Commentary Magazine

Holocaust Testimonies, by Lawrence L. Langer

Through a Lens, Darkly

Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.
by Lawrence L. Langer.
Yale University Press. 216 pp. $25.00.

Someone comes with a story to tell—how, alone of all his family, friends, and townspeople, he survived the Nazi Holocaust. So you put him in a bare room, and sit him down in front of a video camera, and a stranger asks him questions in English to which he replies with a heavy accent. Lawrence L. Langer, in his recent study of Holocaust Testimonies, argues that such interviews are the ultimate source of truth. They are truer than the written word, even by the same person, because they lay bare the self-censoring tricks that memory plays.

After viewing hundreds of videotapes housed at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, Langer has drawn a map to describe the intricate byways of Holocaust memory. He provides the following five headings: Deep Memory reveals the “buried self” as it was then, without the support of memories from before or after Auschwitz; Anguished Memory recalls the futile dialogue within the self of the insider vs. the outsider; Humiliated Memory leaves the self “besieged” by the “governing impotence of the worst moments”; Tainted Memory reenacts the moral compromise, the unpredictability, and total self-reliance involved in just staying alive; and Unheroic Memory finally unmasks the “diminished self left with the heritage of past discords that cannot be orchestrated into present and prospective harmonies.”

Langer’s use of poetic language masks the controversial nature of his claims. To begin with, they fly in the face of common sense. Anyone who has communicated his thoughts both in writing and in live interviews knows that writing demands precision and accountability, while a person fielding questions tends to use clichés, to play for effect and affect. Memories spoken before a camera are schematic unless the interviewer comes armed with prior knowledge of the subject, and is prepared to challenge his informant and to keep up the pressure for a very long time. None of this is true of Yale’s “open-ended, free-flowing interviewing process” (from the publicity brochure).



Is there nevertheless something that spoken testimony on a TV monitor reveals that cannot otherwise be known, some deeper truth that no other medium can fathom? Wanting to test Langer’s hypothesis further, I made a trip to Yale and watched the video testimony of Samuel B., as he is so identified.1 Samuel B. (for Bak) is a Vilna-born artist whom I happen to know, whose published memoir in Yiddish I have read, and the destruction of whose native city has been carefully documented. This is what I found:

Samuel B.’s spoken English, though not nearly so rich as his Yiddish, did not seem to pose an insurmountable barrier to communication. But he felt constrained in another way. Since he was there to talk about the Holocaust, he feared he was wasting the interviewer’s time with his prewar and postwar experience. So Samuel B., who was born in 1933, begins his reminiscence in September 1939, deals briefly with the Soviet occupation, then skips to the German invasion of Russia in the summer of ‘41 before going on to the Holocaust period proper. Hardly a word here about the upper-crust Polish-speaking environment he came from. By contrast, his printed memoir (in Di goldene keyt, no. 98) stresses that environment, and stresses his family’s estrangement from Yiddish and yiddishkayt until the day he and his mother were met on the way back from kindergarten by a Polish ruffian who spat in their face and cursed them as dirty Jews. The next day he was transferred to a Yiddish-speaking school.

Here is a real discrepancy, for in the taped interview, Samuel B. repeatedly emphasizes that he knew not a word of Yiddish until he and his family were forced into the ghetto in autumn 1941 and that he had no formal education until he arrived in the Landsberg DP camp after the war. He has little to say on the tape about organized Jewish cultural life in the ghetto, but claims to have spent all his time painting and reading Polish and Russian books. He also speaks of Tom Sawyer, and especially of his attraction at the time to Christianity. Yet according to his memoir, in this same ghetto he learned “about the Jewish shtetl, the heder, the yeshiva and study house; about Jews with beards and peyes, the Jewish festivals; about biblical times, about Jews who once lived in the land of their forefathers.”



Nowhere in Langer’s book is there a rubric for this kind of memory lapse. That is because neither he nor his interviewers are interested in their subjects as Jews. Holocaust survivors are seen by them as lone individuals, case studies in trauma and survival. (The Fortunoff Archive also contains the testimonies of non-Jewish witnesses.) To get at these people as Jews, one would have to conduct the interviews in their native language(s), draw them out about their parents, party affiliation, and prior schooling, and occasionally sit them down with other survivors from the same city, town, labor or death camp. Only in a group setting, for instance, would informants be likely to recall the songs that sustained them through those dark years. Folklore is the preserve of language, melody, and collective experience. These are some of the things the video archive at Yale has no access to.

Now, Langer would no doubt cite the discrepancy between Samuel B.’s spoken and written testimony to bolster his own argument. Because the memoir is written in Yiddish, Langer would say, and is titled “To Be a Jew . . . ,” it soft-pedals the horror of the “roulette game” (in Samuel B.’s spoken phrase)—the struggle to stay alive during the Holocaust—covering it over with comforting, collective mythologies. The latter Langer consistently rejects in favor of the truth that supposedly lies buried in the taped interviews.

