Dennis Klein, Project Director
Overview: What This Seminar Is About
This seminar will draw on memoirs written by atrocity survivors to explore the physical and emotional demands of survival and survivors’ reevaluation of a world that was governed by the craven behavior of perpetrators, their collaborators, and most everyone else who lent tacit support by remaining on the sidelines. We will examine this theme comparatively, using the Holocaust as a case study. Historical inquiry, my disciplinary field, will frame discussion and debate because many Holocaust survivors wrote about the radical betrayal of their neighbors and others who they believed could have intervened but remained silent. My research on Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, following studies by Omer Bartov and other historians, centers on the influence of interethnic relations, which defined survivors’ social life in Europe before World War II, and on their understanding of the destruction that ensued. What they wrote about was the shocking violation of their historical trust – their neighbors’ silence if not collaboration with their assailants. Their accounts bear agonizing witness to the rupture of relationships they had come to rely on.
But they would not have recorded their testimonies in the first place unless they believed their memoirs would make a difference as a warning, a lesson, or a plea for justice. This belief pointed in another direction: a renewed if tenuous faith in humanity. We will examine memoirs for evidence of this faith and try to make sense of how survivors could condemn their neighbors and seek to renegotiate relationships with them in the same account. By paying special attention to survivors’ perspectives, destruction, as the defining feature of atrocity, is both an outcome and a precondition of cautionary reconstruction.
The Holocaust and its aftermath will ground the seminar as a case study for comparison with other atrocities, such as genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia, lethal campaigns against indigenous peoples, and current campaigns against Uighurs and Rohingya.
Survivors’ testimonies have recently acquired renewed scholarly attention for their unique interpretive insights into the legacies of the Holocaust and, by extension, other atrocities. For several decades since the 1960s, when Holocaust witnesses’ accounts entered the public domain, observers generally have not recognized their prominence: Lucy Dawidowicz and other seminal scholars dismissed them for their inaccuracies or, as Hannah Arendt commented in her report on the Eichmann trial, their blinding emotionality. In common polemics, scholars used them derivatively to confirm or illustrate arguments they already documented.
Significant exceptions emerged with the publication in 2001 of Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Though Gross’s main purpose was to show the local, open-air settings of genocide, his reliance on survivors’ testimonies suggested dimensions of destruction that historians, largely depending on perpetrator and official documentation, have missed. Besides observing fanatical violence, survivors deeply ruminated over their neighbors’ violation of what survivor Jean Améry had believed was an implicit durable social contract. For him and others, the violation was entirely unexpected. Survivors often regarded, with the advantage of hindsight, their expectations as naïve and, indeed, European Jews were generally so assimilated to their homelands that they disregarded the evidence of ascendant social tension or, more commonly, regarded incidents of social conflict as exceptional. But as we will explore in this seminar, their expectations were historically rooted in realities of social integration that were sufficiently stable. Turning their attention intermittently from perpetrators to bystanders, betrayal emerged as a considerable testimonial preoccupation.
The historical framework for this seminar offers distinctive parallels with research on psychological resilience, psychological flexibility, and posttraumatic growth. These fields presume varying degrees of personal recovery from or resistance to the calamitous effects of misfortune. The seminar will benefit from two half days of presentations by Dr. Donald Marks, the Project Scholar who is a member of the Advanced Studies in Psychology program at Kean University with whom I have collaborated and who is an expert on the behavioral dynamics of resilience. A close reading of Holocaust survivors’ memoirs will take note of passages that were notably forward-looking but, in historical context, expressed a distinct longing for humanity and not only a quest for personal convalescence. As we will come to see, their longing for a human connection was embedded in ancestral memories of an attachment to European society. At the same time, their memoirs make clear that the effects of traumatic injury persists – something that theories of posttraumatic resilience and growth downplay – and shadows if not overshadows the search for humanity, suggesting that survival after atrocity is a heterogeneous experience alternating between aspiration and dread, hope and despair, faith in renegotiated human relationships and resignation to the world’s abject moral and physical collapse articulated, as this seminar will consider, at the level of what historians and other scholars call “deep memory” that reenact, in the words of Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, “the continuing presence of the past.”
