Oct 2009 Journal

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‘Between silence and screams’: The Refugee Voices collection – seven case studies

This article is a condensed version of an undergraduate dissertation by Julia Pettengill of the University of St Andrews, who was awarded a first-class honours degree. She is also the author of ‘“A Guilt Beyond Crime”’: The Future of Genocide Prevention in the Anglo-American Sphere’ (Henry Jackson Society, 2009). The dissertation uses material from the AJR’s Refugee Voices collection of filmed interviews to investigate the way in which oral history testimonies convey survivors’ memories of the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Because of the highly personal nature of some of the testimony, only the initials of the interviewees have been used (Ed.).

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the experiences of concentration camp survivors garnered little attention outside the trials of former Nazi officials. However, a combination of wider cultural, political and academic shifts engendered a surge of interest in the Holocaust at the end of the twentieth century, and has resulted in an unprecedented volume of recorded eyewitness testimonies from Jewish victims. With this proliferation of source material, scholars have sought to understand not just what the survivors witnessed in the camps, but how they have made sense of this unprecedented trauma in their post-liberation lives.

The present article seeks to provide insight into this question by analysing seven survivor testimonies from the AJR’s recently completed audio-visual Holocaust Testimony Archive Refugee Voices and represents one of the first scholarly usages of this archive.

Evolution of ‘age of testimony’
In the aftermath of the Allied liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, graphic photos of its surviving inmates inspired pity, revulsion and ultimately a resounding silence from the international community. If and when survivors did speak about their experiences, they were often confronted with an audience which was either reluctant to listen or simply could not comprehend the severity of the survivor’s account. Indeed, post-war societies were overwhelmingly concerned with the restoration of ‘normality’, a somewhat incongruous goal in the aftermath of the catastrophic Second World War. The historical record strongly suggests that this was a cross-cultural phenomenon of mass incomprehension - an ‘age of silence’ - which afflicted even Israeli society.

However, over the next few decades it would seem that the passage of time, and accompanying cultural shifts, encouraged a growth in public interest in the experiences of Holocaust survivors, and influenced survivors to share their experiences with the world. In many ways, the USA led the way in the rise of public and academic interest in the Holocaust, which arguably culminated in the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 and the release of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List in 1994. The tremendous response by survivors to Schindler’s List inspired Spielberg to co-found the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute in 1994. The Institute has collected almost 52,000 videotaped testimonies from Holocaust survivors and witnesses and is the largest visual history archive in the world. Its methodology underpins the approach of the Refugee Voices interviews.

The development of the ‘age of testimony’ in the UK largely parallelled that of the USA and was reflected in the rise of dedicated university courses, the Remembrance documentary series on the BBC, the growth of testimony projects such as the British Library’s National Life Stories: Jewish Living History collection, and the establishment of the permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 2000. The new resource compiled by the Association of Jewish Refugees offers a fascinating glimpse into the way in which time and the traumatic content of survivor memory are reflected in recorded testimony.

Seven case studies from the Refugee Voices collection
Literary scholar Lawrence Langer argues that survivor memory is characterised by two competing modes of remembrance: ‘deep memory’ and ‘common memory’. ‘Deep memory’ refers to the memories which recall the self present at the scene of the trauma, while ‘common memory’ represents the desire to reconcile these traumas with a framework of ‘normal’ understanding. The seven samples of survivor testimony taken from the Refugee Voices collection can be characterised by a conflict between these competing forms of memory, with the ‘deep memory’ of their traumatic experience occasionally plunging the speaker back to the scene of their most nightmarish experiences. For example, HF relates an account in which he watched as the bodies of his mother, sister and still-living infant nephew were thrown into a mass grave in the Nowy Sacz ghetto:

And the wagons came in towards us and, when they dropped the flap down, the first person that came out was my mother, and my sister with a three-month old baby still alive, and I wanted to jump into the grave with them.

This incident stands out as the most direct and agonising encounter with both personal grief and mass death among the seven case studies I surveyed. HF refers to this incident three times throughout his testimony and attests to suffering from recurrent nightmares involving this scene. In contrast, RK consistently evades mentioning any enduring traumatic memories:

RK: I don’t know who, Mengele or what … He just done this and this. Any children or any old people they didn’t want because they don’t work. And you know, just this and this and this and this … And then you go this way and another one the other way.

