Testimony and history

Samis Tamboch: Arbeit Macht Frei XI {1994), collage and acrylic on canvas

Testimony and witnesses are now so inextricably linked with the Holocaust that the memory of the genocide of the Jews has acquired a paradigmatic role in the emergence of the whole idea of testimony and survivors and the way they are handled in a variety of academic fields.

Testimony as a historical source, as an act of memory, as a political and cultural intervention has been at the centre of historical study, particularly since the period of the “explosion of testimony”, the 1980s, and is associated with the democratization of history and the multiplication of historical subjects. In any case, from as early as the end of the 1960s these subjects were challenging for a place in the historical narrative and raising concerns for historiography. The Eichmann trial was an important stage in this journey, since it gave survivors legal status and legitimized testimony as a source for the genocide. Besides, the trial contributed to social identity, that of survivors and, through individual testimonies, highlighted a collective history. In the first post-war years, survivors were not recognized as a separate, cohesive group. Survivor associations were introspective in that they addressed only those who had lived through shared experiences. The Eichmann trial turned public attention from the perpetrators to the victims. Whereas the Nuremberg trial had focused the legal procedure on the mechanisms which gave rise to the war and the punishment of the guilty, that of Eichmann was called to fulfil a wider educational role which surpassed the purpose for which the court had convened. In testifying, the survivors embodied memory, while at the same time declaring the continuum of the past to the present (See Wieviorka 2006:391).

Even though the extermination at the camps was well-documented in written sources, only oral testimony from survivors could convey the complexity of the traumatic experience and match the desire for a history of the Holocaust that was not identified with that of the perpetrators and thus did not reproduce their cognitive categories and their viewpoint. Testimony was used as a source for a more integrated view of the facts and for an understanding of the formation of the identities, or as a means of studying the trauma and pain (See Browning 2003: 37).

It is certainly probable that testimonies conflict, that they contain inaccuracies and that they sometimes express wrong judgements. But then the same can be said for any evidence. The “mistakes” do not invalidate the testimony as a whole. Besides, the testimonies do not contain a comprehensive narrative: different protagonists saw and remember the same event in a different light, depending on the position they were in and the role they played in the event. This variety of voices can be revealing for the historian. The perspectives of the resistance fighters, the displaced, the hidden away, the grown-ups, the children, the men, the women, the intellectuals, the poor… The historian is expected to highlight these dimensions, explain them, take into account parameters of locality and temporality, because, without these, the stories of the subjects are invalidated as ahistorical interpretative models.

Resistance to the efforts to expunge the testimony of the Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide began as early as the time of the Holocaust itself, since the victims were anxious about who would transmit the testimony, who would write the history of the period. Primo Levi refers to the knowledge of the prisoners of the intention of the Nazis to get rid of any trace of the genocide, to the common fate of victims and slayers to be agents of silence:

However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world will not believe him. There will perhaps be suspicions, discussions, research by historians, but there will be no certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you. And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed –they will say they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you. We will be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers” (Levi 1988, 11-12).

The first evidence from the period of the rise of Nazism, the occupation of Greece, the ghettos and their elimination is written testimonies, diaries, letters and so on, from those who, often enough, did not survive. These facts are used by Saul Friedlander in his recent works (1997 and 2008).

Numerous testimonies which were published immediately after the war are by way of being indictments, but they are also imbued with the desire to record all the then recent events, and express the feeling of the survivors of the camps that “they survived in order to bear witness”. In the following decades, the testimonies have less to do with actual events and dates and express more intensely the wish of the survivors to come to terms with their traumatic experience and also to make a record of their recollections for future generations. At the same time, both the desire and the rejection of the need for the dissemination of these testimonies evolved and were affected by political conditions and also by the invasion of the mass media and art. In the end, the times when the testimonies were rejected or were indirectly silenced, the moments at which they unfurled freely and even after provocation shaped the form of the narratives and, probably, the structure of the memory.

When the post-war evidence (written and oral) claimed a place in the historiography of the Holocaust, questions and differences of opinion surfaced regarding memory and history, the distinction between witness and historical source, as well as the nature of the writing of history itself. Memory has been associated with authenticity, with subjectivity and vitality; history with objectivity and a dispassionate reconstruction of the past. Testimony was considered subjective and emotional, whereas the written source was associated with an impartial and objective record. On the other hand, witness was often taken to be a substitute for history. The manner in which Claude Lanzmann uses testimony in his work Shoah was thought by literary critics and psychoanalysts to be exemplary as regards the power that evidence has to bring the truth to us. Shoshana Felman refers to the song in Lanzmann's Shoah as a performative event that "speaks to us beyond its words, beyond its melody" (278) in order to argue that the witness cannot bear witness to the Shoah but can only testify to the destruction of testimony. Testifying from inside a death camp would entail "the paradoxical necessity of testifying from inside a radical deception that is, moreover, doubled and enhanced by self-deception" or the necessity to bear witness from inside the very binding of the secret (229). What is otherwise untestifiable is thus transmitted by the signature of the voice (Felman 1992). The song as a fragment of reality and at the cross-roads between art and history is thought to be capable of making testimony possible- which history cannot do. But the exclusive equation of testimony with traumatic memory and a restrictive conceptualization of performance in previous theoretical approaches impair analysis and the understanding of those aspects of the memory which illumine the past and the multiplicity of the experiences of the survivors (See La Capra, 1998, 95-138). Besides, the approach of regarding testimony as an agent of the truth negates it as narrative, its narrative dimension (See Spiegel 2002, 157). If, on the other hand, we agree that testimony is a narrativization of a past experience by the memory, then the same story can be offered to the historian as an item for investigation.

The transmogrifications in the form of the witnesses from the beginning of the Nazi persecutions until today are examined in conjunction with the audience and the role they play in the interview, with the cultural context and the signification of the Holocaust at different periods of time and well as the process of assembling the archive of testimonies.

In short, in the last thirty years, the discussion of the testimony of the Shoah has not been restricted to history, but has extended into the fields of psychoanalysis, literature and philosophy, bringing back issues of authenticity, objectivity, reconstruction, narration and trauma, corresponding to those which the notion of memory put in place. Testimony was approached as a new idiom which altered the vocabulary of recollection. The central position of testimony in the cultural discourses of memory highlights the contradiction between the necessity but infeasibility of transmitting the testimony of the traumatic past in its fullness.

As its multiplicity and complexity is increasingly clarified, testimony also reveals its compound nature as a historical source. Even if the testimonies do not radically alter the “statistical” picture we have of the events at the time of the war, they do give us the perspective of a head-on encounter between the perpetrators and the victims during the persecutions, the displacements and the murders. They interrupt the linear narrative, introduce alternate interpretations and call into question patterns of behaviour, without assuaging doubt.

In his last book (1969), Siegfried Kracauer writes that both the exile and the historian live between the present and the past. They seek familiarity and estrangement at the same time. Their art consists in reducing to a minimum the disadvantages which arise from distance and deriving as many as scientific advantages as possible from it. The testimonies from the war years may- today- be a guide for both.

The focus of recent research on the non-verbal aspects of testimony (silence, embodied memory and mute moments in the interview which are filled with emotions expressed through bodily attitudes) appears to have changed them into a screen onto which various concepts are projected by the audience. The “mute witness”, silence as a choice or necessity and not forgetfulness, also claim a part of the “truth” and the “complete” testimony of the Shoah. The historical archive of the testimonies contains all the narratives of the survivors and everything that could not be said.