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written testimony

When we think of first person, written sources on the Holocaust, we typically think of a narrative testimony in the form of a memoir. Indeed, some of the most well-known and lauded pieces of Holocaust literature fit this definition: Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Gerda Weissmann-Klein’s All But My Life, or Ruth Kluger’s Still Alive, to name only a few. However, there are many other forms of first person written accounts that exist. Indeed, by considering other forms of survivor writing—such as immediate postwar histories written by survivors, memorial books, and literary responses—we begin to see the multiplicity of ways in which survivors with vastly different experiences, and vastly different worldviews, began to process and understand their own personal histories in a variety of contexts.

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In 1944, the first of the Jewish historical commissions was established in Lublin, Poland, by Jewish historian and survivor Filip Friedman. His group of Jewish historians was already beginning to assemble questionnaires and methodologies for collecting and recording survivors’ 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 Łódź) had begun its memoir collection and competition efforts as a way to encourage survivors to record their experiences.1 To that end, journals such as Fun letsn khurbn from the Central Historical Commission in Munich (formed in 1945 by disciples of Friedman) published the more polished results of this material for distribution amongst the Jewish population in the DP camps and beyond. Simultaneously, individual memoirs were being published in Paris, the United States, Germany, Buenos Aires, Palestine, and elsewhere.

There is a great amount of diversity among these writings. Each of these pieces is mediated by the perspective of the writer, as well as by the form and framework of the editor or publisher who worked on it, or the historical commission who collected it. A literary piece written for an internal audience of fellow Jewish DPs may incorporate internal, coded language or slang that is all but unreadable to an outside reader. Even a history is composed with a particular audience in mind (academic or popular, Jewish or non-Jewish, European or American, etc.) and thereby emphasizes some aspects of the emerging Holocaust narrative over others. Thus, none of these pieces reflects a uniform, monolithic portrait of “the Holocaust,” but instead presents many different versions of a whole that was still very much being formed.2

These types of documents therefore raise a host of interpretive questions: for example, what do we make of the barrage of memoirs in diary format that emerge postwar? As memorial books begin to emerge in 1945 and 1946, how does their audience change? How were single-authored memoirs or literary pieces impacted by their own sense of futurity, and the emerging expectations of what a “Holocaust narrative” should look like? Overall, these sources push us to consider the formation and diversity of memory in the immediate postwar period, and the plethora of ways in which that memory was framed and expressed for different audiences and expectations.

 

These commissions and their function have been thoroughly examined in Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

 

Scholarship on first-person writing (be it memoir, diary, or fictionalized account) is extensive. It includes Alexandra Garbarini's study of Holocaust diaries, Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), which explores the importance and implications of analyzing Holocaust diaries as a primary source. Literary historian David Roskies also examines the implications of first person accounts (primarily in Yiddish) before, during, and after the Holocaust in his book, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). Fictionalized or literary memoirs are considered by Sara R. Horowitz in her book, Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), as well as James Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).