Faculty Seminar-New Directions in Study of the Holocaust

Many thanks to all members of the Winegarden UM Flint faculty seminar, which met nine times during January-February-March 2012 to consider new directions in study of the Holocaust.

We discussed anxieties some authors like Alvin Rosenfeld express about a worried “end to the Holocaust,” a sense that the more we talk and write about it, the more we actually get away from it and the less we understand it in its specificity and moral gravity.  We discussed standards and criteria by which to assess Holocaust memoirs and novels, exploring  truth and veracity, authenticity, literary quality, and more, with Ruth Franklin as our guide.

We explored whether it is possible, in terms of new directions in history, as Timothy Snyder does in Bloodlands, to go more macro, more comparative, without at the same time flattening the distinctiveness of the events that we call the Holocaust.  Finally, we explored. in terms of new directions in history, reading Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival, going more micro, more bottom-up, drawing on survivors’ testimonies and interviews, and studying the Holocaust in particular places and camps.

All of this led to other insights about doing or writing history, confronting genocide, coping with ongoing issues of justice and responsibility, and wrestling with memory. UM Flint faculty and staff explored the many ways confrontation with aspects of the Holocaust is also germane and relevant to studying topics and raising questions beyond the Holocaust on which they work or in which they’re interested and on exploring methods of approaching these. What a great group — the seminar leader learned at least as much as seminar participants!

About Ken Waltzer

Ken Waltzer grew up in New York City and attended Harpur College of the State University of New York and Harvard University as a Graduate Prize Fellow. He has helped build James Madison College, Michigan State University's highly reputed residential college in public affairs and currently serves as director of Jewish Studies at MSU. In 2011-2012, he is the Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint.
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3 Responses to Faculty Seminar-New Directions in Study of the Holocaust

  1. What a group! We had a stimulating 9 weeks together. Ken was our indefatigable leader and you can see from the smiles (well, except Adam) how satisfying the seminar was.
    Looking forward to the Kinderblock 66 premiere on April 25!

  2. Ken Waltzer says:

    Reviewed work(s): Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp. By Christopher R. Browning.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Pp. xxiv+375. $27.95.

    Nathan Stoltzfus

    Florida State University

    In 1972, the Holocaust perpetrator Walther Becker walked free because a German judge, “as a matter of principle,” condemned eyewitness testimony as “the most unreliable form of evidence.” The perpetrator’s denials prevailed because the accounts of his Jewish victims fell short of the judge’s “contrived and impossible standard of perfection” (2). This miscarriage of justice launched Browning’s rigorous considerations of the limits and potentials of victim testimony for professional historians. Remembering Survival is the result.

    Browning’s book is state-of-the-art—a comprehensive microhistory that never loses sight of its wider context. It is a “world in a grain of sand … hell in a slice of history,” to paraphrase Blake, employing categories of gender, class, age, and ethnicity to evaluate Jewish survival and ghetto or camp experiences. It constructs Holocaust history from below and from the periphery of central Poland rather than from Berlin and through the reports of the perpetrators, yet it reveals a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the heterogeneous Jewish society and its complex layering of oppressors—Ukrainians, Germans, Poles.

    Remembering Survival demonstrates how a testimony-based history can meet the standards of superb history. It traces prewar Wierzbnik Jewish society through various stages of destruction, including the murder of some six thousand and the negotiation of survival by war’s end of six hundred to seven hundred. It concludes with the grotesque killing in June 1945 of more than half a dozen skeletal survivors returning to Wierzbnik and postwar German “justice.” Throughout, Browning remains respectful of fellow historians and sensitive to the victims’ circumstances.

