Who? Where? and How? Establishing the Story: Early Recollections of a Devastating Past
Sharon Kangisser Cohen
Research on oral accounts – which include oral history, narrative interviews, and survivor testimony – repeatedly argues that the context in which the narration takes place is central to understanding the construction of the individual’s story. The preeminent oral historian Alessandro Portelli wrote that “oral sources are not to be thought of in terms of nouns and objects but in terms of verbs and processes; not the memory and the tale but the remembering and the telling.” 1 The story as told by the individual survivor is his or her memory and interpretation of the event, which is in a state of constant negotiation and dialogue. The meaning the individuals attribute to their past is arguably influenced by various factors, including the sociopolitical context in which their self is being negotiated and constructed. These factors include evolving cultural interpretations of the Holocaust, the image and role of the survivors in society, and the established tropes and narratives through which experience is communicated. The survivors’ relationship to the past could also be influenced by internal cues, such as their age at the time of retelling, their psychological and emotional state at the time of retelling, and the greater context of their lives, such as subsequent episodes in their lives which may have impacted on their understanding and interpretation of their personal past. The process of retelling is also influenced by the nature of the interview process: how the interview is conducted, what types of questions are asked, and how the witness understands the questions.
Survivor testimonies created in the immediate postwar period are invaluable documents, not only because, for many of these survivors, it was one of the first opportunities to create what Henry Greenspan argued was the attempt to “make a story” out of something that was “not a story” 2 – in other words to give a coherent and meaningful account of a period of emotional turmoil and physical devastation. 3 It also captures the survivor at a specific point in time: a few months after their liberation from the clutches of death and cruelty. During these first months following liberation, the survivors found themselves in the moments between emerging from the horror and having to rejoin the free world and rebuild their lives. During these months, the full extent of what happened during the war was not always known and particularly the fate of their loved ones was for many unclear. The testimonies created during this time capture a context that is wider than the individuals’ story and perspective and provide researchers with a window into the social, cultural, and political realities of that time.
The following project presents selected testimonies from four important testimony collections, namely: the DEGOB, the Wiener Library, The Jewish Museum in Prague (Documentation Campaign collection), and the Jewish Historical Commission, which were initiated in different countries in the first months and decades after the Shoah. The aim of this introduction is to raise points to consider when reading these early texts and in particular to think about whether early testimonies have a unique structure or convey a particular meaning or interpretation of this difficult past.
One of the most significant issues to take into account with the earlier testimonies relates to the question of the extent of the editing process to which these texts have been subjected. Because we have limited documentation regarding this issue, it is difficult to say whether these early testimonies are solely based on the words of the individual interviewees. It is fair to say that these texts were co-constructed texts which reflect the core stories of experience and personal memory, yet may not include all of the memories or interpretations of the individual. Researchers working with these depositions therefore need to bear in mind the imperatives of the institution that directed the given project as well as the role and perspective of the individual interviewers when writing up the interviews. In producing these texts, the interviewers could have been influenced by their personal or institutional concerns. Nevertheless, within these short and fragmented texts, nuggets of experiences are recalled and shared that provide scholars with valuable insights into the period, including issues that the victims faced and how they responded to these. The scenes, images, and behaviors that are recalled originate then and not now. They reveal memories that have remained significant in the minds and memories of those who recall them. They can be viewed as what Robert Kraft has termed “core memories,” namely “the representation of the original phenomenal experience in the form of perceptual, emotional, and physiological experience: visual images, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, and bodily sensations – as vivid and as compelling as dreams.” This is different from “narrative memory,” which “is constructed from the images in core memory shaped in accordance with narrative conventions and conveyed primarily in language.” 4
The early depositions are relatively short in comparison to testimonies that were given later; ranging mostly from one to a few typed, single-spaced pages, they focus on the individual’s survival story, often including near-death escapes. There is very little recollection of the prewar years, which is probably a reaction to the aim of the given project, which for the most part aimed to reconstruct wartime experiences. In some of the interviews, the first line or two hint at the socioeconomic situation of the family, but the religious or ideological position of the family is rarely disclosed. The depositions usually begin with a few sentences recounting the outbreak of the war, then proceed to the main focus of the war story and the individual’s account of survival, sometimes ending with a few thoughts or comments about the survivor’s current situation. Alongside the chronological narration, there is also the recounting of how the interviewee “explains” their survival: the moments, events, and decisions made which facilitated their continued escape from death.
