Holocaust Survivors and Holocaust Scholars: A Changing and Challenging Relationship

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 4 (December 2014)

Holocaust Survivors and Holocaust Scholars: A Changing and Challenging Relationship

Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

On November 17, 2014, I gave the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia. The lecture honors the memory of Dr. Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 and together with another Jewish prisoner, Alfred Wetzler, wrote the first eyewitness report of what was happening there. After the war he became a medical researcher and for many years a professor of pharmacology in Vancouver. There he became friends with John Conway, and that relationship contributed to some important articles and interventions by Conway on the subject of the Holocaust in Hungary. John, who was present on November 17, thought our readers might be interested in a synopsis of my lecture.

It is easy to think of Holocaust survivors and scholars in terms of dichotomies and oppositions – between emotion and detachment, authenticity and artificiality, memory and history. In the worst case, scholars are cast as antagonists who appropriate and discount survivors’ witness. In the best case, scholarship is sometimes seen as a pale substitute for the compelling voice of experience. I tried to complicate this picture by suggesting that we contemplate instead how survivors and scholars of the Holocaust are intertwined and have been since the earliest studies in the field. Indeed, it is precisely the close ties between the experiences of victims, the memories of survivors, and the work of scholars that has shaped the study of the Holocaust into a dynamic and resilient field.

I opened with two short film clips from Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece, Shoah. The first showed Raul Hilberg, the most famous scholar of Holocaust, explaining how Nazi antisemitism was similar to preceding centuries of anti-Jewish measures yet broke with the past. The second showed Gertrude Schneider and mother, Charlotte Hirschhorn, survivors of the Riga ghetto, singing a song in Yiddish. At a glance, these segments present a study in contrasts, between the articulate scholar who sees the big picture, and the speechless survivors who are emotional – Hirschhorn is crying throughout the scene – and fatalistic: they sing “Azoy muss sein” – that’s the way it has to be. Both Hilberg and Schneider, however, are survivors and scholars. Both were born in Vienna, driven from their homes, and lost many members of their families in the Holocaust. Both received doctoral degrees in New York, with dissertations on Holocaust-related topics, and went on to produce numerous publications. These clips framed the presentation by reminding the audience that the views and voices of survivors and scholars are entangled and at times indistinguishable. In fact, in many cases they are the same people.

The rest of the talk sketched out three major stages of scholarship on the Holocaust. The first, which began before the war was even over, was driven not only by survivors but by people who did not live through the war. Some of the most important initiatives to “collect and record,” to use the phrase popularized by Laura Jockusch’s book, were by trained historians. I focused on two of them, Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Philip Friedman from Łódź, founder of the Historical Commission, which became the Jewish Historical Institute. As social historians trained in Polish universities, they sought to produce histories that were as credible as possible: empirically complete, analytical, and methodologically strong. Other works followed, by scholars writing in Hebrew, Polish, Dutch, and other languages, but these studies remained outside the scholarly mainstream.

During the second phase, stretching from the 1960s through the 1980s, scholarship developed a different relationship to survivors. Now the emerging field of inquiry increasingly separated itself from private, communal acts of commemoration. But survivors remained central to production of scholarship. Hilberg, Gerhard Weinberg, Nechama Tec, Henry Friedlander, Saul Friedländer, Yitzhak Arad, Dori Laub, and Yaffa Eliach are key contributors here. They did not incorporate their personal experiences into their scholarship in an explicit way but emphasized the importance of research that met the highest standards of scientific rigor. Under their leadership, study of the Holocaust became a recognized field of scholarship. They were joined in their efforts by an important contingent of non-Jewish scholars, many of them Germans – Martin Broszat, Hans Mommsen, Eberhard Jaeckel. These people studied the Nazi system, Hitler’s role, the German bureaucracy, elites, and ordinary people. Their contacts across the Atlantic with colleagues who literally spoke the same language, proved essential to creating a dynamic, open field of inquiry. Before his death, Hilberg said the best scholarship on the Holocaust was being done not in Israel, North America, but in Europe.

Saul Friedländer’s two-volume “integrated and integrative history” of the Holocaust is part of the third phase, from the early 1990s until now. In these past decades, the field has taken off with enormous growth in every direction. Following Friedländer , scholars all over the world recognize the importance of writing “integrated histories” that take seriously Jewish sources and how they complicate and interrupt the narrative based on perpetrators’ records. Some survivor-scholars remain active and questions first raised by Ringelblum, Friedman, and others decades ago – about Jewish life in the ghettos, religious practice, Jewish-gentile interactions, collaboration, and more – have returned to the agenda.

I closed with a final clip from Shoah, with Rudi Vrba telling about an effort that failed to spark a general revolt in Auschwitz. Here Vrba embodied the tension between action and words, reason and emotion that is at the heart of Holocaust studies. He and others have given us powerful models of how to combine scholarly rigor and human engagement in pursuit of truth.