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Education  
Volume 17, No.1 / Spring 2003            
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust
About Testimonies


Testimony
About Testimonies

Importance of Testimonies in Holocaust Education

Using Testimony in the Classroom

Recorded Testimonies of Survivors (1946)
Nechama Tec
Biography

Timeline

Historical Background: Jews in Poland

Writings of Nechama Tec
  • Intro
  • Dry Tears (6th Grade - College)
      • Overview
      • Questions & Activities
Testimonies and Holocaust Research and Teaching: General Comments

What are testimonies?

Testimonies are vital for research and teaching about the Holocaust. Testimonies may be written or recorded on audiotape or videotape. Ever since the close of World War II there have been testimonies of Holocaust survivors, witnesses and, in rarer cases, rescuers. Many of early testimonies after the war were incorporated in trial proceedings and commission reports; other testimonies were preserved in archives. Particularly interesting is the story of Dr. David Boder: he was a Jewish refugee living in the United States during the war who decided to go back to his Polish hometown in 1946 and gather oral testimonies. Little was known about his collection until recently when the Illinois Institute of Technology placed it on a website, encouraging scholars to listen to the voices of survivors from the immediate postwar years. Dr. Nora Levin at Gratz College compiled an extensive collection of audiotaped interviews of survivors, and Dr. Jack Boozer at Emory University collected hundreds of audiotaped interviews of liberators. In the last quarter century, however, videotaped testimonies have become the norm and have been incorporated in Holocaust research and courses for all levels. Major projects such as the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale and the Shoah Foundation have developed extensive videotaped Holocaust testimonies and are currently selecting clips from the testimonies to prepare educational materials. Holocaust and Genocide resource centers and Holocaust museums have also collected testimonies and made them accessible to their respective communities.



Professor Lawrence Langer who has dealt with Holocaust literature and testimonies throughout his career observes that the oral (and video) testimony differs from the written memoir. As listeners we must be engaged in what the survivor is saying and from our "secure present" hear about the "devastating past." The immediacy of the survivor's voice takes the listeners back to his or her past.

Why testimonies are important

Several factors explain why testimonies are so important to Holocaust Studies and education. First, testimonies help to personalize the history. It is difficult to grasp what the number six million victims means. But the story of one survivor telling how she or he dealt with the brutalization, hardships, and terror of the Holocaust provides a means for connecting with the past atrocities. For example, a survivor describes how he, his sister and mother hid in a crawl space and the heartwrenching choice his mother made when she was forced to smother his infant sister so the rest of the family could survive. The testimonies of women who provided guards with sexual favors to survive and of children who perfected the art of stealing to feed their families offer memorable reminders of the complex choices made by the survivors of such an era.

Testimonies enrich understanding

Testimonies also enrich our understanding of events, offering details not found in official reports and published memoirs and diaries. For example, the reports of the Einsatzgruppen describe the actions. While shedding light on the activities of the perpetrators, these reports give little information on the victims. The testimony of RivkaYosselovich at the Eichmann Trial highlights what it was like to be thrown into one of the pits. Similarly graphic is Jan Karski's testimony in Shoah where he details his visit to the Izbica Lubelska concentration camp. At times, women who survived the ghettos and concentration camps describe their innermost fears of being poisoned so they could not give birth; some speak of having to undergo abortions.

Testimonies lead to further questions and research: Memory

Another significant contribution is that testimonies have compelled scholars and students to consider how memory works. How do we recall the past? What facts are missing? How do we remember when it has been a traumatic event? Do children after trauma have memories from earlier in life than children who have not experienced such traumas? Lawrence Langer has suggested that survivors live with two forms of memory: their contemporary memory of everyday life and family and their deep memory of the Holocaust era which at times overpowers their contemporary memory.

Testimonies cannot be used in isolation

Beneficial as these testimonies are to the understanding of the Holocaust, they cannot be used in isolation as a means of understanding the Holocaust. The voices of perpetrators are largely missing in these accounts, and when they have given testimony, it is difficult to determine how self-serving they are. Survivor and author Primo Levi in his last publication The Drowned and the Saved despairs that the stories of the "drowned" are lost.

    [W]e, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion of which I have become conscious little by little, reading the memoirs of others and reading mine at a distance of years. We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prefabrications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they're the "Muslims," the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception. (Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 83-4.)
Moreover, survivors and witnesses offering testimonies do not always have correct dates or chronology of events and as the years since the Holocaust pass there may be a "drifting of memory," in which some of the less painful memories are recounted while the more painful ones are omitted or only partially recovered. Thus, Holocaust testimonies must be verified by examining other sources. Archival materials, diaries, artifacts, and art used in conjunction with testimonies offer a fuller picture of the era. These other sources can help to validate information in testimonies and at times correct misremembered dates or chronology.

Nechama, interviewer, researcher, and author: integrating testimonies

Nechama Tec, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, a Holocaust scholar and author, relies in her research and teaching on the voices of the oppressed. She is an author of her wartime experiences and several scholarly investigations on the relationship between compassion, altruism, rescue, resistance and cooperation. Most of her publications blend materials from testimonies, archival sources, and other forms of documentation drawn from a wide variety of disciplines. As she explains in a recent article about her research and writing:

    Information about the destruction of European Jewry relies on a variety of research sources, such as wartime diaries, memoirs, published and unpublished testimonies, historical documents, architectural plans, literary works, and much more. In part, the use of these diverse materials can be traced to the complexity of the Holocaust; in part, to the fact that as an area of study the field has attracted a wide range of disciplines, becoming the meeting ground for historians, psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, theologians, architects, journalists, poets and other professionals.

    (Nechama Tec, "Diaries and Oral History: Some Methodological Considerations," Religion and the Arts 4:1 (2000):87.)

    Information about the destruction of European Jewry relies on a variety of research sources, such as wartime diaries, memoirs, published and unpublished testimonies, historical documents, art objects, architectural plans, literary works, and much more. In part, the use of these diverse materials can be traced to the complexity of the Holocaust; in part, to the fact that as an area of study the field has attracted a wide range of disciplines, becoming the meeting ground for historians, psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, theologians, architects, journalists, poets and other professionals.
      Nechama Tec, "Diaries and Oral History: Some Methodological Considerations," Religion and the Arts 4:1(2000), 87.



Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

Articles from the Print Editions of Dimensions
Dimensions continues to be the leading journal in Holocaust studies -- appealing to both serious scholars and the mainstream audience.
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The Hidden Child Foundation®
We hope to reach all former Hidden Children. As the last survivors, we must tell our tragic stories - for now and for the future, we must bear witness to the Holocaust

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