Each of the collections created in the postwar period were constructed in different geographical locations and therefore articulate collective experiences – before, during, and after the war. The DEGOB collection captures the experience of the Holocaust in Hungary, which for most Hungarian Jews involved a short period of incarceration in ghettoes and deportation to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most were murdered on arrival. Those who survived and gave testimony usually spoke about antisemitic activities and legislation in Hungary before the occupation, the deportation to camps, their time as prisoners in the camp, and their liberation following the death marches westwards. The depositions collected by the Jewish Historical Commission and part of the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) articulate the varied experiences of Polish Jews under Nazi occupation: the initial assault after the invasion, ghettoization for an extended period of time, deportation to labor and death camps, death marches, and liberation. The JHI collections include the stories of those who managed to find shelter and were rescued by Poles, who also tell of experiences of betrayal and local antisemitism. The Wiener Library’s collection for the most part encapsulates the stories of the early years of persecution in Germany and Austria and the complicated and harrowing escape from Europe. The collection of the Prague Documentation Campaign is eclectic not only in the way the statements are constructed, but also in the reflection of varied experiences during the war, although the majority in this online collection relate to the deportations to Theresienstadt and subsequently to Auschwitz-Birkenau. These statements for the most part take on the structure of a witness statement, which attempt to give historical descriptions and details and which were verified by a “witness” and the head of the documentation campaign, Zeev Scheck, and the archive representative, Alex Schmiedt. Each collection therefore represents a collective experience which differ significantly from each other and yet articulate shared memories of physical and emotional suffering and torment.
Many of the early depositions given at the Wiener Library provide researchers and scholars with a unique perspective – the first years after the Nazi takeover and the assault on Jewish life culminating in the November Pogrom and the survivors’ individual escapes from Europe. The main narrative of these accounts relate to the sudden blow that German and Austrian Jews experienced, who were trapped in an increasingly unrecognizable reality which forced them to take huge strides to adapt and create a semblance of normality and stability. These testimonies are invaluable as they provide a window into the terror of these earlier years which are largely absent in testimonies of those who did manage to escape before Nazi anti-Jewish policy radicalized, culminating in deportation to ghettos, camps, and mass murder. These depositions reclaim the trauma of the initial years of increasing Nazi terror, brutality, and restrictions, without knowing how Nazi persecution would continue to unfold. Characteristic of these early accounts is the anxiety these individuals felt in facing chaos, the unknown, and a way of life that was dissolving quickly before their eyes. As one of the interviewees from the Wiener Library’s collection recalls the November Pogrom:
“As I stood guard behind the curtains, one of these gangs did indeed come down on our street, however passed us by and turned round the corner. We then saw books, cushions, clothes, household goods etc. flying out of the windows onto the street three houses down from our home. It was essential to act in these minutes. Mutter kept saying I should not stay at home. I therefore spent some time driving here and there around X. and saw that the destruction was fully underway in the homes, I parked the car next to others on the road because I did not feel safe in the car any longer.”
From the depositions of camp survivors from the JHI and DEGOB collections, there appears to be a consistent narrative pattern which is inherently chronological but also durational in the telling of the stages of survival: the first moments of the Nazi occupation, the increasing restrictions with a particular emphasis on financial losses, the process of ghettoization, the selections, deportation to death and/or labor camps, the death marches, and the moment of liberation. However, the main focus of these accounts is on camp life and the routine, which are explained with particular emphasis on the lack of food, extreme weather conditions, the cruelty of the guards, and the anxiety surrounding selections. One of the interviewees describing incarceration in Auschwitz exclaims:
“There were frequent selections, which always caused terrible anxiety as we already knew what they meant, why flames were coming out of the chimneys of the crematorium day and night… We got out of Auschwitz that [which] meant constant anxiety."
Many of the depositions give a chaotic account of the last period of the war, during which the victims were herded to numerous places, subject to increasingly difficult conditions and the harrowing experience of random killing and death as liberation approached. Having lacked adequate clothing and food, survivors recount their desperation as their physical and mental strength declined. From these short depositions it becomes clear that the physical assault of the wartime years is the focus of the suffering. Memories of beatings, torture, starvation, extreme weather, inhumane work, and standing for hours stands at the forefront of their memories. Survivors’ memories from the early postwar period are predominantly sensory.