Sequence of Seminar Investigation
The seminar will begin with an analysis of World War I and its aftermath in order to show just how radical broken covenants and victims’ despair over consummate betrayal were. We will inquire into the ascent of the “new man” who was zealous for purging wayward excesses in order to engineer society’s purification. It was a disposition that introduced corrosive, wholesale suspicion into relationships historically bonded by trust. It culminated in the Nazi-race campaign against Jews.
We will then examine survivors’ accounts to discern the legacy of this dystopian turn in deep memories of betrayal and quite different aspirational expressions. This seminar will assert the authority of survivor accounts and will therefore parse them primarily by examining their written memoirs that will constitute part of the seminar’s readings. In addition, we will evaluate their stories visually with the aid of PowerPoint slides I will prepare for this seminar and in videotaped testimonies that will illustrate the sometimes inexpressibility of traumatic memories. Guest lectures and conversations with the Project Scholar, whose expertise in clinical training will expose participants to the parallel fields of psychological resilience and flexibility, as well as possible face-face-encounters with local members of survivor communities will add further depth to our analysis.
As part of the seminar called “life in death” we will examine survivors’ accounts for evidence of forgiveness. This is surely a controversial aspect of the problem and is truly hard to imagine. I have mined this subject in recent publications, most recently for my book Survival Transitional Narratives of Nazi-Era Destruction (and especially in Chapter 5, “Critical Forgiveness”). Drawing on this research, this seminar section will begin with the observation that Holocaust survivors, in the 1960s when they decided in the aggregate to publish their accounts, considered forgiving their adversaries. Forgiveness is a subject that historians often ignore, but as we will discuss it was no accident that survivors considered forgiveness in the German 1960s when the imminent end of the period of statutory limitations threatened to release former Nazis from further prosecution. Though most survivors explicitly refused to forgive, we will debate if their refusal resulted from their condemnation of Nazi crimes rather than the criminals whom they recalled as compatriots. We will, in short, consider if survivors’ memoirs effectively reframed conventional views of promiscuous forgiveness.
Part I: A “‘Powerful Masculinity’: The Great War and the ‘New Man’” (1 day) will seek to show the persistence of a 30-year campaign of human persecution and destruction, beginning with bellicose zealotry originating in World War I and culminating with the Holocaust. Seminar participants will read and discuss excerpts from a postwar essay by Ernst Jünger, a German World War I combatant, whose evocation of “the reckless spirit of the warrior” exemplified the dystopian turn. Excerpts from Jacob Burckhardt’s Reflections on History, a classic 19th century tribute to the heroic virtue of civic freedom, will serve to indicate, by its comparative restraint and humanity, the dramatic cultural transformation that unfolded during the Great War. Selections from Eric Weitz’s scholarly essay, “The Modernity of Genocides,” provide a useful overview of the interwar incendiary mobilization of the masses for society’s purification and glorification of political violence against their enemies. For participants whose knowledge of the Holocaust is limited, designated parts of Doris Bergen’s War and Genocide will offer a succinct survey. Part I will end with a brief preview of survivors’ reflections on their “complete humiliation and debasement,” an abyss, as scholar Terrence Des Pres observed in his The Survivor, that was “a natural outcome of power when it becomes absolute.”
Part II: “‘I Still Cannot Believe It’: An Introduction to Survivors’ Testimonies in Historical Perspective” (2 days) will utilize visual media as well as secondary readings to show the urgency and the eventual collapse of Jews’ historical expectations of their neighbors’ support during Nazi-era killing campaigns. As an introduction, participants will read excerpts from Annette Wieviorka’s The Era of the Witness on the significance of the act of writing as “the ultimate resistance against death and oblivion.” Władysław Pasikowski’s award-winning 2012 Polish film Aftermath illumines the perfidy of Polish residents who killed Polish-Jews and plundered their possessions – behavior that survivors, in their memoirs, still could not completely grasp. Passages from Omer Bartov’s study of ethnic Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews in East Galicia (“Wartime Lies”) provide an important analysis of survivors’ testimonial record of their neighbors’ collaboration and denunciation, neighbors, they report, “who were our friends.” A PowerPoint presentation I created on “Betrayal Narratives in Holocaust Witnesses’ Accounts” will additionally help seminar participants to see how survivors’ dire recollections of abandonment, especially when the rupture occurred in historical relationships of intimate attachment, mutated into a compensatory quest for new relationships, a hallmark of their unbroken if insecure post-atrocity faith in humanity.