Rosalyn Livshin (Interviewer): So who of your family went the other way?

RK.: My parents and my sister. And then they take you in a bath and give you a bath and they cut all your hair off and all the, you know, and they give you a uniform - striped dress of some sort - and then they put you again in a group of some sort. And this is how they took me to … Plaszow.

RK substitutes phrases such as ‘this and this’ for descriptions of the scene of selection and her final separation from her family, and jumps as quickly as possible to her arrival in Plaszow. Prior to the terse account of arrival, she attempts to skip ahead of this traumatic scene to speak about liberation before describing anything about her experience in the camps. In having to be asked by the interviewer to elaborate on her time in Auschwitz, she demonstrates the way in which some survivors guard their ‘deep memory’ from exposure by stripping her account of detailed or emotional language.

‘Deep memory’ also takes the form of recollections endowed with both lived and metaphorical significance. For example, IG relates the ‘deathly silence’ of the overnight transport to her final encounter with her mother and sister, culminating in the following episode in the shower room:

I remember then this terrible panic under the shower because I could see blood on the floor, and I thought ‘Dear Lord, they are killing us here!’ Not far in front of me was this woman and she was menstruating. There was no sanitary towel - just like animals. And then [the SS] started shouting ‘Raus, Raus!’

This recollection operates on two levels: the ‘lived’ reality of their immediate experience, and the metaphorical reality which conflates the life-giving cycles of female biology with the primordial horror of spilt blood. Deprived of privacy or sanitary necessities, this woman’s unavoidable menstruation becomes a symbol for the relationship between dehumanisation and murder.

Certainly, the recounting of memories vested with symbolic potency casts light on the way in which survivors communicate their own attempts to process experiences and feelings which evade description. For example, NK relates an episode of ‘metaphorical and lived reality’ which reveals the way in which ‘deep memory’ can be guarded by the comforting constructs of ‘common memory’. Unprovoked by the interviewer, she recounts visiting Berlin after the war to visit her mother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery in Weissensee. She recalls arriving at the cemetery just before dark and is warned to return before the gates are locked at five. Having found her mother’s grave at the end of the cemetery, she loses her way back to the entrance and begins to panic:

I was in despair, I could hear the clocks, I could hear five o’clock ringing,
and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, now I will be here all night!’

She then relates her handling of this frightening situation to her behaviour in Auschwitz:

I am not hysterical, I am a very composed and normal human being … In the camp, when they were grumbling ‘Oh, we will all be killed!’, I said ‘No, we will not be killed, we will survive!’

By explicitly relating this anecdote to her bravery and endurance in the camps, NK asserts her control over a situation which appears to remind her of her powerlessness as a camp inmate. In this symbolic episode, the ‘deep memory’ of her death-immersion in the camps seeps through the framework of courage and forbearance which characterises much of her testimony.

Common memory
In Lawrence Langer’s view, narratives which present internment as a positive or redemptive experience are anachronistic expressions of the survivor’s need to master the unresolved and uncontrollable resurgence of ‘deep memory’. According to his construct, the interpretation of survival through a religious framework is another example of ‘common memory’ as it implies that the horror of the Holocaust has meaning and, by extension, value.

Interestingly, in each of the seven case studies reviewed here, nearly every survivor conveys an essentially ambivalent attitude towards the explanatory power of their Jewish faith in relation to their experiences in the camps, and none of those interviewed affirms any belief in the redemptive power of suffering. Even among religious subjects, faith is expressed in terms of its sustaining power rather than any relevance it may have to explaining why they experienced the horrors of the camps. As IG reflects:

When people were talking about any Yom Tov [in Auschwitz], I thought ‘They’re crazy!’ How can anybody still believe what we were taught? But people do. We have to hold on to something.

JS appears to be the most actively religious survivor among these case studies and recalls being teased by her bunkmate for praying each night in Auschwitz:

I said ‘It may not save me but it certainly makes me feel better. And as long as I can say my prayers, I thank God almighty I am still alive ... There is no God to help escape this horror .... and the funny thing is when we [were] liberated and we met up in Budapest she said ‘You know, you were right to say your prayers! It has saved you.’ And she became very religious and moved to Israel.

