Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe

By Laura Jockusch | Go to book overview

1
Khurbn-Forshung
History Writing as a Jewish Response to Catastrophe

Early postwar Europe witnessed an outburst of historical activity among survivors. According to a contemporary observer, Jews set up historical commissions and documentation centers to collect and record the Holocaust “at the very same moment when they opened the first public soup kitchens to cook thin little soups.”1 As suggested in the introduction, the activists grappled with complex questions concerning the goals, methodology, and ultimate usage of their documentation work. Although the Third Reich’s Final Solution exceeded all previous Jewish catastrophes in its death toll, geographic extent, technology, and dedicated state resources, a number of pogroms in eastern Europe earlier in the twentieth century inspired comparable Jewish documentation projects. These earlier victims and witnesses of anti-Jewish mass violence also gathered eyewitness accounts and established archival repositories for their collections. They disseminated their material in publications depicting the events “from below,” from the perspective of the victims, while highlighting the behavior of perpetrators, bystanders, and authorities.

In their quest to collect and record Jewish suffering during times of mayhem and wanton violence, they faced fundamental issues similar to those of their postwar counterparts: Whose sources would provide the most reliable foundation for writing a historical account of the atrocities—documents created by the instigators and perpetrators or those of their victims? What strategies should Jews use to assemble large numbers of testimonies and other victim sources, and how could they construct an objective picture of events out of the subjective accounts of individual victims? What would be the ultimate purpose of documentation— collecting evidence to bring those responsible to justice and to fight for Jewish rights and against anti-Semitism, or creating an archival foundation for future historical scholarship? Was documentation of an event after the fact a valid form of Jewish self-defense, and did it serve to preserve the memory of the victims?

Beyond these parallels, the earlier documentation projects provided a frame of reference—indeed, a model for the postwar Jewish historical commissions and

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