Margaret Taft. 2013. From Victim to Survivor: The Emergence and Development of the Holocaust Witness 1941-1949.
As Konrad Kwiet observes in the Foreword to Margaret Taft's newly published From Victim to Survivor: The Emergence and Development of the Holocaust Witness 1941-1949, "soon there will be no further living witnesses to testify to the horrors of the Holocaust (xii)." Taft's book emerges as a corollary of this statement, although its concern is not with the recent, wide-scale efforts to record these witnesses' memories before it is too late, a project undertaken by the USC Shoah Foundation and indeed, closer to home, the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne. Instead, Taft takes us back to the 1940s, to the time of the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath, and presents a carefully documented and insightfully analysed account of bearing witness from inside Nazi-occupied Europe.
In focusing on this time period of early, and even contemporaneous, Holocaust testimony rather than the mass video recordings of the 1980s and 1990s, her work builds on that of historians such as Laura Jockusch (Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (2012)) and Zoe Waxman (Writing the Holocaust: Identity, Testimony, Representation (2006)), who have also analysed this early Holocaust testimony.
From Victim to Survivor is chronologically divided into three chapters which are not only delineated according to time periods, but also to the types of sources available from the time in question. Hence, the book chronicles the development of different forms of testimony which emerged over the eight years in question.
Chapter 1, entitled "From Persecution to Annihilation: The Struggle to Know and Understand, June 1941-January 1943," focuses on bearing witness in the ghettoes, specifically those in Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna and Kovno. Given the subject matter, Taft understandably uses the Yiddish terms for the latter two, rather than the Lithuanian terms Vilnius and Kaunas.
Chapter 2 "Confronting the Truth in a Period of Transition, 1944-1946" covers the somewhat initially disorientating time period that encompasses 1945, without singling it out as the end of the war, but the reasons for this become clear as the chapter progresses. The chapter's analysis of survivor testimonies written towards the end of the war and in the period of liberation--which of course varied according to the circumstances in different parts of Europe--shows that they were concerned with making sense of experience in a world which was not particularly interested in Jewish suffering.
The immediate post-war period is discussed in Chapter 3, entitled "From Private Victim to Public Survivor, 1947-1949," and this chapter focuses on survivor memoirs written in this period. Taft argues this select few nevertheless embody similar survival narratives that correspond to that period of time.
Chapter 1 begins not with the Nazi invasion of Poland or the beginning of World War II, but in 1941, because, as Taft explains, "In the 18 month period from mid-1941 to the beginning of 1943, the Jews in Eastern Europe were subjected to a systematic mass murder campaign the nature and scale of which had never been experienced before (15)." Anchoring her study with the conceptualisation and implementation of the Final Solution, Taft allows the reader to be immediately immersed in the perspectives of Jews experiencing this stage of the Holocaust. While the chapter is based on fascinating documents written at the time, it is a shame that Taft does not introduce the individual texts at the beginning of the chapter but instead uses phrasing such as "Ten diaries and chronicles that were written in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna and Kovno throughout this eighteen-month period have been selected and analysed in order to understand the different levels of awareness and the various ways in which people in these communities came to understand what was happening (17)." It would perhaps help to orient readers--not to mention satisfy their curiosity--if the specific names of the diaries and other sources were mentioned earlier.
Presenting the often heartbreaking accounts of Jews confined to Nazi ghettos, Taft provides a deft analysis of what they knew about the persecution of the Jews and the Final Solution at the time. For example, Taft quotes Jozef Zelkowicz in the Lodz Ghetto, writing that "There is one solitary thought about that: they are going to certain death. How unbearable, how impossible to make peace with this thought (43)." Taft thus shows how these captive Jews extrapolated from their own experience and what they learnt about others in other places, in order to illustrate the extent of knowledge these persecuted Jews did have of their own and others' fates.
