Recently, a number of historians rediscovered the early documentation of the Holocaust. They explored the activities of Jewish activists during the war and the frantic efforts of survivors to collect documents and archives, artifacts and testimonies about the persecution and extermination of European Jews. Most prominently, Laura Jockusch uncovered the neglected history of several early Jewish documentation projects, comparatively examining them to reconstruct the agency of Holocaust survivors for whom bringing together the evidence was part of their post-war return to life.1 Jockusch and others disputed the absence of interest, or the “silence” of survivors, Jewish communities and others.2 On the contrary, the scope of the early post-WWII documentation seemed to be overwhelming. New research also contributed to uncover the details of Holocaust documentation and remembrance in the Eastern Europe and even during the period of state socialism.3
Estimated 18 thousand testimonies have been recorded and eight thousand questionnaires (and perhaps many more) collected by the Jewish activists, or zamlers, across Europe, in Palestine/Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Some were collected in large-scale documentation projects, such as the one of the Munich committee active especially in the DP-camps, or the DEGOB project in post-WWII Hungary. Others were initiatives of individuals who documented and paid tribute to the Jewish communities decimated during the Holocaust. Some were based on an elaborate methodology whereas others were compiled with a limited knowledge and only a short preparation. Yet, for many future scholars, these weren’t the documents they were looking for.
For decades, this large body of testimony fell between the cracks of the changing patterns of Holocaust research. The early historians (as those in other fields of historical research) were more focused on factual evidence and gave more weight to “perpetrator” documents rather than to accounts based on memory and often recorded in haste. On the other hand, for later historians who paid more attention to the decision making, identity and narratives of the “victims”, the short protocols taken around 1945 were too factual, lacking the rich content, subjectivity and scope of later oral histories.
For the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI), the early documentation is an important subject which aligns with its critical approach to Holocaust archives and research in the provenance of the historical materials. Moreover, EHRI made the “victims” documents (in their different forms – from testimonies to documents of the Jewish communities and “Jewish councils”) one of its focus areas. Among other activities, EHRI organized two comparative workshops (in 2012 and 2014) which allowed archivists and historians discussed different aspects of early Holocaust documentation.
While containing only a limited set of carefully selected and edited documents, the EHRI Edition of Early Holocaust Testimony aims to draw scholarly attention to the underused testimonies originating from different countries and projects and located today in different archives. As a digital publication, it understands itself as a “life edition” which can be extended in the future to encompass further collections and offer a larger number of early accounts taken by Holocaust survivors and other activists.
1 Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford University Press, USA, 2012).
2 David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist, eds., After the Holocaust. Challenging the Myth of Silence (London; New York: Routledge, 2012); Regina Fritz, Éva Kovács, and Béla Rásky, eds., Als der Holocaust noch keinen Namen hatte. Zur frühen Aufarbeitung des NS-Massenmordes an den Juden = Before the Holocaust had its name. Early confrontations of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews, Beiträge zur Holocaustforschung des Wiener Wiesenthal Instituts für Holocaust-Studien 2 (Wien: Wiener Wiesenthal Institut für Holocaust-Studien / new academic press, 2016); Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, The Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); Hasia R. Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love. American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945–1962 (NYU Press, 2010); Natalia Aleksiun, ‘The Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland, 1944–1947’, Polin 22 (2008): 74–97; Alan Rosen, The Wonder of Their Voices. The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder (Oxford University Press, USA, 2012); Boaz Cohen, ‘The Children’s Voice: Postwar Collection of Testimonies from Child Survivors of the Holocaust’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 21, no. 1 (2007): 73–95.
3 See for instance: Stephan Stach, ‘Geschichtsschreibung und politische Vereinnahmungen: Das Jüdische Historische Institut in Warschau 1947–1968’, Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts / Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 7 (2008): 401–31; Peter Hallama and Stephan Stach, eds., Gegengeschichte. Zweiter Weltkrieg und Holocaust im ostmitteleuropäischen Dissens (Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2015); Peter Hallama, Nationale Helden und jüdische Opfer. Tschechische Repräsentationen des Holocaust, Schnittstellen. Studien zum östlichen und südöstlichen Europa 1 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).