Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe

By Laura Jockusch | Go to book overview

Conclusion
History Writing as Reconstruction
The Beginnings of Holocaust Research from the
Perspective of Its Victims

The Holocaust survivors who founded historical commissions and documentation centers in postwar France, Poland, Germany, Austria, and Italy shared a conviction that their survival bequeathed to them a duty to bear witness for the dead and an obligation to future generations. To some extent this perceived injunction to write the history of the Jewish cataclysm involved an effort by survivors active in the documentation projects to rationalize their own relative fortune compared to that of loved ones and millions of others had perished. The belief that they had been spared not by accident but in order to bear witness surely helped them cope with loss and feelings of guilt. However, these survivors’ claim to historical significance rests with their overt agenda as activists seeking to commemorate the dead; gain legal retribution, material restitution, and moral redress for survivors; promote political education to combat anti-Semitism and fascism and foster democratic values; and prepare a foundation for further historical scholarship.

Wherever they found themselves after the war, most commission workers shared an eastern European background; apart from a few leaders with academic degrees, all were lay historians. The experience of survival, commitment to the cause of documentation, and will to act in the present counted more than professional training. The rank and file included both women and men; indeed, in Poland and in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps, women may have been the majority of those active in documentation, which is especially remarkable since they had survived in smaller numbers. Women’s relatively high level of representation reflected the commissions’ popular approach to historical research as well as the chaotic, improvised, and provisional postwar conditions that undermined established gender roles. Nonetheless, men filled most positions at the top, while women served predominantly as zanders (collectors of historical material), interviewers, archivists, and secretaries.

Activists built the documentation initiatives on their shared belief in an intrinsic connection between history and memory. They understood, however,

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