue to utilize sources that are problematic to scholars.

These problematic sources rely heavily on the memories of both the victims and the perpetrators including oral interviews collected since 1945.  These sources attempt to move the history of the Holocaust beyond the documents of the Nazi state and examine the motivations, reactions, and emotions of the individuals involved.  When writing about memory, scholars distinguish between collective memory and individual memory.  While collective memory creates a framework through which individuals can organize their history, individual memory refers to the recollection of events a person lived through and can conflict with collective or national memory.[2]  In Holocaust studies, it is individual memory that scholars are concerned with recording especially when studying the victims because, without memory, one cannot record the history of the victims.  Yet many historians find memory an amorphous topic and argue that without “an independent source of knowledge” we cannot learn from memory.[3]  Several recent important contributions to the history of the Holocaust continue to perpetuate the victims and perpetrators historiography yet the most successful and innovative of these works demonstrate that memory can be utilized as an important primary source and can be successful in expanding our understanding of the Holocaust if properly corroborated with other primary source evidence including documents, diaries, and memories.

However, while essential, memory remains a difficult source to employ when writing history, and can lead to unsatisfactory conclusion due to conflicting testimonies.  Furthermore, the history of the Jews in Holocaust has a recently been criticized by historian David Engel who argues that while the Holocaust is essential to Jewish history, it is left to academics that specialize in Europe to write the history of the Holocaust.[4]  One Jewish scholar that does not fit within this criticism and who works to unite the history of the Jews and the Holocaust is Yehuda Bauer.  Bauer, in studying the victims, demonstrate that memory can accurately recreate the Jewish experience during the Holocaust especially in regions where written source material remains scarce.  In this instance, the author utilizes collected memories to reconstruct a certain event as accurately as possible, but, in some cases, the “subjective intuition of the individual historian” may compel the author to dismiss individual memories that may not corroborate with the collective.[5]  The intuition and care needed to utilize the victims’ memories successfully is evident in Bauer’s study and serves as examples of how memory can be properly used to write good history.

In his 2009 study, The Death of the Shtetl, Bauer examines the destruction of small Jewish communities in Eastern Europe from 1930-1945.  Bauer states that 30%-40% or the pre-war Jewish population lived in shtetl villages which contained 1,000-15,000 Jews.  Bauer employs the term “Amidah,” armed and unarmed reactions intended to keep community and its components going during the Nazi threat, to analyze the shtetls during this time period as his previous scholarship using this term to examine larger ghettos exhibits that resistance to the Nazi state did exist.[6]  This method of analysis counters the earlier scholarship developed by Hilberg who argues that the Jews remained passive and suggests that Jews attempted to maintain their communities to undermine the Nazi regime.  This methodology is important because it examines how Jewish community traditions functioned under the stress of the Holocaust and if these traditions contributed to survival. Bauer’s research on Jewish leaders, neighbors, and partisans concludes that between the Soviet occupation and the Nazi Holocaust Amidah failed to emerge in the shtetl.  Ultimately, Bauer’s conclusions concerning the shtetl remain unsatisfactory but logical as he suggests that survival in a shtetl was based on geography, the hostility of gentile neighbors, Jewish leadership, and luck.

To reach this conclusion, Bauer reconstructs the life of twelve Jewish shtetls in East Galicia, Volhynia, and Belorussia using two diaries and a collection of oral testimonies.  The author recognizes the complications involved using memory but states that “postwar oral testimonies of the mass murder are much more reliable because they can be cross-checked.”[7]  However, Bauer also recognizes the difficulty in employing memory as a source writing that “contemporary documents are preferable,” that “memory is unreliable,” and that postwar memories reflect “only the tiny minority that survived.”[8]  While identifying these contentions as viable, Bauer believes that memory, especially when corroborated by other memories trumps documentary evidence; furthermore, when examining the shtetls, tiny villages in the eastern marches of Poland, memory is the only sources available to researchers hoping to reconstruction and examine Jewish life during the Holocaust.[9]  These conclusions concerning the use of memory in researching the victims of the Holocaust is seconded by Christopher Browning in his most recent study Remembering Survival.

This study, like Ordinary Men, developed from the examination of court documents from the 1972 trial of Walter Becker for crimes committed against the Jews in the 1943 Wierzbnik ghetto clearing action.  In the verdict, the judge rejected the eyewitness accounts of the Jews stating that these testimonies were “the most unreliable form of evidence” as the Jews were not “distanced” and “disinterested” witnesses.[10]  The judge’s statements spurred Browning to further examine the case and write though “Becker escaped German justice, I felt that he at least could be given his appropriate place in historians’ hell.”[11] What really irked Browning was the judge’s decision to discredit the Jewish testimonies because of their inconsistencies, and moved him to demonstrate that survivor testimony can be employed to create a respectable scholarly history.  Browning then utilized the 292 witness testimonies combined with his own interviews and historical documents from the Nazi state to reconstruct the experience of the Jews in Wierzbnik and Starachowice.   Therefore, Browning, in a methodology similar to Bauer, compares the memories against one another to create what he describes is “a core memory that has remained basically stable despite the passage of time.”[12]

