Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations

Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations

Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations

Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations

Synopsis

Among sources on the Holocaust, survivor testimonies are the least replaceable and most complex, reflecting both the personality of the narrator and the conditions and perceptions prevailing at the time of narration. Scholars, despite their aim to challenge memory and fill its gaps, often use testimonies uncritically or selectively-mining them to support generalizations. This book represents a departure, bringing Holocaust experts Atina Grossmann, Konrad Kwiet, Wendy Lower, J rgen Matth us, and Nechama Tec together to analyze the testimony of one Holocaust survivor. Born in Bratislava at the end of World War I, Helen "Zippi" Spitzer Tichauer was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. One of the few early arrivals to survive the camp and the death marches, she met her future husband in a DP camp, and they moved to New York in the 1960s. Beginning in 1946, Zippi devoted many hours to talking with a small group of scholars about her life. Her wide-ranging interviews are uniquely suited to raise questions on the meaning and use of survivor testimony. What do we know today about the workings of a death camp? How willing are we to learn from the experiences of a survivor, and how much is our perception preconditioned by standardized images? What are the mechanisms, aims, and pitfalls of storytelling? Can survivor testimonies be understood properly without guidance from those who experienced the events? This book's new, multifaceted approach toward Zippi's unique story combined with the authors' analysis of key aspects of Holocaust memory, its forms and its functions, makes it a rewarding and fascinating read.

Excerpt

At first sight, the subject matter of this book seems very familiar. In the United States and elsewhere, the Holocaust survivor has become an archetypal figure, etched into popular consciousness and commemorated in films, plays, and novels. The survivor’s story, the journey to the camps, the unimaginable lives within, the death marches as the camps closed, all this feels in broad outlines known to us. It is surprising, then, how original this volume manages to be, how refreshing and distinctive its tone, and what vistas of knowledge, yet to be researched, it opens up.

For, as it turns out, the postwar world has found it difficult to ask the right questions of survivors and their testimony. Recent decades have seen in the United States and elsewhere what the writer Eva Hoffman, herself a child of survivors, has worriedly described as a “memory cult” around the survivor. It is understandable, perhaps, that individuals who managed to make it through such an ordeal should be celebrated as heroic figures, though it took some decades—as well as political and cultural shifts in the postwar world—before survivors came to be considered in this light. Yet redemptive narratives of heroism and triumph seem in reality unlikely characterizations of the choices and losses that accompanied survival or of what it meant in later years to have endured and survived such experiences. Scholars, true enough, have been very skeptical of this kind of memory cult, but academia has often fared little better when it comes to establishing a critical but respectful relationship with the survivor.

Instead of the hagiographic narrative, scholars have been in danger of creating a different kind of “holiness,” namely, by placing victims and survivors somehow . . .

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