What Langer fails to see, however, is that the “truth” revealed by these live informants is determined by the nature of the interview itself. Speaking before a camera to an unknown audience concerned with his Holocaust-related experiences, Samuel B. constructs a small-scale Bildungsroman that begins with childhood innocence and ends with his rejecting the horrible implications of chosenness in the wake of the Holocaust. The Yiddish testimony moves in the opposite direction, from horror to reconciliation. The assimilated Jewish child first discovers his pariah status in Poland but ends as an adult Israeli affirming the beauty of Jewish experience.

So which version of the “truth” are we looking for: the individual, “universal” truth of the roulette game, or the “parochial” truth of one who has remained a Jew despite everything? In fact one would never know that there are competing truths at work were it not for the literary, historical, and linguistic background that Langer deems irrelevant. The author of three prior books on the literature of the Holocaust, Langer now claims that “literacy has little to do with the problem of entering into meaningful intellectual or emotional dialogue with the contents of these videotaped testimonies.” He even avers that historical writings, including the ghetto diaries of Emanuel Ringelblum, are just as suspect as personal memoirs. The only thing left for this professor of literature is to watch the witness reenact, not merely retell, the story of Auschwitz. What is left is the Holocaust as media event.

Moreover, just as, for Langer, the media image has displaced the written word, so Auschwitz—where, he asserts erroneously, the solitary individual was stripped of his past and patrimony, so that it no longer mattered where he came from and what cultural baggage he discarded at the ramps—has displaced all other points on the Holocaust compass. Langer’s equation of the Holocaust with the fate of individuals in a single death camp explains why he has so little respect for the writings of Emanuel Ringelblum.

Ringelblum, who collected testimonies on that other slaughterhouse of European Jewry, Treblinka, was the first historian to recognize the full scope of the Nazi design. Seizing the opportunity that the Warsaw ghetto afforded as a dumping ground for refugees from far and wide, he organized a clandestine research team to conduct exhaustive interviews. Leaving nothing to chance (except the very real prospect of contracting typhus), his Yiddish- and Polish-speaking team came armed with detailed questionnaires that covered all aspects of the individual and communal Jewish fate in wartime. When enough data had been collected, the interviewer was set to work writing a monographic study of a particular community. The archive became a central repository for postwar memorial volumes to the martyred communities of Europe.



These authentic writings of the Nazi occupation, which should form the bedrock of Holocaust memory, do not figure anywhere in Lawrence Langer’s four book-length studies—or, for that matter, in Paul Fussell’s Norton Book of Modern War (1990). In lieu of them, Langer draws his inspiration from the “gnomic fragments” of the French critic Maurice Blanchot, whose almost impenetrable prose inspires Langer to disassemble Holocaust memory into the five constituent parts noted above, to reject the word “survivor” (with its upbeat connotations) in favor of “former victim,” and to offer the solitary, unassimilable truths and half-truths of Holocaust testimony as the source of a new, brutal Truth.

“Confrontation with these videotaped testimonies,” Langer asserts, “begins in separate narrative and ends in collective memory.” Yet this cannot be. For if, as he claims, these solitary faces on an otherwise blank screen defy the moral vocabulary of Western civilization and speak only as oracles of random victimization, then they are finally consumed by their own nihilism and cannot serve the purposes of “collective memory.” The cumulative impact of all these “former victims” baring their souls to the merciless camera is to rob their lives and stories of any larger significance, and to consign the Holocaust to a purgatory outside the course of human events.

Was Samuel B.’s oral testimony, then, a futile gesture? As it happens, it did reveal to me one truth which his written memoir conceals. It revealed the open wound of his relationship to God. “I think I am religious,” Samuel B. says in conclusion, “because I’m so mad with Him.” And that goes far to explain the artist Samuel Bak’s recurrent use in his paintings and drawings of broken Tablets of the Law: sometimes shot through with bullets, sometimes held together by metal strips, sometimes crumbling under the weight of Jewish history. These mutilated Tablets are the emblem of Bak’s unresolved anger with the God who chose the Chosen People. The anger is worth knowing about, and the Yale testimony brings it to the fore, however fleetingly. But that testimony does not even begin to tell us how to understand the multiform sources of Samuel B.’s anger, let alone, despite everything, the religious art to which it has given rise.


1 Tape #T-618, cited with the permission of Yale University Library.

About the Author

David G. Roskies teaches literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This is adapted from a work in progress, The Last Yiddish Novel: A Memoir. Copyright © 2005 by David G. Roskies.

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