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Moyshe Feygnboym: "Why Historical Commissions?"

Feygnboym, Moyshe article 1946
Courtesy of Amir Feigenbaum, Israel

In the years following World War II, historical commissions sought to establish an official "historical memory" of the Holocaust. The seeds of the Jewish historical commissions were planted even before the war in Europe ended. Already in 1944, the beginning of centers in both Poland and France arose through the initiative of Jewish historians like Filip Friedman and Isaac Schneersohn. It would not be until after liberation, however, that these organizations could truly begin their work. The commissions concerned themselves with a variety of goals: gathering and recording the facts of the Holocaust itself; understanding and framing its uniqueness both in terms of Jewish history and for the wider world; and collecting the voices of survivors from all age -groups and walks of life in order to create a repository of victims' voices.

In 1944, the first of the Jewish historical commissions was established in Lublin, Poland by Friedman. His group of Jewish historians had already begun to assemble questionnaires for collecting and recording survival testimony. One year later, Friedman began writing and researching a preliminary history of Auschwitz for the Polish government commission investigating German crimes. Simultaneously, the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Lublin (and later in Łódź) had begun its memoir collection efforts to encourage survivors to record their experiences. To that end, journals such as Fun letstn khurbn ("From the Last Extermination") from the Central Historical Commission in Munich published the more polished results of this material for distribution among the Jewish population in the DP camps and beyond.1

The call to "collect and record" became a massive organized effort with help from Jewish organizations both in Europe and abroad. When these various organizations framed their mission to survivors, they did so in different ways. The article presented here was published as the opening piece in the first issue of the periodical, Fun letstn khurbn. It begins with the question: "Why do we need an historical commission?" In the article, Central Historical Commission director Moyshe Feygnboym—a survivor of two ghettos in occupied Poland and deportation to Treblinka—implores his readers: "We, the survivors, the living witnesses, must lay the foundation for the historians, which they will use to create a clear picture of what happened among us and what happened to us." Apart from this basic task, however, Feygnboym also alluded to a broader purpose—possibly legal and political—of historical commissions: it was to be a "weapon on behalf of our interests."

The Central Historical Commission in Munich alone collected 2,500 testimonies with a skeleton staff between 1946 and 1948. These testimonies—in Yiddish, German, Polish, and Hebrew—were based on extensive interviews and questionnaires. Together with the work of the Historical Commission in Lublin, they constituted the first such efforts of their kind. Feygnboym’s comments place the authority of the survivor at the center of historical scholarship—a position that would become more and more complicated in the years to come.

For more information about the work of this and other historical commissions, see Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

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M. Y. Feygnboym

Head of the Historical Commission

Why a Historical Commission?

 

Many among us still ask: Why do we need the Historical Commissions? Is the Nuremberg trial not inundated with a deluge of documents on the Jews? What can we poor Jews contribute? Have the great powers not compiled a huge amount of material on the Nazi era? Given this, what sort of an impact could a few more documents of the sort we seek to collect have?

Indeed, during the Hitlerist occupation we certainly never dreamed of occupying ourselves with such work, it was so difficult to imagine that we would even survive. Those who would write the history of our tragic days, we believed, would not have a difficult time. Among the people in the countries where we were persecuted, there would be a sufficient number of living witnesses to the atrocities the brown murderers inflicted upon the Jews in such a public fashion. With complete objectivity, they would convey for the historical record our tragic experiences from those days and the destruction we faced. So we thought.

But already with our first steps after liberation we were disappointed. It became clear that not only are our neighbors unwilling to provide objective accounts, facts, and impressions, but also—on the contrary—they strive to diminish the Jewish tragedy, to whitewash it and even—where possible—to denigrate it.

One doesn't have to look far. We do not need to refer to facts from a Pole, for instance. It is sufficient simply to cite the declaration from former Prime Minister Churchill before the English Parliament in February 1945, when Churchill declared that the Nazis, "as people were saying," had supposedly murdered upwards of three million Polish Jews.

This was said by the prime minister of an empire that holds the entire world tight in the grasp of its spy services and that knows of even the smallest occurrence in the world. This was said by a statesman at a time when Poland up to the Vistula had been free for seven months... The Jewish Central Committee in Poland must be the first to have the honor of calling it to Churchill's esteemed attention that it isnot just, "as people were saying," but unfortunately it is a sad truth that the Nazis killed 3,250,000 Polish Jews.

This fact alone communicates enough, rendering reference to further examples superfluous.

The great powers have indeed compiled a huge amount of material. Yet they did not have the Jewish problem in mind. They have, first and foremost, their own interests in mind. We do not at all know whether the secret documents will remain secret. There is great doubt as to whether a Jewish historian will have access to them. Many documents that pertain directly to us Jews are not being compiled by the great powers at all, so whose responsibility is it to do so?

Even if we assume that they are collecting all the documents and the Jewish researcher will also have access to them. But in what do these documents actually consist?

All these documents make up only a fragment of our tragedy. They only show how the murderers dealt with us, how they treated us, and what they did with us. Did our life in those nightmarish days consist only of such fragments?

Upon which foundation will the historian be able to create a picture of what took place in the ghettos? How will people be able to preserve our life, full of suffering and pain? From what will people be able to learn about our heroic deeds and how will people be able to ascertain our relationship with our tormentors?

Before the war, in order to preserve Jewish life, the historian had at his disposal the Jewish press, folk culture, community record books, literature, archival material, pictures, etc. Yet today all this has disappeared.

We, the survivors, the surviving witnesses, must create a foundation for the historian that will take the place of the aforementioned sources so that he may create for himself a clear picture of what happened to us and among us.

Therefore, the testimony of every surviving Jew is of immense value for us. Every song from the Nazi area, every proverb, every anecdote and joke, every photograph, every creative work, whether in the realm of literature or art. In short, anything that can in the slightest illuminate the martyrdom of our tragic generation.

It is clear that we Jews must document this bloody era ourselves. This is why the Historical Commissions are needed.

The Historical Commissions, however, are not only sites for compiling materials for the scholar and the researcher, but are also  instruments that must be used by our Jewish organizations in the fight for our tomorrow in the international arena.

The Historical Commission holds materials that can be used by Jewish organizations as a weapon on behalf of our interests.

It is the duty of every Jew who tore himself away from the murderous grasp of the Hiltlerites to make himself available to the Historical Commissions whenever he may be asked to do so.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of Amir Feigenbaum, Israel
Date Created
1946
Page(s) 2
Author / Creator
Feygnboym, Moyshe
Language(s)
Yiddish
Location
Munich, Germany
Document Type Newspaper Article
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