Bauer and Browning’s study of the victims are similar in methodology and conclusions; however, in terms of geography they are different and, as these scholars show, geography played an important role in the Jewish experience.  Bauer’s examination of the shtetls in far eastern Poland explores the experiences of small Jewish communities that underwent Soviet occupation, followed by German occupation, followed again by Soviet occupation.  These waves successive waves of interaction, argues Bauer, greatly reduced the shtetls’ ability to maintain their traditional lives, and, under the Soviet system, the Jewish communities deteriorated as women entered the work force, Jewish synagogues closed, and the youth were permitted to attend universities – an opportunity denied under the interwar Polish state.  These actions, contends Bauer, atomized the Jewish communities prior to the arrival of the Nazis and reduced the ability of the communities to demonstrate any type of Amidah.  Consequently, the towns and satellite labor camps examined by Browning remained within the German region of occupied Poland.  While avoiding the destruction of community via the Soviets, the Wierzbnik ghetto underwent the same type of removal and deportation as other Jewish ghettos in 1942, however, the experience also differed due to a munitions factory in the immediate location and many Jews were spared deportation and placed into slave labor.  Though the communities examined by the two authors underwent different experiences that affected survival rates, the authors’ research displays that memory can serve as the base for an academic history.

The importance of memory can be observed in Bauer’s study of the leaders of the Jewish communities under Nazi occupation, or the Judenraete, in the shtetls.  Because of the dearth of sources, Bauer examines the actions of several different Judenraete (Jewish councils) throughout the eastern Poland noting both the unsavory and beneficial aspects of the Judenraete that make them so controversial.  Bauer’s sources reveal that the Judenraete, coerced by the Germans, collected money and valuables equitably from their community members to enrich the Nazis and that the Judenraete selected males to perform menial labor for the Germans.[13]   These recollections are supported by Browning whose sources reveal that those who refused to pay their share were arrested by the Jewish police and imprisoned until the family met the requirement.[14]  These similarities support Bauer’s statement that “Germans pursued the same policies everywhere;” however, while Browning only exams one Jewish community, Bauer’s study of several shtetl Judenraete reveals that survivor memory concerning the Judenraete remained mixed no matter geographic location.[15]

In Bauer’s exploration of memory and the Judenraete he states survivors’ testimonies are the “only source we have regarding the behavior of these communal leaders” and that they “reflect purely subjective judgments, and may not reflect what the survivors thought at the time or immediately after the war” since they were recorded decades later.[16]  His method for examining the shtetl Judenraete is comparative whereby he explores how the actions of the Judenraete affected the community and this leads him to grade each Judenraete as either good or bad.  For example, good Judenraete leaders attempted to provide food, educate children, and continue religious practices while bad Judenraete leaders collaborated with the Germans and appropriated valuables from other for their own benefit.[17]  This system shows that Bauer scrutinizes the Judenraete not only for their ability to save lives but their ability to maintain Jewish communities.  However, as Bauer exhibits, even a good Judenraete received harsh criticism from some survivors especially because a “postwar anti-Judenrat atmosphere exercised an undue influence over the witnesses.”[18]  Further, Negative recollections were especially prevalent when the Nazis removed a shtetl’s first Judenrat and emplaced a new Judenrat. As Bauer emphasizes, almost every shtetl had at least two Judenrats because the German’s became dissatisfied with the first and sought Jewish leader more malleable to their demands, and those viewed negatively were in charge during most of the German occupation.[19]  Thus, Bauer’s description of the Judenraete demonstrates that differing opinion existed, most survivors judged the Judenrat, whether the first or second, in their shtetl in a similar manner revealing that a memory, when corroborated with other testimonies, can be a valid historical source.

While Bauer employs memory to examine and judge Jewish leaders, Browning demonstrates throughout his study the difficulties in utilizing memory as source when examining a specific event.  This involves stepping aside in several instances and revealing the process he developed to write a history based on oral testimonies.  Unfortunately this is not a process that Bauer incorporated into his work which could improve his study.  By not exhibiting the processes employed, especially concerning a situation in which survivor memories are incongruent, Bauer’s study lacks the nuance and detail of Browning’s study which displays the difficulties in reconstructing the lives of the Weirzbnik Jews under the Nazi regime.  This is particularly evident in Browning’s examination of an attack on a guard when the Jews were assembled and prepared for evacuation in the summer of 1944.  In this instance, Browning takes seven pages to delineate the multiple recollections of this event including three differing testimonies by the person involved.