The ambivalence conveyed in this statement reveals the extent to which the ‘horror’ of the experience both cries out for and resists religious interpretation. Ultimately, JS will not allow despair to control her narrative, and she concludes by noting how her example influenced her bunkmate’s post-war conversion. In a similar vein, WG describes how meeting his wife after liberation allowed them to ‘overcome the traumas of the past, and we decided there and then that it is time to look ahead. We decided we must start living again.’ Such invocations of religion and family represent the mechanism by which they have been able to pursue a life after the camps and in this sense reveals that the life-affirming frameworks of common memory, while anachronistic, may be necessary to survival.

The limits of speech: Incomprehension, incommunicability and the ‘age of testimony’
With the exception of LG, none of the survivors shared their experiences publicly until after the beginning of what I have called the ‘age of testimony’. IG, WG, NK and JS describe their silence as part of an attempt to forge new lives and move on from the past. LG was interviewed by the BBC in 1946 but explains that ‘They didn’t air it because it was too bad for the public to hear,’ and could not find a publisher for his memoir An Englishman in Auschwitz for over 30 years. ‘To mention the past was taboo; nobody wanted to relive past traumas,’ remarks WG. ‘So the talks that we had were … all about the future and the trivialities of the present.’

LG is exceptional among this sample - and indeed among the majority of Holocaust survivors - in that he has been speaking about his experiences publicly since 1946, and began relating his experiences immediately after liberation:

In the barracks it smelled of death. We didn’t notice it, but those [American] soldiers ... I can still see the tall fellow taking his handkerchief out of his pocket and saying ‘I’ve seen it!’ and I said ‘You’ve seen nothing! Don’t go, please stay.’ So I took them to every bed, lifted every blanket and I said look, skin and bones, the man is alive, but look at the skin and bones .... My urge was to tell, to show.

LG’s testimony is rife with references to this desire to ‘tell’, which he began to do publicly with an interview in the London Evening Standard in 1946, followed by regularly visiting Jewish organisations and schools in London to discuss his experiences. He repeatedly refers to testimony as ‘fighting’, as if retelling is both a
way of conquering his own past and of combating the lies of Holocaust deniers.

Elie Wiesel wrote: ‘Between a survivor’s memory and its reflection in words, his own included, there is an unbridgeable gulf.’ The testimonies reviewed here suggest that the gradual emergence of the ‘age of testimony’ may have been a product of both social pressure and a more fundamental inability to come to terms with - let alone express - the incomprehensible horrors of the camps. Each testimony under review is characterised by a tension between the constructs which enable them to control and make sense of their experiences, and the underlying ‘deep memory’ which threatens to snap them back into the abyss of their trauma. To this end, HF regards a degree of self-censorship as necessary in his testimony: ‘It’s just one of those things that you don’t go into, because when you start it can drive you meshuge [crazy] completely.’

At the conclusion of the Refugee Voices interviews, the interviewers ask whether or not the subject has a message they would like to conclude with. Interestingly, each response by the individuals surveyed here is characterised either by the total failure of words or the insertion of a formula characteristic of ‘common memory’, which can appear incongruous in the context of their trauma-filled testimonies. For instance, JS remarks:

If you can end up with a nice home and children, life goes on, and, thank God, my religion gives me strength and hope ... My father says ‘Don’t ever give up hope whatever difficult times we live in!’

Yet, despite referring to God, miracles and their religious faith, none of the survivors expressed a view of their experience as somehow positive or as holding any eschatological significance. Thus, the most striking feature of these testimonies is their failure to fulfil the expectation central to the ‘age of testimony’: that the survivors should impart a lesson. While the ‘age of testimony’ has elevated the survivor-storyteller to the position of prophet, the raw text of survivor testimonies often attests to their existential bewilderment.

‘The only way I could explain [Auschwitz] was, I think I was screaming, but there was no sound coming out of me,’ remarks IG. Caught between silence and screams, survivor testimony becomes an enterprise without end, and a challenge to those who seek to access the truths therein.


Julia Pettengill

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