The word "testimony" is one of the most widely used terms in Holocaust research, but it is not always clearly defined. This raises many questions. Does it refer only to the act of testifying in a courtroom following the war, such as in the Nuremberg Trials of the late 1940s? Or does testimony also include less formal postwar interviews with Jewish survivors? Are survivor memoirs also forms of testimony? How might testimonies change when they are given in front of an audience?
Survivor testimony about the Holocaust played important roles in postwar legal trials. Witness statements like the Nuremberg trial testimony of Avrom Sutzkever or the Auschwitz trial testimony of Otto Wolken added vivid personal details to the proceedings. Jewish historical commissions also gathered survivor testimonies and records, such as the testimony of Fiszl Kuszner or the children's questionnaire of Josef Munzer. These commissions collected survivor testimonies to help pursue justice, but they also gathered these accounts for the purposes of historical preservation.
Some of the earliest recorded survivor interviews were collected solely in order to preserve these early testimonies. Sociologist David Boder began recording interviews with survivors in summer 1946. His interview with Helen Tichauer raises several questions about how early postwar survivor interviews might have been shaped by the recording technology, the language used, and the line of questioning.1
Interviews recorded decades later raise other questions about memory and the broader context in which a testimony is given. What topics were considered off limits at the time that an interview was given? What was considered important to ask about at the time? Recorded interviews with Gertrude Schneider and Ruth Elias include personal details that may not have been shared in the years immediately after the war. Oral histories with Charlene Schiff and Henry Kanner reflect on the power that individual memories still have years after the events.
Scholars have been studying the nature of memory and survivor testimony for decades.2 Although survivor testimonies have certain limitations as historical sources, scholars have shown how these testimonies can form the basis for important historical research and add new dimensions to the study of the Holocaust.3 The timing and context of an individual testimony could greatly shape its content. How might the language, the setting, or the date of a testimony change its shape? What was a testimony's intended purpose? These questions are important to consider when studying any form of Holocaust testimony.
This collection shows just some of the wide variety of postwar interviews and documents considered "testimonies." The featured sources include courtroom testimonies, recorded interviews, and written records. Some of these testimonies were created shortly after the events described, while others are given decades later. Although they are each very different, these testimonies all preserve firsthand accounts and add important personal details to our understanding of the history of the Holocaust.