HISTORIANS AND SURVIVORS AS PARTNERS IN TELLING THE TRUTH OF THE SHOAH
Chris Friedrichs Professor Emeritus of History University of British Columbia
World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants conference November 2019
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This is a gathering of men and women bound by a common identity. All of you are child survivors of the Shoah, or children or grandchildren of child survivors. Since identity is so central to this event, let me begin by saying a few words about my own identity.
I am not a child survivor or the child of a child survivor. My parents were refugees to the United States from Nazi Germany. My non-Jewish father and my Jewish mother were engaged but not permitted to marry because the notorious Nazi Nuremberg laws made it a crime for Jews and non-Jews to marry. So they escaped to the United States where they married and had five children. I myself was born shortly after the war ended, always knowing, of course, that many members of my mother’s family had not been so fortunate as she was and had been murdered by the Nazis.
But I also have another identity. I am a historian. My research has mostly concerned earlier periods of German history – but no historian of Germany, and certainly none with a personal history like mine, could fail to feel a profound interest in the Holocaust. Thinking and speaking about it has been an important part of my career. What I say and teach about the Shoah has been informed by many sources of information – but above all by the research of other professional historians, and by the narratives of Holocaust survivors. So what I want to talk about today is the role played by these two important groups in telling the truth of the Shoah.
It is important to realize the first research into the history of the Shoah began to take place even before it actually had ended. In the fall of 1944 – months before Auschwitz and other camps were liberated but when the Soviet army had gotten control of eastern Poland – a small group of Jewish survivors, most of whom had been historians before the war, decided that they must immediately start gathering material about what had happened to the Jews. Consider the situation: the war was still raging, there were shortages of food and of places to live, many of these Jews knew or feared that most of their relatives had been killed – but even so, they got to work. They founded what they called the Central Jewish Historical Commission and spread the word that every surviving Jew in Poland should compose and send them a full account of what they had experienced. These survivor historians were concerned that if this were not done, others would propagate a false history of the war claiming that the Germans had not done any harm to the Jews. Within a few months, this commission had a formal structure and a director was chosen. His name was Philip Friedmann. All the other members of his family had been murdered – but with the incredible resilience that was so typical of many survivors, he poured his energy into this new project. Questionnaires were distributed to as many surviving Jews as could be located. The commission was particularly interested in hearing from child survivors, because they believed that these children would provide the most objective accounts of what they had seen or experienced, uninfluenced by prejudices or ideological factors or conversations with fellow-survivors. A huge amount of material was gathered.
But this material was then ignored. As the communists gained increasing control over Poland, they showed little interest in these activities. Many of the Jews in Poland were made to feel unwelcome, and most of these historians left to go to western Europe or the United States or Palestine. Their work remained unread in storage boxes for decades.
And indeed, in the first fifteen years after the war ended, little was said or written about what we now call the Holocaust or the Shoah. There was lots of interest in the history of the war, of course – books about battles or military campaigns or biographies of generals became best sellers. Nobody really forgot about what happened to the Jews, but this was often just seen as one small part of a big story of massive military activity that inflicted suffering on many different groups of civilians. And the survivors themselves were often preoccupied with struggling to establish new lives for themselves, whether in Europe or North America or Israel. Often they just wanted to look forward, not back to the past.
There were some exceptions, of course. When Anne Frank’s diary was given to her father, he was determined to get it published. And it was – first in Dutch, then in English and countless other languages. It became an international best seller – and rightly so. Every reader of the diary – and surely that includes almost everyone in this room – can relate to the story of this gifted teenager struggling to cope with the claustrophobic life of the secret annex. And every reader knows how Anne’s life ended – not with the return to normal life in Amsterdam for which Anne desperately yearned, but with the betrayal, the arrest, the deportation to Auschwitz, and ultimately her ghastly death from typhus and starvation in the mud of Bergen-Belsen.
A few other books about what Jews had experienced also appeared. One was written by a young survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald named Elie Wiesel. After his liberation from Buchenwald at the age of 16, Wiesel was taken to France and eventually became a journalist there. In 1955 he wrote an enormous book in Yiddish about what he had experienced. Almost nobody read this. He then rewrote this into a short book in French. A few people read this. The book was then translated into English. One publisher after another rejected the manuscript until finally one agreed to print a few thousand. Unlike the diary of Anne Frank, few people read this book at the time—it was just too depressing. It took decades before Night became widely known, one of those books everyone should read.
