Literature of the Holocaust
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Lawrence Langer on Yale's Video Archives of Holocaust Testimonies
From Yale's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies Summer Newsletter, 1996
Professor Lawrence L. Langer (Emeritus Professor of English, Simmons College) is a foremost scholar of the Holocaust. His Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory,, based on the Fortunoff Video Archive's collection, was named one of the "Ten Best Books of 1991" by the New York Times Book Review and won a 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award. His *Admitting the Holocaust* and *Art From the Ashes* have since been published. Professor Langer conducts interviews and interviewer training sessions for the Video Archive, lectures throughout the world, and is a member of our Honorary Board of Consultants. He will be a Senior Scholar at the Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this coming fall and a Koerner Fellow for the Study of the Holocaust at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University in 1997. He discusses the value of Holocaust testimonies:
A few months ago a reporter from the Boston Globe called me to say that he was planning to write a piece on survivor testimonies and wondered whether he might ask me some questions on the subject. We spoke for nearly an hour, and I suggested he contact survivors in the area and also look at several of the videotaped testimonies available in local collections and in the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University. He did speak to people at Yale, but as far as I know he never visited, never viewed any testimonies, and if he did talk with any survivors, one wouldn't know it from what he wrote, since their opinions about the purpose and value of their testimony are totally absent from his commentary.
It was clear to me from our initial conversation that this journalist had stumbled on an issue he knew almost nothing about. Not surprising, the results were worse than disappointing -- they were unintentionally insulting, especially to the local Holocaust survivors whose memories he ended up calling into question. The headline spread in large black letters across the top of the page containing his report read: REMAKING THE HOLOCAUST? The interrogative insinuates a possibility that belongs in an account of Holocaust deniers, but not Holocaust witnesses. In a sub-heading, the article heralds a debate among scholars about “whether the drive to get survivors’ stories on videotape is skewing the way we view the nightmare.”
Since the “drive” began at Yale in 1979, one wonders why it has taken so long for the issue to reach public scrutiny. One answer is that few people, including the journalist and most of the scholars he contacted, have spend much time *viewing* the testimonies. Imagine attacking the “drive” to write so many books about the Holocaust -- and new ones appear every month -- without reading them first.
One distinguished scholar cited in the article seems incensed by the notion that any “deeper level of truth” about how individual victims experienced the Holocaust might be gained form studying their testimonies on videotape. Anyone who has devoted even a minimal amount of time to witnessing recent examples of this oral evidence would dispute this scholar’s superficial conclusion that “early accounts captured the life and death of those who died,” while now “the focus has shifted to “How I survived.’” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Another distinguished scholar, whose judgment once more is obviously not based on a careful study of the videotaped narratives, declares that there is “a hidden triumphalism in basing the story of the Holocaust purely on the survivor testimonies.” This statement is doubly uninformed, since to my knowledge no qualified research in the field has ever suggested that Holocaust history should be based purely or even chiefly on survivor testimony. Moreover, those who se Holocaust testimony to celebrate the triumph of European Jewry over German efforts to destroy them betray a singular ignorance of its contents. Few witnesses choose this gambit. Testimonies are emphatic on this point: the luck of one person’s staying alive cannot be detached from the misfortune of another person’s death. The notion that survivors feel “triumphal” at having emerged alive when most family members have been murdered is at best naive, at worst misguided.
A third distinguished scholar lists “special characteristics” of Holocaust survivors that “sets them apart from the victims,” though the evidence of the oral testimonies belies all of his claims. The illusion that survivors were “decision-makers” continues to surface from time to time, but it must contend with the exemplary voice of the witness who vowed that in Auschwitz “you didn’t do; it was done to you.” The belief that survivors “had the ability to endure, psychologically and physically,” suggests that those who died or were murdered did not, as if typhus, starvation, and selection for the gas chamber lay in the hands of the victim and not the killer. The odd notion that those who managed to stay alive were “in the situation of not having to worry about a family” is challenged by the insistence of dozens of witnesses that they survived *because* they had a family member to worry about. No simply rules for survival apply; any effort to design them is futile.
Finally, the idea that “survivor guilt” curtails testimonies, causing some Jews to “leave out crucial parts of their experiences” only proves that this scholar is unacquainted with the testimony of the large number of witnesses who offer detailed information on stealing food in ghettos and camps from strangers, friends, and members of their own families because they are literally starving; or of women who give birth and then surrender their infants in order to save their own lives; or of the regularly reported endeavor to find “safer” work when the result might be to make someone else more vulnerable to selection. Indeed, after having watched hundreds of testimonies, I am chastened by how much -- despite the shame and remorse it evokes -- witnesses are willing to *admit*, not conceal.
Why a historian would want to impugn narratives about Jewish experience in ghettos, labor camps and deathcamps by calling them a “cult of testimony,” continues to mystify me. Our journalist’s shameful inference from all this is that “testimony is sometimes merely hearsay.” The same charge could be made against any published autobiography or memoir. A healthy skepticism is required for written history as well as oral testimony, but this does not invite us to regard either as a form of gossip.
A deeper question remains, and that is why so many scholars are still suspicious of the value of survivor testimonies. These testimonies are not media events, though they may be made to seem so by those who exploit them for commercial or other reasons. The charge that they attempt to “remake the Holocaust” is an insidious form of irresponsible journalism by a novice in a field who leaves unexamined the rough-hewn surmises of the experts he queries and displays them as if they were the invaluable polished gems of truth.
Lawrence L. Langer
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