What the Survivor and Historian Know

Detente Between Those Who Lived the Shoah and Study It

Evidence: Gifts given to a Holocaust survivor upon the liberation of Buchenwald are displayed at London’s Jewish Museum.
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Evidence: Gifts given to a Holocaust survivor upon the liberation of Buchenwald are displayed at London’s Jewish Museum.

By Michael Berenbaum

Published May 04, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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Jeff Cohen’s “The Soap Myth,” as produced by the National Jewish Theater Foundation and directed by Arnold Mittleman, has brought to life on the New York stage the inherent tensions between Holocaust historians and Holocaust survivors over facts and interpretation of facts. Time and again, survivors speak of the Nazis’ making human fat into soap, while Holocaust historians say that, at best, there is insufficient evidence to support that claim.

When, during its creation, I was project director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I rejected the display of a cake of soap. So, too, did my colleagues at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and at Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland. Rather than go into the minutiae of detail regarding the soap, however, it is worthwhile to consider the relationship between survivor testimony and historical fact.

Elie Wiesel, the preeminent survivor, set the bar impossibly high: “Only those who were there will ever know, and those who were there can never tell.” Survivors’ testimony was privileged. They alone could know. Nothing could be said by my generation, born after the war; what could we know?

Primo Levi, the great Italian Jewish writer who was an inmate at Auschwitz, wrote of the difficulty of language: “If the lagers had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born, and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and the knowledge of the end drawing near.”

He suggests caution, for we use ordinary language to describe the extraordinary conditions of the death camps and the brutal circumstances of its prisoners. Caution is required, even modesty — even by historians who are writing monumental works that require courage and tenacity.

Less exaltedly, I remember my first visit to Auschwitz, in the company of survivors and also the dean of the field of Holocaust studies, the late Raul Hilberg. As Hilberg took the microphone to orient the group to Auschwitz, one prominent philanthropist said in a loud voice, “What can he tell us that Moshe Chaim [a survivor of Auschwitz] could not?” And then, Hilberg began to speak.

Historians “know” what survivors could not know, at least not then. Historians have access to documents and memos, memoirs and letters, architectural plans and coded messages, information that was then classified and deemed top secret by many of those who were involved: the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders and the rescuers, leaders of the Axis Powers and the Allied and neutral nations. These must be evaluated in context and weighed against other evidence.

For some historians, such as Hilberg, only documentary evidence was worthy of consideration; diaries and letters were to be considered, but often with a caveat that those written in proximity to the event were given greater credence, accorded more respect. Survivor testimony was considered inherently unreliable, a mixture of what was recalled from the camp and what was learned subsequently, fallible as human memory is fallible, most especially with the passage of time. Errors were pounced upon to discredit the entire testimony.


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