Night is a memoir. But it is not a work of reportage. Because it was a condensed version of the original 800-page version, some experiences were combined or reshaped for brevity. But what it retained was absolute emotional truth. Even if some events did not happen exactly when and where Wiesel said they did, every line of the book reflects the authentically and often deep conflicted emotions that this teenager experienced as he struggled to remain close to his increasingly desperate and helpless father while also urgently hoping to survive. His father, of course, did not survive. But he did.
Meanwhile a very different kind of book was being written. Raul Hilberg was the son of Austrian Jewish refugees who had escaped from the Nazis and arrived in New York in September 1939. He studied history and political science, started teaching at a small university in Vermont, and dedicated himself to doing something that nobody had yet undertaken: to write a complete, meticulous history of the relentlessly well organized and systematic way in which the German regime had destroyed the lives of five to six million Jews during the Second World War.
Hilberg’s book was not about the victims, it was about the perpetrators. Indeed, the first paragraph of the preface made this completely clear: “This is not a book about the Jews. It is about the people who destroyed the Jews.” The book was based on a study of thousands of German documents. Pages are devoted to things like railway lines or organizational charts or analyses of the supply chain for obtaining the gas for the gas chambers. When Jews are described, it is mostly in connection with how they were coerced into helping the Germans operate the ghettoes or why they could not resist the German orders.
There were two main reasons for this. In the first place, Hilberg belonged to a generation of historians who had been taught that the best way to understand the past was to study documents – and the Germans had produced incredibly many documents. At the same time, Hilberg also belonged to a generation of political scientists who believed that the most important question of their time was to figure out how the great totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union and the militaristic regime in Japan had come to power and, having done so, why and how these regimes inflicted so much suffering on so many people. The suffering itself was not so important to describe. It was taken for granted. People of that generation remembered the war, after all.
This book, published in 1961, was a turning point in understanding what we now call the Holocaust.
So was another event which took place in the same year: the trial of Adolf Eichmann. As you know, Eichmann was the SS official in charge of the vast operation by which millions of Jews were transferred from the occupied countries of Europe to the Nazi death camps. His capture in Argentina by Israeli agents and his trial in Jerusalem attracted world- wide interest. It was largely as a result of this trial that more and more people began to understand that the killing of Jews was not just a part of World War II, it was a distinct event in and of itself that took place during and under cover of the war – an event to which people gradually attached the name Holocaust. And there was ever more interest in learning about this distinct event.
So more and more aspects of the Holocaust were researched. More and more books were published by historians and social scientists. The Holocaust emerged as a distinct sub-discipline of academic study.
But something else started happening too. More and more survivors started telling or writing their stories. Of course survivor testimony was not new. Even though the records gathered by the Polish commission were sitting unnoticed in storage boxes, other accounts given by survivors got more attention. Some survivors had testified at the Nuremberg trials or at trials of SS commandants. Survivors gave testimony at the Eichmann trial. These accounts were widely reported.
But that was only one of the many ways in which the voices of survivors came to be heard. Many survivors were now more willing to come forth and tell their stories to their children, to their friends, or to groups in their home communities. And more and more people were willing or even eager to listen. That included professional historians. A new generation of historians was increasingly interested in studying not just the actions and decisions of the people who guided the destiny of nations; there was more and more interest in what was called history-from-below – the lived experience of men and women and children. And this meant that in studying and teaching about the Holocaust, the experiences of victims and survivors came to be heard and read and recorded. This was also the time when the first Holocaust education programs were established and survivors were called upon to tell their stories.
You – the child survivors – were part of that process. You increasingly spoke out. Take a look at this list. Not many of you, I think, have been called upon to give testimony in courts. But every one of you has told your story in at least one of these forms and often in many more. In many cases you have told your story to many different kinds of audiences. And often the most important audiences to whom you have spoken have been young people.