Part III: “Life in Death” (2 days) will seek to invite men and women who survived the Holocaust to provide personal insights into their ordeal, memories of their lives before or in spite of the rise of predatory social hostilities, and what survives after atrocity. This part will be devoted to close readings of aspirational passages from survivors’ memoirs and their historical significance. References to forward-looking passages are surely noteworthy even if they are not historically embedded. In his study of the ecology of victims’ existence in the camps, Des Pres argued that their perseverance for identity, dignity, and fellowship with other inmates emerged from a spontaneous will to live. Primo Levi, illuminated by selections from his The Drowned and the Saved, observed a darker reason for surviving brutal camp conditions: self-assertion that came at the cost of other inmates’ well-being and lives. Extracts from Bruno Bettelheim’s The Informed Heart show that curiosity and “independent action…despite an environment that seemed…total” affirmed life in the camps. We will reexamine aspirational passages for their significance as traces of residual historical social attachments. Dr. Marks will present the first of two half-day lectures on the psychological construct of resilience.
Part IV: “Death in Life: Trauma and Deep Memory” (1 day) will theorize the phenomenon of “deep memory,” the indelible and ineffable traces of traumatic betrayal and disruption in survivors’ memoirs, and will present video clips of testimonies presented by survivors who are shown here to interrupt the conventions of evidentiary witnessing with periods of frozen silence – a visual demonstration of speechless memory. Participants will read excerpts from Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s seminal “Witness in the Archive” and Lawrence Langer’s landmark Holocaust Testimonies. Hirsch and Spitzer’s observation that video testimonies constitute the best genre “most able to communicate the sense of memory of the survivor” is decisive for screening clips from Yehiel Dinoor’s testimony at the Eichmann trial and Abraham Bomba’s extraordinary account in Lanzmann’s Shoah.
Part V: “Forgiveness after Trauma?” (2 days) highlights by contrast the scale of narrative aspirations in survivors’ accounts. This part of the seminar will examine passages from the memoirs of four Holocaust survivors ranging from an explicit refusal to forgive (Vladimir Jankélévitch, Ruth Kluger, and Jean Améry) to an expressed willingness to consider it (Simon Wiesenthal). Based on my research and the presentation in this part of slides I will prepare, participants will debate if a version of forgiveness that decouples forgiving from forgetting made forgiving dispositions possible in memoirs of atrocity. Dr. Marks will present his second of two half-day lectures to place forgiveness in the psychological ambit of resilience and flexibility.
Part VI: “Where Do We Go From Here?” (2 days) will end the seminar with opportunities for comparative inquiry, preliminary conclusions, and plans for sharing what participants learned beyond the primary audience of NEH funded seminar participants. By inviting participants with a variety of pedagogical and scholarly commitments, this culmination will concentrate prior discussions and exchange into a discussion comparing survivors’ accounts of atrocities other than the Holocaust as well as media other than the written and spoken word. As the seminar comes to a close participants will be encouraged to utilize the seminar’s website and the MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies’s online platforms for raising questions about the relationships between deep-memory persistence and life-affirming aspirations, for planning teaching units, using pedagogical and scholarly methodologies to argue with nuance, mentoring students, and fueling an ongoing, interdisciplinary discussion and debate. The Project Director and the Project Scholar will remain available for feedback and advice.
Note Regarding COVID-19: Since NEH Funded Summer Seminars and Institutes are designed and funded as residential projects, we will proceed as planned. Applicants should be aware, however, that NEH may call for projects to adopt a virtual or hybrid format as they continue to monitor events in the coming months. If so, we will provide guidance to selected applicants.
The position and arguments that frame this seminar do not necessarily represent the mission or the perspectives of the National Foundation for the Humanities.