What is an early Holocaust testimony?
How to select documents to be included in the edition, what establishes an early Holocaust account, and what can be considered a testimony in the first place? These were the questions confronted by the editorial team consisting of EHRI partner institutions, the Jewish Museum in Prague, The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide, Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Hungarian Jewish Archives, Yad Vashem and later the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
In the preliminary discussions, the edition team decided in favour of inclusivity as to the time of creation as well as the variety of documents which can be considered a testimony. Rather than to prefer a specific idea, we wanted to represent the diversity of early accounts of the Holocaust.
The experts from the relevant collection holding institutions (who, at the beginning at least, participated in the EHRI work package “New views on digital archives”) were asked to select a sample from their archives which best represent the early testimony. Variety of types of documents was explicitly encouraged - from protocols with survivors to questionnaires to letters testifying in a more formal way about the persecution. A testimony, for that purpose, was any document which aimed to capture in some form the experience of the Holocaust and record its events for others.
Taking into consideration the types of sources represented in the testimony collections, the team decided to capture a broader time span as well. For the purpose of this edition, “early” corresponds to any eyewitness account of the persecution of Jews from the Nazi takeover of power in Germany in 1933 to roughly the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961 which invested the history of the Shoah and the testimony of survivors with a new meaning, and increased attention.
Some collections, such as the DEGOB (Hungarian Jewish Archives), the Documentation Campaign (Jewish Museum in Prague) and the Polish Jewish Historical Comission (Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw) strictly present only immediate and early post WWII protocols with survivors.
On the other hand, the Wiener Library represents the wider time span of the early testimony. It includes both pre-WWII documents (for example those from the collection of “Kristallnacht” reports from 1938) as well as protocols based on interviews with survivors living in the United Kingdom and taken until the late 1950s (such as the report of Ursula Finke regarding her underground life in Berlin).
A similar approach was also adopted also by Yad Vashem, given the variety of its testimony collections, from the war-time Ball-Kaduri protocols to the post-WWII testimonies collected in the DP camps in Germany.
To increase accessibility and allow for easier comparison, the edition provides all testimonies in English. Yet, Holocaust documentation was a multi-lingual effort which the edition is designed to reflect. Alongside with English, researchers can switch to the original languages and read the text languages such as French, Dutch, German, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, etc.
Currently, the EHRI team is working on a set of more than thirty Yiddish testimonies, which should be added to the edition during 2020.
Since the edition is intentionally focused on representing a typology (and diversity) of Holocaust testimony from the early period, no effort was made to achieve a thematically balanced set of documents. The edition also aimed to capture the characteristics of written testimony and doesn't include audio or video interviews with the Holocaust survivors.
In short, the edition was designed to represent the diversity - in forms, situations, languages, etc. - which itself was a result of a search for appropriate forms of capturing the extreme experience of exclusion, persecution and murder, moreover in a period when the emotional traces of what we today call the Holocaust were still fresh. And as a digital and online publication, as an open-ended and ongoing effort, the edition also captures our growing understanding of the richness of the early Holocaust testimony.