Here in Vancouver a program of teaching high school students about the Holocaust was launched over forty years ago. By now tens of thousands of students from all over southern British Columbia have attended these events, sometimes in their own schools, sometimes on the campus of my university. Usually such a program begins with a historian explaining to the students what the Holocaust was and why it is important to learn about it. But the highlight is always when a survivor of the Holocaust then comes forward to tell his or her story. I have participated in dozens of these events as the historian on call, and I have always been moved to see how students of every race or color or ethnic background react to hearing an actual survivor describe what it was like to live in a ghetto or to be at Auschwitz or Buchenwald or to spend years as a frightened child, hidden in an orphanage or living with a family of rescuers but always knowing that one must rush to hide in a closet or in the cellar whenever a stranger visited, and never knowing when or how one would see one’s own family again. I could see how moved the students were, and the letters they wrote afterwards reinforced the point. Most of these students would never read any of the thousands of academic studies of the Holocaust, and nobody would expect them to. But to hear a survivor talk could change their lives.
In recent years, of course, simply because of the inevitable passage of time, more and more of the survivor speakers in Vancouver and elsewhere have been child survivors. Many of our local child survivor speakers are right here today. They – and all of you who contribute in a similar way to your own communities – are doing an invaluable service.
But survivor narratives in their various forms are not only vital for education. They are also increasingly appreciated by historians as indispensable sources of information and inspiration for understanding dimensions of the Holocaust.
Of course there are still historians who prefer to work only in archives with documents generated by the perpetrators and their allies or collaborators all over Europe. Some of them might even say that such documents are more reliable than survivor narratives. Survivors, after all, were not taking notes. People hiding in cellars or working in slave labor factories or starving in camps could hardly be expected to keep any records. They might misremember exactly when and where something happened or which brutal uniformed guard had said or done this or that. Documents are more reliable.
Well, yes and no. Documents, after all, can lie. And they often do. Let me give you just one example. This particular document has a deeply personal meaning to me. It is located today in an archive in Berlin. It comes from a file of records having to do with the confiscation of property owned by an elderly Jewish couple in Berlin shortly before they were deported to their deaths in 1942. These two people, Thekla Rosenberg and Carl Rosenberg, were in fact the grandparents of my late wife.
These documents exist because two different German agencies were engaged in a dispute about which agency was entitled to claim the money which had been stolen from the Rosenbergs before they were put onto trains headed to Poland. In referring to those deportations, the document says “when they were sent to the east to be resettled.” But Carl and Thekla Rosenberg were not sent to the east to be resettled, of course. They were sent to the east to be murdered. Any good historian, of course, knows exactly what this coded language means. But it is a reminder that documents do not simply speak for themselves. Everything must be studied, compared, contextualized, interpreted.
And of course the same applies to the way in which historians use and interpret survivor narratives. Among the tens of thousands of survivor narratives that have come to light, a handful – half a dozen or so – have proved to be falsifications. They were written by some deeply troubled souls who were not survivors at all but for some strange psychological reasons wished they were. We need not dwell on these odd cases. What is more important is that many, perhaps even most, authentic survivor narratives do have some discrepancies or omissions. Sometimes survivors have some memory that is simply so agonizingly painful that they cannot bear to put it into words. Sometimes survivors have confused a date or mixed up a name or forgotten the exact order in which some things happened. But almost every survivor narrative is completely reliable when it comes to the most important element of all – emotional truth. For no matter how difficult it is to recall a name or a date, survivors never forget what they saw and how they felt.
Many of you have written descriptions of your own experiences, and some of you have composed or even published an entire memoir or autobiography. Often the title of such a work contains some reference to memory: “Memories of My Youth” or “What I Remember.” For after all, a memoir or autobiography is in fact a collection of organized memories. I will mention only one example. It is the recent autobiography of someone who is well known to every one of you and to me as well – my esteemed friend Dr. Robert Krell. It is a book I can well recommend reading – but at the moment I just want you to take a look at the title: it is not ‘Memoirs,’ and not ‘Memories’ – but instead it is called ‘Memoiries.’ It is a word that encapsulates exactly what all memoirs really are – a collection of memories.
But how can professional historians use such memoirs – such ‘memoiries’ – in constructing an ever deeper or richer understanding of what happened in the Shoah? Are such writings – your writings, in many cases – reliable enough to be used in compiling the historical record? Let me discuss the work of one historian who has set out to answer exactly this question.
Professor Christopher Browning is one of the most famous and admired of all Holocaust historians – and rightly so. For most of his career, Browning focused chiefly on the perpetrators, with pioneering studies of the step-by-step process by which the Holocaust was initiated and equally important work on the behavior and mentality of ordinary guards and SS members who carried out these operations.