The chapter concludes that "Those with the capacity to see beyond their own fate and that of their family, to what lay in store for an entire people, were required to confront and address a new set of circumstances. [...] In the context of the Final Solution, the systematic and total extermination of an entire people was beyond human experience and therefore beyond comprehension. There simply was no point of reference (62)." Taft's sensitive and insightful analysis does indeed show that this was the case according to extant testimonies written in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna and Kovno, and it makes for very sobering reading indeed.
The scope of Chapter 2, which covers the period from 1944 until 1946, emphasises the continuity of Holocaust testimony, according to Taft, over a time which saw huge changes: from war to peace, and from persecution to freedom. Thus the focus moves from accounts written during the Holocaust, to those written in the period of liberation, and therefore with a very recent retrospective point of view on traumatic events. It analyses several memoirs, but, as with Chapter 1, it would have been helpful if the titles and authors of the memoirs were mentioned earlier in the chapter, rather than introduced only in the sections in which they are discussed.
It would also have been beneficial to address the gendered aspect of testimony at some point. Taft does this in Chapter 3, albeit briefly, as we shall discuss below. The "survivor works" discussed in Chapter 2 are all written by men, among them Auschwitz escapees Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, Treblinka escapee Yankl Wiernik, Abraham Sutzkever who escaped from the Vilna ghetto, and Marek Edelman, who played a leading role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The analysis would be enhanced by reflection on the aspects this focus on testimony by men illuminates and those that it excludes.
Throughout Chapter 2, Taft emphasises what has been called the urge to bear witness: "The number of memoirs that began to emerge from 1944 onwards, the different languages in which they were written and their diverse publishing locations bear testament to the strong desire felt by a significant number of survivors, no matter where they found themselves following their liberation, to communicate their experiences to others (75)." She classifies the types of responses into three categories: messengers of the truth', recording their own history' and heroic resistance: a paradigm for survival"' (77), thus encapsulating the widely ranging goals that these witnesses had, which went beyond just chronicling their own experiences of survival, to seeking communication of these experiences to a wide audience. Taft argues that "Survivors felt compelled to communicate their experiences to the outside world, a world that they perceived as remaining indifferent to their plight" (112). Thus, Taft explains the myth of immediate post-war silence in terms of a world that did not want to know about the fate of the Jews, rather than the commonly held view that the traumatised survivors did not want to tell of their experiences.
Chapter 3 takes up this angle by analysing six memoirs which were written between 1947 and 1949, this time including two by women, Olga Lengyel and Gisella Perl, as well as accounts by Primo Levi, Albert Menasche, Vladka Meed and Tuvia Borzykowski. Taft notes that "The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 gave many survivors hope for regeneration and reconstruction. It also gave survivors a sense of empowerment, self-determination and security; a sense that they could once more assume responsibility for their lives and their future" (126), thus alluding to a Zionist context that is not necessarily evident from the texts she analyses.
Furthermore, Taft links the diverse memoirs analysed in this chapter according to the moral authority of the author, asserting that "those who wrote memoirs at this time came from a select group that was recognized as having a particular moral authority which entitled them to speak when many could not. [...] They influenced the way in which Jewish survivor communities of this early post-war period understood the Holocaust and what it meant to be a survivor'" (125). It is worth considering whether this claim, convincingly substantiated in Taft's analysis, applies in a wider context.
In Chapter 3, Taft does broach the gendered aspect of testimony. She quotes Myrna Goldenberg on "the social bonding that occurred between women in the concentration camps" (146). It is a shame however that Taft does not investigate this problematic claim any further, and this example illustrates how, in certain places, the manuscript would benefit from a more critical approach to terms and assumptions, for instance challenging the notion that women were better caregivers rather than accepting it at face value. There are also some minor but unfortunate typos such as "Vina" instead of "Vilna" (70), an incorrect chapter heading on page 133, and "David Baile" instead of "David Biale" (162).
Despite these minor shortcomings, From Victim to Survivor is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of the Holocaust witness, or indeed in the development of the Holocaust as it unfolded, from the victims' perspective. Undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as academics will find this book a very useful and informative companion to the study of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust.
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|Publication:||The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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