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The complications, for historians, of Holocaust testimony
In February 1972, a man named Walther Becker stood in a courtroom in Hamburg, awaiting a verdict. Walther Becker had been a policeman in Weimar, Germany. In 1930, he joined the SPD, the German Socialist Party, a decision that cost him his job three years later when the Nazis came to power. But Walther Becker made his peace with the Nazis; he was reinstated in the police and in 1937 took up party membership. When war broke out, he was sent to the criminal police desk in a small industrial town in South Central Poland named Starachowice, where he was stuck for the war’s duration, never transferred, never promoted, yet rising by attrition to ranking officer.
What brought Walther Becker to court in Hamburg was this: In the course of his (by Nazi standards) undistinguished career, he presided over the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in the nearby Jewish town of Wierzbnik in October 1942, sending nearly 4,000 Jews to Treblinka (where none survived) and conveying some 1,600 to three rapidly constructed forced labor camps in Starachowice, there to work in factories that the Germans had confiscated.
Precisely because those 1,600 Jews were not sent to Treblinka, there was no lack of witnesses to testify in court after the war that Becker had played a very active role in those events, not only directing the liquidation, but also personally committing a number of killings and beatings. This was a rare case where, despite the Nazis’ efforts to leave no witnesses, the German prosecutor had located dozens of people to come to the courtroom and testify in detail.
When Judge Wolf-Dietrich Ehrhardt read aloud his verdict, however, he began by stipulating that of all the evidence that the judiciary encounters, the least reliable is eyewitness testimony. The ideal eyewitness in his words, is “disinterested, indifferent . . . distanced,” none of which could possibly apply to the Jewish witnesses who saw their families taken away or murdered. Ehrhardt pronounced that Becker must be acquitted. Walther Becker walked out of the court a free man and continued to enjoy his police pension.
When I encountered that verdict, I had been researching for nearly two decades in German judicial records. I had seen many court cases in which I felt that justice had not been served. But this one took my breath away. My first reaction, quite simply, was anger: If Walther Becker could get away with an acquittal, I would at least put him and his deeds in historians’ hell, between the covers of a book that would find its way into many major libraries.
However, when I began to investigate Walther Becker and his role in Starachowice and Wierzbnik more thoroughly, it became apparent to me that Walther Becker was not the most interesting part of my study. Nor was anger the best motive out of which to write history.
We know a great deal about the major ghettos, such as Warsaw and Lodz. We know a lot about the major death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, and the major concentration camps, such as Dachau and Mauthausen. But alongside those camps run by the SS (special police), and the ghettos, were literally hundreds upon hundreds of small labor camps run not by the SS directly, but by German employers who got Jews allocated to them to work without pay.
These prisoners were slaves. They were property of the SS, contractually rented to German private enterprise on a per-head per-day basis. And this was a chapter of the Holocaust we knew very little about.
But how to learn more? German industry, unlike the German state bureaucracy, was not in love with its files, indeed had no trouble destroying paper trails. For the Brauschweig Steel Works, which ran the factories in Starachowice—a steel mill, a munitions plant, and a lumberyard (for making the crates to ship shells and grenades)—we have virtually no documents at all. This was not going to be a study that could rely on German documentation. Nor, as one might expect, could it depend on the testimony of any Germans involved. To write a history of the Starachowice camps, I would have to base it overwhelmingly on survivor testimonies.
There are known dangers in the use of survivor testimony. Take the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, or John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland autoworker who was identified by survivors from a photo spread as being Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. On the basis of five survivor identifications, John Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel, put on trial, and sentenced to death in 1988. Then, while the case was under appeal, new evidence came out of the Soviet Union that indicated he was not Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, but rather Ivan “the Less Terrible” of Sobibor. The Israeli Supreme Court had to void the lower court verdict and send Demjanjuk back to the United States, where after a long delay he was extradited to Germany and was convicted on May 12, 2011, as the Ivan he is.
In the view of many historians, Holocaust survivor testimony, with all the frailties of human memory, and of traumatized human memory, should be treated very carefully. It is important, my colleagues say, to demonstrate how survivors remembered events, how they felt about them, but their testimony can’t be equated with factual accuracy. We may stand in awe of their testimony, but we cannot critically judge it, because we cannot begin to comprehend their experience.
Yet to eschew survivor testimony would be to let the three slave labor camps of Starachowice slip into oblivion. In all, I gathered testimonies from 292 survivors of those camps, some on multiple occasions. The first testimony was given just after liberation in 1945, the last, a personal interview, took place in 2008 in Vancouver, Canada. And what have I learned about my eyewitness sources? It has become clear to me that memory is not a term that can be used in the singular. I was engaged in a kind of excavation project, uncovering layers of memory.