Another feature of the early accounts is the survivors’ impulse to recount stories that demonstrate the extremity of human behavior and experience. While for the most part, these depositions give a chronological account of their survival, many of them include “small,” self-contained stories that stand out for the teller. It appears that these smaller stories either demonstrate acts of extreme cruelty or kindness, which arguably reflect the victims’ predicament during the Shoah: vulnerability and almost complete dependence on the behavior and attitudes of others. These depositions often relate stories which recount the endless cruelties not only experienced by themselves but by others around them. These “small stories” reveal the psychological torment in not only enduring their own suffering but witnessing the abuse of others. It could be argued that witnessing such wanton acts of cruelty would only deepen their own anxiety as to what was horrifyingly possible. An example of this is taken from the JHI collection:
“One particular situation remains etched in my memory. Nearby, there was a very rich German delicatessen. The owner’s daughter, very pretty, the picture of health, slapped a Jewish child in the face, dressed in rags, who had asked for a piece of bread.”
Stories of acts of kindness and compassion are shared as well as moments of reprieve or even joy. Most of the depositions make it clear when the survivors were fortunate enough to experience better conditions or even have a positive experience which gave them hope or resilience. In one of the Wiener Library depositions, the survivor relates the situation after being deported to a camp:
“…personally, I acquired for the first time a positive attitude towards the Jewish part of my life. Previously I had felt the kind of ‘Jewish antisemitism’ which, I believe, was often found in some sections of German Jewry. I lost this feeling completely through the intimate contact with other camp inmates, some of whom had physically and mentally strong Jewish characteristics.”
The survivors’ imperative to give testimony of individual behavior during the war stemmed from the need to identify and punish the perpetrators and acknowledge the rescuers. Thus, an important feature of these early accounts is the listing of the names of perpetrators, including their rank and involvement in the torture and murder of Jews. In a testament given by Dr. Walter Löbner, which is part of the collection from the Prague Documentation Campaign, he declares:
“As I want to play my part in making sure that those responsible are punished, I want to make the names of several perpetrators that I know available to the commendable investigating authorities.”
The statements given to the Prague Documentation Campaign were particularly detailed in listing the names and roles of the perpetrators. The statement given by Regina Lebensfeldová-Hofstädterová lists the full names and positions of the perpetrators in Auschwitz. She also reveals some of their techniques in exercising total control over the population.
“Lachmann was a small, thin man and looked very pale, he would often put on prisoner clothing, go into the camp, and spend the night there, in order to hear from prisoners who didn’t recognize him what was going on in the camp.
After such undercover work, there were always many prisoners who would be doomed to death.”
Many of the survivorsname the individuals, for the most part compatriots and neighbors, who acted cruelly and stole their possessions. These statements reflect the intimacy of cruelty and greed during the early years of the occupation.
As one of the interviewees explained, as a result of theft and plunder at the hands of the local population:
“We went into the ghetto with a few pieces of underwear and one set of clothes.”
Survivors were also motivated to recall the loss of their wealth and property in the hope that some financial compensation and restitution could be achieved. Unlike later testimonies, early postwar depositions do not describe the religious or social life of their families and communities before the war. However, many describe their socioeconomic status and how it was ruined even before the Nazi takeover. For example, many of the interviewees in the DEGOB collection describe the greed of their Hungarian neighbors and later officials – who formally through a series of expropriation laws, but also informally through looting, mercilessly robbed the Jews.
As part of this discussion, descriptions of the initial assault on the Jewish community informs researchers about the increasing humiliation and impoverishment of the Jews which would undoubtedly affect their ability to survive as their conditions worsened and they became increasingly dependent on the authorities for their survival.
Alongside memories of the tormentors, there are also descriptions of the individuals who were active in helping the survivors. Interestingly, in some of the interviews, the relationship between the rescuer and the survivors is explored. In one particularly detailed account, Julia (Maria) Stern-Abraham,
who together with her daughter was saved by a German civil servant in Lemberg/Lviv during the war, described the nature of their relationship, which became one of mutual dependence and help. In the early accounts, the survivors are clear about the rescuers’ motivations and are also empathic to the rescuers’ anxieties and difficulties in having made the decision to help them. Interestingly, in these early accounts, the rescuers are not presented as heroes, but rather as individuals who decided to extend help to those in need and who throughout the period of rescue faced continual pressure and fear.
The statements given to the Documentation Campaign have a distinctive quality – the imperative to make a testament in which the historical events are recorded. In his statement, Hanuš Gibián gave the exact time and location of a mass shooting by the SS of 42 Jews who had been caught hiding in the Slovak mountains. He provided the following details:
“This happened on November 1, 1944, at 13:00 in the gap between Kozí Chrbát and Prašiva in the Lower Tatra Mountains, near the village of Hiadel.”
