In the course of last week’s workshop about testimony and its uses, which I found hugely interesting and stimulating, several definitional issues cropped up, one of which was around testimony itself. I am aware that testimony can mean several things, but in the context of the Holocaust – really at the centre of our discussions – it is normally used to refer to testimony given by survivors of their experiences. Such testimony can take written or oral form, and the contexts in which it is given clearly vary. However, quite a number of the network participants have a broader notion of testimony, using it to cover anything from fiction to feature film. I think this is misleading, and a mistake. Let me leave aside the issue of cultural testimony for a moment, which may or may not be something different to testimony, and focus on the latter term.
If we expand testimony to embrace all forms of cultural expression, we effectively render the term meaningless. It no longer serves to distinguish a particular form, or forms, of communication from others, but becomes an umbrella term which emphasises commonality across a range of genres. This is problematic not just because it conflates survivor testimony with fiction, for instance, but also documentary film with feature film, and fiction with non-fiction. More worryingly, using the word “testimony” to refer to feature films such as The Pianist, or novels like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas confers upon these a status they do not have. They are not records by survivors of what happened, but imaginative reconstructions with strong fictional elements, and in some cases plain travesties. I do not belong to that group of historians who insist that Holocaust novels should not deviate from the path of historical accuracy; that is the job of history, not fiction. But while we must acknowledge fictions’s licence to be fiction, we must surely then also acknowledge precisely because of this the difference between it and testimony.
Here, of course, we could raise the objection that Holocaust testimony is not always accurate, because survivors forget, and sometimes imagine things happened which didn’t. But this does not mean that testimony is fiction. Testimony is an eye-witness’s account of a personally experienced event. John Boyne wasn’t in Auschwitz. If he had been, he probably wouldn’t have had the insane idea of writing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Nor was Spielberg. Had he been, he might have had a different story to tell than one of the heroic rescue of Jews. Testimony is personal truth, personal authenticity. When it deviates from the historical record, then not because of the wish to fictionalise, but because memory fades. Yes, we could argue that memory is not the only problem: interviewers muscle their way in on that fading memory, survivors become aware that audiences want to hear certain things and not others, they begin to include history lessons when those audiences clearly know nothing of the Holocaust, and their educators not much more. Survivor testimony is subject to all manner of pressures and expectations. But the fact remains that, in front of me as I sit among others in the audience, is someone who was THERE, and who is telling me in essence what it was like to be THERE.
I don’t believe in declaring testimony sacrosanct, and that it is to a degree culturally constructed is surely true. We are still reluctant to explore the way it is constructed, and to address the problem of its “halo”, out of respect for survivors, but also because of Holocaust denial. Yet if we simply elide all difference between testimony and a novel or feature film, what we are effectively saying is: all Holocaust memory, including survivor accounts, is fiction, with a little truth thrown in like raisins into a cake; is art; is a play with perspective; is commercialised; is entertainment. And that certainly plays into the hands of Holocaust denial. That is not a road I would like to go down.
If we are going to argue that all representations of the Holocaust are forms of testimony, we at least need to think about how survivor testimony, novels, feature films, memorials, documentary films and so on differ. The same applies if we use the term “cultural testimony”, which does not remove the problem. To me, it implies there is testimony which is cultural, and testimony which is not; in which case, what is non-cultural testimony? Or is cultural testimony shorthand for all those forms of testimony that are not survivor testimony, culture as “construct”, testimony as “unreconstructed”? Even I would not subscribe to that!