But then Browning became increasingly interested in the experience of survivors, and especially the way that survivor testimonies can add to our understanding of the Shoah. He came across the interesting case of a cluster of camps in a town in central Poland called Starachowice, where Jews lived while doing slave labor in a nearby steel mill and munitions factory run by the Germans. For two years they were kept there, until in 1944 all the inmates were transferred to Auschwitz. Because it was expected that they would continue to work together as a team, these Jews were kept together in a separate barracks and surprisingly many of them were still alive when Auschwitz was liberated a few months later. As a result, there are remarkably many survivor testimonies from this particular group – Browning found interviews and narratives and memoirs by almost three hundred survivors who had been at that labor camp and then in the barracks in Auschwitz. This made possible a unique project – comparing exactly how different survivors described the same events and experiences.
And what did Browning find? He found that overwhelmingly their stories matched. Of course the accounts were not identical. The remembered different things, or remembered the same episodes differently. But the basic story was always the same. And in fact by comparing and collating the different versions of each important episode in the camps and the factories and Auschwitz, Browning could arrive at the most detailed and convincing version of what had happened to these Jews.
There were some discrepancies. For example, almost all the survivors described vividly how, after days trapped in a train without food or water, they finally arrival at Auschwitz. They all told of the same things – the darkness, the bright searchlights, the barking dogs, the shouting uniformed SS guards. But many also mentioned seeing the notorious Dr. Mengele as they came down the ramp. That, in fact, did not happen; Mengele was not there that evening. But in the years since 1944, the survivors had read and heard so often about Dr. Mengele and his selections that they assumed he must have been one of the uniformed men they saw. This was a rare instance of incorrect memory. But in fact the overall result of Browning’s book is to demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that survivor testimony is not only useful but in fact an indispensable source of information for historians who are still struggling, seventy years later, to fully comprehend what happened in the Shoah.
So historians are still telling the story of the Shoah. And so are survivors. But why?
To tell of these things goes far beyond the normal human impulse to recount stories from the past. For we must keep teaching people – above all the younger generation – about what can happen when racist thinking takes over a society and becomes the basis for an entire program of state-sponsored genocide.
And we must combat the dangerous attitudes that threaten to diminish the importance of these lessons. Here are what, in my view, are the four greatest challenges to the truth about the Shoah against which we must always struggle.
We all know about HOLOCAUST DENIAL. And we know that the main cause of Holocaust denial is of course antisemitism, pure and simple. But that is not the only cause. Some of the Holocaust deniers are
motivated by something else. They are contrarians, people who enjoy cooking up or believing conspiracy theories for their own sake. They are nurtured by the garbage produced by the antisemitic Holocaust deniers, and their own conspiracy theories in turn further nurture the antisemites. It is a problem that will not go away. But it is not, in fact, the biggest challenge.
That is HOLOCAUST INDIFFERENCE. Most people, after all, fully accept and understand that the Holocaust took place. But “so what?,” they say. “Lots of bad things happened in history. Why keep harping on this one? Let’s just look ahead and build a better future.” But in fact the most important building blocks for a better future are a knowledge of the past. History does not slavishly repeat itself — but there are patterns. And if we do not know what the patterns in the past were, we will not recognize them in time when they come back.
And there is HOLOCAUST GENERALIZATION. “Sure, the Holocaust was genocide. But genocides are happening all over. The Holocaust was just one of a long list.” Yes, many terrible things happen to people and they must be discussed. But true genocides are much rarer, and the term should be used carefully so that it does not lose its meaning. We must always remind people of the truly horrific genocides of the past hundred years. We should not forget the Holodomor, Stalin’s mass murder of millions of Ukrainian peasants by the brutally simple method of having his agents confiscate every last bushel of grain so the peasants had nothing to live on. Nor should the events in Armenia, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Darfur be forgotten. But nor should the fact that even on this horrific list, the Shoah was unique in the relentlessness with which a powerful state regime tried to eliminate from human existence an entire age-old human community.