In the early postwar period, most survivors had no knowledge regarding the fate of their loved ones, friends, and communities, unless they had witnessed their murder. In most of the accounts, the last time the survivors saw their parents or relatives is usually recounted, and in many cases the last words, instruction, or interaction is recalled. Recollections of the suffering and death of those around them was one of the primary motivations for giving testimony: Survivors felt an obligation to retell their suffering in order to tell the world what had happened. It was not only for the sake of creating the historical record, but also to give testimony for the majority of the victims whose stories would not be told and remembered.
In this period, many survivors hoped that they would be reunited. As one of the survivors stated when asked what his plans were:
“Future plans? I do not know. First, I would like to find out where there are surviving members of my family, and I will make plans only afterwards.”
From the statements given to the Prague Documentation Campaign, the issue of information, awareness, and reflection becomes evident in a powerful statement given by Heda Grabová, a professional opera singer who was instrumental in the creation of the significant cultural life in the ghetto. In her statement, she remarked:
“In the summer of 1944, Theresienstadt seemed like an El Dorado in Europe, a place where there are no airstrikes, no fronts, in short, no dangers threatened it. […] Then, around April 20, the first transport of the so-called pajama wearers from Buchenwald arrived in Theresienstadt and our eyes were opened. We discovered the true reality and that day all of the singing, playing, and distracting ourselves stopped. We were in no mood to sing.”
Lastly, the interviewees often related the inadequacy of their deposition in fully reflecting what they had experienced. In the words of one of the interviewees from the Wiener Library collections, which is echoed in some of the other statements:
“I cannot describe here in a few short lines all the dreadful and horrible things that I experienced just five months ago. Even if I were to speak about it for years, it would be impossible to relate everything that I suffered personally.”
There was also an awareness on the part of the survivors that they were not able to write and include everything that they went through in their statements. In the words of Regina Lebensfeldová-Hofstädterová:
“There are many things that happened in the camp and in the office that I don’t feel able to write down at the moment.”
Early postwar testimonies can be seen as the beginning of a journey into the survivors’ understanding of what they had experienced. It involves the collection of information and awareness of their individual, communal, and collective fate. It concerns itself with gathering information for the purposes of postwar restitution, justice, and commemoration. Establishing and telling the story is a primary concern; coming to terms with it and making sense of it, if at all possible, is a life-long project. For many of these survivors, these narrations would be the first of many – both formal and informal – which would move from short, descriptive accounts of how the individual survived to longer accounts in which survivors would not only recount what happened but begin to think about why it happened and how their wartime experiences affected the rest of their lives. In retelling, they would also keep trying to find ways to describe what survivors would often call the “indescribable”. Over the decades, most of the survivors would gather more information regarding what had happened during the war and learn of the fates of their loved ones. They would try and integrate their traumatic past into the rest of their lives. In the creation of a life story in which the different parts of their selves are explored and presented, they speak more about the worlds before the war which were lost and the ones that ought to be built in the future in order to create a memorial to and warning against destruction.
In this introduction, I attempted to identify some of the characteristics of early postwar testimonies and therefore related to elements in each interview which articulate the central concerns and imperatives of the interviewees during this period of time. I hereby identified elements within the particular testimony and constructed a dialogue between the collections. However, it is important to point out my own research position regarding testimony: When using testimonies in research, it is crucial that interviews need to be read in their entirety. The narrative and dynamics of how the individual remembers and makes sense of their past evolves during the telling and can be noticed only when the entire script is read. While comparing interviews is valuable in order to see differences and patterns and in creating collective memories of an experience, identifying and isolating fragments within the general narrative may strip the interview of its context which arguably removes or reduces the survivor’s meaning. One of the important attributes of survivor testimony is that it gives the victims a voice and personalizes his or her suffering, therefore listening to the entire account is a crucial element in our moral obligation towards the witness and in the relational contract established at the time of the interview.
1 ‒ Alessandro Portelli, The order has been carried out: History, memory, and meaning of a Nazi massacre in Rome, Springer 2016.
2 ‒ Henry Greenspan, On listening to Holocaust survivors: Recounting and life history, Praeger Publishers 1998, p. xviii.
3 ‒ Testimonials and depositions were not the only means through which survivors attempted to communicate their pasts. Presumably, survivors would have spent a lot of time speaking amongst themselves, yet this is a dynamic which is not preserved.
4 ‒ Robert Nathaniel Kraft, Memory perceived: Recalling the Holocaust, Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group 2002, p. 26.