Magazine article Tikkun

Victim Testimony.A Debate

Magazine article Tikkun

Victim Testimony.A Debate

Article excerpt

In his recent TKN article ("The Paradigm Challenged," July/August 1998), Daniel Goldhagen directly attacks my work as well as that of the larger community of Holocaust scholars. In doing so, he misrepresents and distorts what he attacks in order to achieve a hollow victory over his own easily demolished strawmen.

Goldhagen states that I "dismiss" survivor testimony "explicitly or tacitly, as unreliable and inessential" and that I have allegedly written that "from survivors `we learn nothing [sic] about' Police Battalion 101 or, for that matter, about itinerant units in general." What in fact I wrote in the preface of Ordinary Men is the following: "... unlike survivor testimony about prominent perpetrators in the ghettos and camps, where prolonged contact was possible, survivor testimony can tell us little about an itinerant unit like Reserve Police Battalion 101" (xvii-xviii, emphasis added). In a subsequent panel exchange with Goldhagen, I expanded as follows:

Jewish testimony was indispensable to my study in establishing the chronology of the fall of 1942. What became a blur of events for the perpetrators remained quite distinct days of horror for the victims. Also, while survivor testimony may be extremely valuable in many regards, it does not illuminate the internal dynamics of an itinerant killing unit. It would be difficult for the victim of such a unit to provide testimony concerning the various levels of participation of different perpetrators and any change in their character over time. Where long-term contact between victims and perpetrators did occur, survivors are able to and in fact do differentiate on such issues.

Thus Goldhagen misquotes from the preface of Ordinary Men, changing "little" to "nothing," and furthermore takes my remarks from our subsequent exchange entirely out of context. I do not "dismiss" survivor testimony either "explicitly or tacitly" as "unreliable and inessential." I do insist that survivor testimony, like any other evidence, be used cautiously and with due regard for what any particular witness was in a position to know. Quite simply, Goldhagen's summary of my position is a gross distortion; his misquotation violates accepted academic standards.

Moreover, I have noted that in rare cases where survivors had worked as translators or menial laborers in German police stations they were indeed in a position to give invaluable testimony precisely on the question of the attitudes and mindset of middle-aged reserve policement like those in Reserve Police Battalion 101. Such a rare witness was Oswald Rufeisen, whose story was told by Nechama Tec in her book In the Lion's Den. According to Rufeisen, among the thirteen policement at Mir, one stood out a a "beast in the form of a man," three did not participate in Jewish actions at all, and most of the remainder considered the killing of Jews as something "unclean" about which they did not wish to talk. This is a far cry from Goldhagen's portrayal of middle-aged German reserve policement, according to which they were uniformly possessed of a "lethal, hallucinatory view of the Jews" and viewed their killing of Jews as a "a redemptive act" to be celebrated and enjoyed.

Tec's book was published in 1992, the same year as Ordinary Men, and thus Rufeisen's unique testimony was not available to me and could not be cited in my book. It was available to Goldhagen before he published Hitler's Willing Executioners four years later, but he did not cite it. It appears that this self-styled champion of survivor testimony can be quite selective himself when survivor testimony fails to support the hypothesis he is trying to prove.

In my opinion, Goldhagen's accusatory approach to the issue of survivor testimony disserves scholarship because it diverts attention from the real issue, namely what the historian can learn from a systematic use of concentrated survivor testimony. I am currently engaged in researching the Starachowice ghetto and labor camps in the Radom district in central Poland; my work is based primarily on more than one hundred written and videotaped survivor testimonies given over a period of more than four decades. …

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