What is testimony? Some thoughts by Professor Bill Niven

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!

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for bringing up this discussion. I am working on ‘testimonies’ by Algerians on the civil war in the 1990s. My project is on narratives of rape by women survivors and I compare the cultural production and how it treated the theme with testimonies that I collected or testimonies published by various people. I take an example of one novel in Arabic that I am working on. It is supposed to be ‘fiction’ but when I interviewed the author, she said, the whole story happened in reality. She adds that she used police interviews with survivors because she was working as journalist then.
    Another example is by a female doctor, who wrote testimony on her job as a doctor in the countryside (in French). The two are different. I find them equally important and treat them in the same way because I think that they both serve different purposes. In the case of Algeria, because of the Amnesty Law which forbids us from dealing with the past, most importantly at this stage, is to create a discourse around the civil war and to bring to light narratives of women who have been silenced.

    I also use films. I give you an example of a film which I watched with survivors (in an organised event). The main actor in the film works as a doctor in a village (in reality) and the story was of one of his female patients. I ask myself so many question, where is the boundary between fiction and reality? and how should I deal with it?

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  2. Apologies for only noticing this now! You raise interesting questions. So if a novel consists of testimony, then does the boundary collapse? Or should we not ask: what sort of society is it in which testimony has to masquerade as fiction? I think it was the East German author Christoph Hein who welcomed the end of censorship in the GDR not least because it meant that literature no longer had to serve as an ersatz for journalism. Authors could return to being authors. I would argue that in an unfree society, it is particularly fiction – by virtue of its apparent fictionality – which is pressed into service as a “code” for truth, but this is not necessarily in the interest of fiction, nor does it invalidate the basic distinction I tried to make above. I would doubt anyway that the author of the novel you are looking at based his or her story entirely on testimony. There will have been shaping and reworking, a filtering through the imagination of the author. Then again, I can see that, in the case you examine, literature acquires a testimonal function, it is designed to be read, by those who grasp this, as truth. But even here caution is needed, because what is implied and what is actually happening is not one and the same thing.

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