    Browning’s reflections on the tragedy of this single community challenge long-established categories in Holocaust historiography. For example, historical understanding of Jewish response has for too long revolved around a “false dichotomy of resistance and passivity,” with Jewish resistance stretched to encompass self-assertion and efforts to maintain dignity. Browning suggests a more differentiated set of terms—“ingenuity, resourcefulness, adaptability, perseverance, and endurance” (297). In his study, the main “strategies for survival” of the approximately sixteen hundred who by late 1942 had “bought their way into slavery” at the Starachowice camps were “putting money in German pockets and bullets in German rifles” (297), tragically enriching their oppressors while aiding their enemy’s war.

    To judge the factual accuracy of testimony, Browning draws from his own seminal histories. Twenty-five percent of Wierzbnik’s Jews were sent to work camps rather than to Treblinka’s gas chambers, well above the average of 5 to 10 percent for surrounding Jewish communities in the Radom district. This was due apparently to the assertive bribing of the Judenrat to procure work passes, which frequently presented horrifying “choiceless choices” (Lawrence Langer’s unforgettable expression) between personal survival—for the moment—at the expense of abandoning family in their most desperate hour (35). Using the findings of his regional study to critique general interpretations about Polish motives for killing survivors, Browning concludes that the murder in June 1945 of the Wierzbnik Jews who returned was primarily due to the determination of Poles to hold on to property they considered “formerly” Jewish and to the “homogenization of the Polish population” resulting from the Holocaust (268).

    Other historians have used some of Browning’s methods to judge the authenticity and factual accuracy of Holocaust testimony, including, for example, the constructing of a “core memory” that emerges from a sufficient mass of accounts to test one against another. Additions to this core and further judgments about the likely veracity of any one testimony are made with an eye on the “the most specific and detailed accounts” that consistently maintain credibility (48). Conversely, testimonies unsupported by other sources, and including iconic Holocaust imagery, suggest “a greater likelihood of being incorporated into memory later” (91).

    Counter to his initial expectations, Browning found individual memory to be quite consistent over time (his testimony base spanned six decades). He now agrees with the testimony expert Henry Greenspan that the “lack of differences between early and late survivor testimonies is ‘most noteworthy and remarkable’” (9). Indeed, passage of time may increase the likelihood that survivors relate more traumatic and private memories, including of rape. Browning goes on to test for accuracy by configuring testimony within several categories and paying special attention to memories of those traumatic events most likely to be repressed or held secret.

    He also questioned whether a geographically separated community of survivors might create a collective memory, altering individual recollections. Again contrary to his expectations, he found that, within the several geographically separated “memory communities” of Wierzbnik-Starochowice survivors, the community did not significantly shape individual memory.

    Browning had nearly three hundred testimonies to draw on, although of course he did not determine accuracy by the majority view. For particular events, he relates just one to several testimonies as factually plausible or likely. Welcome would be further specifics on how he weighed conflicting accounts against each other. However, the available source base varies from history to history, requiring the historian’s subjective assessment, case by case, to determine the specific methodological measures for determining the factual accuracy of each source.

    Browning argues for relying on testimony “especially when the number of survivor testimonies is sufficient, the vantage point of the survivor is apt, and surviving contemporary documentary is scarce” (9). Of course, official documents themselves display the “foxhole” quality of limited personal perspective frequently attributed to survivor accounts. Documents are also limited by what the chronicler, particularly one in the service of Nazi Germany, wished to omit, exaggerate, or underplay. German documents, for example, do not reveal that officials took certain actions due to Jewish bribes; “that aspect of the story is of course dependent solely on Jewish testimony” (59).

    Keeping in mind the uniqueness of Holocaust testimony, future testimony-based histories might also critically incorporate the insights of historians such as Luisa Passerini—for example, her attention to the ideological perspective of both informants and researchers. No category of documentary evidence can be divorced from critical and contextual scrutiny. In Remembering Survival, Browning has set the standard for doing that.
    © 2011 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

  3. cuff links says:

    It sounds like you guys had lots of fun. Thank you for sharing. Many young people asked me about Holocaust before, not even having any idea what that means and what it involved. I referred them all to the movie Schidler’s list. I thought that was a good starting point for some youngster who didn’t have a clue at all.

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