I was very inspired by an article that was shared with me from The Jewish Daily Forward, written by Michael Berenbaum of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Reflection on an article by Michael Berenbaum
May 7, 2012
I feel that Berenbaum spoke justly and rightly about the perceived tension between survivor and historian, between testimony and archival documentation, between memory and history. These are concepts I grapple with all the time in my “line of work”. I will point to the cycle of learning that has occurred for me from my first interviews to those I conduct now, 10 months and 60 individual stories later. During my first interviews, I did not know the names of the camps d’acceuil, camps du triage, or kinderheims where Jewish children and adolescents were places once they were allowed to remain in Switzerland. I did not know the border crossing sites, the rescue and resistance hubs, or the location of any of these places. What I knew was limited, from books about the OSE and MJS, from other historians, scholars, and mentors in the field, and from the legwork I had already done. When I asked questions, I listened intently for answers, for names of specific homes or maisons for children, for names of rescuers, passeurs, and educators, and for places that existed in a survivor’s memory over 60 years ago.
Soon, a shift occurred. I had learned about the places; Le Camp du Bout Du Monde, Charmilles, Champel, Asocna, Adleswil, Les Mureilles, Home de la Foret, Versoix, Institut Ascher, and I heard stories about children passing through border towns of Annecy, Veigy, and Annemasse. I went to visit these places, I traveled across the border, and I started to learn more specifics from the archival work and dossiers. I was then able to ask more educated questions, and I started to realize the consistencies and themes that occurred in the interviews, from individuals who experienced the same camp d’acceuil or kinderheim. Having a strong basis and knowledge of the history and facts shows the survivors that you respect them and their stories. I realized this as I continued to conduct the testimonies, and as survivors opened up and trusted me with things they had never shared before.
I was taught that history and memory play into one another, and if a historian is not careful in his work then lines become blurred. However, each aspect has merit in its own right. History, including archival documents, letters, journal and diary entries, police reports, media reports, speeches, and other primary source material is extremely important to verify the facts, although, as Berenbaum mentions, some documents represent special interests of the time and are not completely objective. Testimonies show the more human aspect to the story, the things that historians cannot explain solely through studying documents; the feelings, the emotions, the connections, and what it was like to be somewhere and in a circumstance that is unimaginable today.
I do not interview many concentration camp survivors, although I know many. I mostly work with Jewish children who were refugees in Switzerland during the war. The fact is that most of these children survived the war, and, though traumatic, their stories have a different sense than those survivors of concentration camps. At the Warsaw conference this summer, one survivor, a hidden child, told me that she used to believe that her story was not as important as those of survivors of the camps. She did not feel she could contribute to the study of the history, as she did not go through the same experience as them. Now she knows, as I do, that all who lived through this time period have something to share, something that will soon be lost if we do not act now.
As a historian, I aim to find the truth to the story, which is not an easy task. It will always be tainted by my own analysis, convictions, and beliefs, no matter how hard I try to be objective. However, for the sake of education, of remembrance, and of not repeating the mistakes of humankind, historians must do their job, in telling true stories based both on fact and oral history, on archival and testimony, and on history and memory. I believe strongly in this, which, to me, is as certain as fact can be.
Read the original article: http://www.forward.com/articles/155681/what-the-survivor-and-historian-know/?p=all#ixzz1uD2joILv