Finally, there is HOLOCAUST DISTORTION. This take place when people fully agree that the Holocaust took place, but do so in a way that so completely distorts its meaning that it perverts the actual truth. Time permits me to mention only one example, and that only one briefly: some recent events in Poland. Many of you will remember being shocked about the Polish legislation that was enacted last year which made it a criminal offense to state that the Polish state or nation was responsible or co-responsible for the Nazi crimes of World War II. After an international outcry, the law was amended to eliminate the criminal penalties, but the amended law is still on the books. Its real purpose is to make people in Poland nervous about discussing this sensitive aspect of their country’s history – something which, by the way, many courageous Polish historians continue to do despite the consequences. But this law had nothing to do with Holocaust denial. Quite the contrary. The fact that millions of Jews had lived in Poland before the war and that three million of them were murdered – along with many non-Jewish Poles – is a fact that the Polish government actually encourages people to remember. The government itself produces books and sponsors exhibits about this subject. And the reason is this:
Thousands of Poles courageously and at great risk to themselves and their families rescued or sheltered or helped Jews. They are honored at Yad Vashem as the Righteous Among the Gentiles, and rightly so. They are honored in Poland too. In fact they are venerated as Polish national heroes for having defied the Germans in this way. If you deny that the Holocaust happened, then all these rescuers would have to be denied as well.
What many groups in Poland wish to forget is the fact that while there were thousands of Poles who rescued Jews, there were many, many more who did the opposite. Poles did not cause or initiate the Holocaust. But once the Germans arrived, there were many people who saw in this an opportunity to get rid of Jews or to take their property. Of course much the same happened in almost every country the Germans occupied, except perhaps Denmark and Albania. But since there were so many Jews in Poland, it happened there with particular frequency. In July of 1941, in the town of Jedwabne, before the Germans even began the round- up of Jews local inhabitants themselves rounded up hundreds of Jews, locked them inside a barn, and set the barn on fire. And this case was not unique. Historians can show that in numerous Polish communities when the Germans did indeed order all the Jews to assemble to be deported to camps, many of their neighbors immediately started plundering Jewish homes or even grabbing the meager possessions the Jews were carrying with them on the way to the stations. These facts must be confronted and remembered. Many Polish historians and researchers and curators are doing exactly that. But legislation of the kind passed last year, even in its amended form, could make many more people hesitate to speak out.
This makes it all the more important in countries that enjoy freedom of speech to use that freedom fully to keep on telling the truth about the past – and especially about the Shoah. My job – and that of countless other historians – is certainly not finished. And neither is yours.
Let me close by mentioning two specific women here in Canada. One was Bronia Sonnenschein. Members of the audience from Vancouver will remember Bronia well. She was not a child survivor. She was already a young woman when her family had to leave Vienna and live in the Lodz ghetto. From there they were taken to Auschwitz and then, in the closing days of the war, Bronia and her mother and sister were sent on death marches first to Germany and then to Bohemia where they were finally liberated. Eventually Bronia came to Vancouver where she raised a family and worked hard until she retired. At that point she began speaking in public about the Holocaust, especially to high school students. Time and time again I saw hundreds of our local students sit in awed silence as this tiny woman with a strong European accent described, without pathos or bitterness but with uncompromising honesty, everything that she had experienced in those horrific years. When she finished speaking, the students jumped to their feet in a standing ovation and as soon as the program ended they rushed down to meet her, to thank her, to embrace her. She had changed their lives.
Bronia retired from public speaking at the age of 92 and died three years later. But her legacy lives on. A few years ago her granddaughter Emily wrote a play based on her grandmother’s life. The play was performed with great success in Emily’s home town of Calgary, Alberta. It has also been performed in Germany, and surely more performances lie ahead. Through her own granddaughter, Bronia’s message lives on.
All of you who are child survivors have told your stories, perhaps in front of hundreds of students, perhaps to individual interviewers or researchers, perhaps in the form of a book or a manuscript, perhaps around the kitchen table to your family or friends. The time will come when you too feel that you can retire from telling your stories. You can do so knowing that your story will not be forgotten.
One reason it will not be forgotten is that many of you have children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews or just friends of a younger generation who will carry the message forward. To those of the next generations, let me say this: Don’t worry, you do not have to write a play – but when you are asked to tell the story of your mother or father or grandparent or uncle or aunt, do so. You cannot hope to have the same emotional impact as actual survivors, but what you say will have the ring of truth and it will matter to those you reach.
And we historians will back you up. Because in fact historians on the one hand and survivors and their descendants on the other have always been partners in telling the truth about the Holocaust. And as long as the world is willing to listen, we will continue to tell about the events and the significance and the implications of this unspeakable episode in the history of humanity. Together we will continue to tell the truth of the Shoah.
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