Éva Kovács: Thoughts on Testimony

Network member Éva Kovács (Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies) offers a summary of her thoughts on testimony as a practice and concept. For a more detailed version of Éva’s analysis of testimony, see: Henry Greenspan, Sara R. Horowitz, Éva Kovács, Berel Lang, Dori Laub, Kenneth Waltzer and Annette Wieviorka (2014) “Engaging Survivors: Assessing ‘Testimony’ and ‘Trauma’ as Foundational Concepts,” Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, 23.3: 190-226.

Éva Kovács: Thoughts on Testimony

For me as a sociologist, the question of Holocaust testimonies implies interesting methodological problems. The first is intentionality: If one conducts an interview with a “survivor”, then he or she defines the interviewee as someone who had suffered during the Shoah, survived it in a way or another and is still living among us like somebody who is able and wants to make a testimony. And conversely, in the past 70 years, survivors of the Shoah have also got accustomed to this role. Since the 1980s, testimonies have been included in education programs, television series, exhibitions and so on. Thousands of testimonies were protocolled, written, recorded, archived etc. worldwide. Today, it is hard to contextualize the interviews if one disregards the framework of the testimonies because this framework was strongly routinized in both public and private spheres.

Secondly, I would like to highlight the problem of periodicity. Since the Shoah was a traumatic event in the life of the interviewee, it fundamentally influences his or her whole life. However, it depends on the individual cases whether the interviewees retell their life histories from the perspective of the survival, as many of them do, or narrate only the way to the Shoah and the very moment of the survival. The Shoah was a traumatic event in the life of its survivors, and it was also a very complex and slow process to come to terms with the past for the whole society, therefore the history of the Shoah did not end with the liberation of the camps. It is no wonder that not only the mental and physical wounds of the survivors could heal very slowly but also their reintegration in society – if at all – took a long time.

Thirdly, let me say a few words about the problem of facticity. Why do we collect testimonies to understand a certain historical or social phenomenon if they are so personal, so emotional and so “unreliable” as compared to historical “facts”? This kind of criticism was always present in the debates on oral history but never resulted in such a tremendous scientific challenge as in the Holocaust historiography. Most of the historians used testimonies and other personal accounts only for illustration of the historical narrative, which they developed from the “historical facts”, produced by the various – mostly Nazi – institutions and administrative corps. The mainstreaming of oral history sources in the historical research projects started very late, just around the 1980s. Nowadays, many historians testify that testimonies can be instrumental in writing the history of the Shoah, and the large variety of methods and concepts of using them is also very persuasive.

To become a witness from societal (not from criminal) perspective is a long way to go. Experiencing violence is paradoxically not enough for giving an authentic testimony. On the one hand, the society has to recognize the violence as a morally unacceptable condition. We have seen in the past 70 years how controversial it was to reckon with the past. On the other hand, the survivors had also enormous problems to testify their painful, traumatic experiences because they often had guilty feelings toward the family members, relatives and friends who could not survive the Shoah. They sometimes asked themselves how the unrepresentable should be represented. How can somebody testify on the gas chambers if no one could survive in them? Moreover, as regards the physical and mental tortures, which affected their body, the survivors could hardly ever talk openly because of the shame related to them. However, once a survivor makes a testimony, we all know how strong, often-cathartic emotions he or she can suddenly evoke in the audience: “Yes, I believe it must have happened this way!”

 

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