Over time, how did Holocaust survivor testimony develop? What motivated survivors, overcoming initial inhibitions, indeed, suppression of the impulse to retell their stories? How is survivor testimony utilized in academic writing?
Langer , L., Holocaust testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. (Yale University Press 1993 )
First, we need to define what is meant by testimony. For most people, the term evokes the formality of a written or spoken statement; for scholars, however, the term has a different meaning, in any case, an integral part of history. Is there history without testimonies? After the Holocaust, some survivors of the death camps started to talk about this period, but, in the main, were overwhelmingly reticent to reveal details about concentration camps. Then, as years passed, there began first a trickle, then a torrent of first-person accounts to satisfy a compelling need to leave a family legacy, and an obligation to instruct future generations in order to prevent a similar catastrophe to humanity.
In time, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation amassed a huge library of survivor testimonies, including that of Jacob S. Matathias, of Volos, Greece. Additionally, Holocaust memorials and centers were erected to house the artifacts found in the mountains of discarded personal affects as their owners were marched to gas chambers and crematoria. Matter-of-factly, survivors sat before cameras to tell of their horrifying experiences, even feeling an enveloped, residual guilt for having been among the “lucky” to be alive! In such projects do we witness the trauma’s unintended therapy, remembering and reflecting on the past, as a way to fashion a productive future. Increasingly, inexorably, and now in their 80’s and beyond, survivors are passing from the scene. It is a matter of acute concern that new victimizers of decency are created in the guise of people who deny or, worse, blames the victims for, the Holocaust. More, political parties have risen in Germany’s occupied World War II territories to satiate the voracious appetite of those who expound the world’s oldest contagion, anti-Semitism, the motive force raised to the pinnacle of extermination of all Jews. Added to this, and connected to the protracted world economic crisis, are additional hatreds: anti-Zionism, xenophobia, homophobia, all responsibilities laid to Jews.
Documentaries, and periodic trials of perpetrators, most-notably that of Adolf Eichman in Jerusalem, give unassailable evidence that the heinous crime of the ages is a stigma for all humanity, a modern-day mark of Cain never to be erased. Still, and even among survivors’ families, now into the third generation, ignorance appears, perhaps the result of the subject’s surfeit
Thus, education remains the most potent antidote not only to combat ignorance, but to advance understanding, tolerance, and compassion. Reading testimonies of protagonists adds an emotional dimension to a purely academic exercise.