The first layer, and the one least accessible, consists of repressed memories. I initially became aware of this phenomenon not through survivors’ accounts (they cannot testify to what they cannot remember), but through the experience of my uncle, a missionary in Singapore during World War II. When the Japanese conquered the island in February 1942, he managed to send his wife and young child across the Indian Ocean on one of the last ships off the island. He chose to stay on, because he felt he could not leave his flock. The Japanese treated his congregation simply as locals, but my uncle was immediately interned as an enemy alien, and he spent three and a half years in Changi Prison, emerging at half his body weight, barely alive. He had absolutely no memory of making a decision to stay. He could not have survived three and a half years if he had been beating himself up every day over that naive and unwise choice. It was only when he went back to his garden and dug up his diary that he became conscious that he had stayed when he could have escaped.
I’m certain that Holocaust survivors also suffered through traumatic experiences for which repression became the defense mechanism for survival. And I accept that there are some events we will never know.
A second layer of memory consists of secret memories. These are searing experiences that for the survivors are so sensitive they have never been told to anyone. Stealing bread from a bunk mate, deserting friends or family—the “choiceless choices,” to use historian Lawrence Langer’s phrase—some of these recollections eventually come out in a kind of confession (“This is the first time I have told anyone . . . “).
Another layer is communal memory. This comprises events that people who were in the same ghetto, or the same camp, know about and talk about among themselves but tacitly understand should not be aired in public. Survivors share a sense that the conditions of their past are so alien from the world they now live in that others today might simplistically judge their actions entirely out of context.
And then there are the public memories, about which people do speak openly. These can be found in the videotaped testimonies collected by the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, for instance, and in the transcribed testimonies that survivors have given to German investigators preparing for trial.
The line between public and private is not fixed. Over time, some memories that were secret or communal in the 1960s have become public. It is a historians’ rule that the closer eyewitness testimony is to an event, the more reliable the account will be, and the further from the event, the more skeptical the historian must be. But among survivors dealing with sensitive topics, the later testimonies often prove more important, as we learn what was long held close.
In addition to layers of true memory, there are mistaken memories that the historian must sort through. What I call collective memory is held by a group, in a way that filters out some facts while playing up others. It is a reflection of how people want their past to be remembered, a reflection in some way of their present.
For example, if one looks at the testimonies of the Starachowice survivors who were settled in North America after the war, they describe the town most of them grew up in, Wierzbnik, as a traditionally orthodox Jewish community: People spoke Yiddish. They received religious instruction, in Yiddish, after public school. They don’t mention the Bund, which was the Jewish Socialist Union. They don’t mention the left-wing Zionist groups such as Hashomer Hatzair that crop up in memoirs out of Warsaw, say. Wierzbnik was a backwater.
If, on the other hand, one reads the community book produced in Israel in the 1970s that describes Wierzbnik during the 1930s, one finds a hotbed of Zionism, complete with youth discussion groups that carried over into soccer sides. To be sure, it was the town’s Zionists who were more likely to relocate to Israel in the first place. Once there, they sensed they had to massage their past in a way that made them feel more presentable to the wider Israeli public. Here is a case where memories parted ways. The historian has to be conscious of how such changes take place.
Another challenge to historians arises from what I call incorporated memories, shaped, after the Holocaust, by exposure to documentaries, published memoirs (Elie Wiesel’s Night, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz), photographs, and other iconic tropes. These attach to a survivor’s recollections because they have come to seem central to what it means to be a survivor.
In my research, a classic case of incorporated memory emerged from the evacuation of the Starachowice workers to the Birkenau extermination camp in the summer of 1944, as the Red Army approached. We know much about Birkenau’s routines, how it was managed, how one generally entered the place: The train pulled up to a ramp. Prisoners got out, they formed two lines, men and women, and marched past an SS doctor, who in almost all accounts was Dr. Josef Mengele, even though he couldn’t have been there all the time; with his baton, he signaled right, left, right, left, labor, death. This is certainly what happened with most transports entering Birkenau.
It is not what happened to the transport from Starachowice, which was handled as an internal transfer of labor. Starachowice’s prisoners went into Birkenau without selection. I am convinced that is the case because the majority of survivors say so. They could not have made this up in unison. The survivors who were children at the time say, “The miracle of my survival, among the many miracles, is that when we came to Birkenau, there was no selection. I would not be alive otherwise.”
And yet a significant minority of Starachowice survivors describe the standard entry into Birkenau: They got off the train. They formed the two lines. There was Mengele, and he was pointing left, right, left, right—and they believe this to be true. They believe it because they have incorporated the post-war stories into their own memory and they cannot distinguish between them.
All historical evidence is imperfect. If historians waited for perfect evidence, we would have very little history. At issue isn’t whether to use survivor testimony or not. History is an imperfect science, and so—recognizing that all historical evidence is problematic in some way—we do the best we can under the circumstances. What we have from Starachowice are stories of survival, and for that we should be grateful.
Christopher Browning is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of His-
tory at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp (2010). His essay is drawn from a Lowell Humanities Lecture delivered on February 28 in Devlin Hall.