Browning divides the testimonies into early, middle, late and the witness’s own conflicting memories of the event.  In the early recollections, the survivors recall the incident whereby a young woman attacked a camp guard and attempted to strangle him.  The guard threw the woman off and shot at her twice but missed and the woman was able to hide until the guards ordered her to reveal herself.  Yet she was not killed due to the intervention of a high ranking official.[20]  However, one early testimony declares that the young women seized the guard’s revolver and fired it into the air which resulted in the camp guards firing at her.  She was wounded but survived and the Jews were forced to take up a large collection to pay the guards off and not murder her.[21]  The early memories of this event demonstrate that the survivors recalled a young woman attacking a guard, being shot and wounded, and saved from execution, however, many of the details especially concerning her avoidance of death are conflicting.  In the middle testimonies given during the 1960s trial, several survivors identify the young woman as Guta Blass but their memories are again conflicting.  In one recollection, Guta confronted the guard verbally not physically but was still shot and survived by hiding in the camp barracks.  Another survivor confirms the physical struggle, the shooting, and the prevention of murder by a higher ranking German official.[22]  These testimonies again reveal the conflicting nature of memory not only as historical evidence but also, since these were part of the court trial, the reasoning for the judge’s dismissal of the Jews oral testimony.

The later testimonies also recall the event but again display incongruities of memory.  These recollections all agree that a young woman attacked a German guard and was wounded when the guard shot at her; however, the memories are conflicting on how the women survived execution: some stated that prisoners bribed the guards, some remarked that the prisoners bribed the commandant, and some recalled that a higher ranking official spared her life.[23]  Finally, the last testimonies derived from the young woman herself Guta Blass who provided at least seven different accounts of the event.  In one version, Guta and other prisoners marched to a mass grave and they pleaded for their lives in which Guta was shot and injured and crawled back to the barracks and protected by others.  Other testimonies given by Guta concerning this event describe attacking a guard after the prisoners where marched to a mass grave to save her parents who were also in the camp.  During the struggle, she was shot, left for dead, and hid the barracks until she was discovered, locked in separate room, and beaten by a guard.  In all these instances, she was sent to the infirmary and later rejoined the prisoners.  In a 2007 interview with Browning, Guta claimed that her early testimonies did not recount the attack on the guard because she believed it would adversely affect the trial but that the attack did occur and was not planned.[24]  By displaying the differing memories of Guta herself, Browning again displays the difficulties in utilizing memory as source as the person central to the event cannot even consistently recall the event.

With these multiple and conflicting testimonies, Browning demonstrates his process of accessing a core memory in order to reconstruct the event as accurately as possible though in no way perfect.  He concludes that Guta attacked the guard and survived a point-blank shot to the head that only grazed her.  She avoided later German retribution from the interference of a high ranking German official known for being corrupt and extorting prisoners.  In the more problematic areas, Browning contends that Guta’s memory of the mass graves is an “archetypal” Holocaust image that she incorporated into her own memory as no other witnesses recalled the mass grave, and that her attack on the guards was a singular act that did not save her parents or inspire a mass escape.[25]  This process, openly discussed by the author, displays the subjectivity and difficulties in working with survivor memories and Browning takes care throughout his study to demonstrate his process especially in problematic areas of analysis.  The honesty in his analytical process does not weaken his study but strengthens his arguments and demonstrates how problematic sources like memory should be utilized in writing history.

Ultimately these historians demonstrate that memory, if properly corroborated with other sources including memories, can and should be utilized by historians in all fields of study.  Bauer shows how properly corroborated memory can reconstruct the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe under both the Nazi and Soviet regimes with almost no documentary evidence.  In a similar fashion to Bauer, Browning’s examination of the victims searches for a “core memory” or similar features and recollections in testimonies to reconstruct the Jewish experience.  Therefore, these scholars reveal and demonstrate that memory can and should be approached like any documentary source: compared, interrogated, and analyzed for veracity, and that by treating memory similarly to documentary evidence, scholars can developed and reconstruct an accurate historical narrative.

[1] David Engel, Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, (Stanford, C.A.: Stanford University Press, 2010), 134-138.

[2] Jan-Werner Müller, “Introduction: the power of memory, the memory of power and the power over memory,” Memory and Power in Postwar Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3.

[3] Timothy Snyder, “Memory of sovereignty and sovereignty over memory: Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, 1939-1999,” Memory and Power in Postwar Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 40.

[4] David Engel, Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, (Stanford, C.A.: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[5] Christopher Browning, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, (New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 9.

[6] Yehuda Bauer, Death of the Shtetl, (New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press), 7.

[7] Bauer, 11.

[8] Ibid, 11, 12.

[9] Ibid, 11.

[10] Browning, Remembering Survival, 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Browning, Remembering Survival, 9.

[13] Bauer 79, 80, 82.

[14] Browning, Remembering Survival, 36-38.

[15] Bauer, 90.

[16] Bauer, 83.

[17] Bauer, 81, 82.

[18] Ibid, 85.

[19] Ibid, 82-85.

[20] Browning, Remembering Survival, 210-211.

[21] Ibid, 211.

[22] Ibid, 212, 213.

[23] Browning, Remembering Survival, 213.

[24] Ibid, 214-216.

[25] Browning, Remembering Survival, 216, 217.


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