Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holocaust Witnesses

Annette Wieviorka’s The Era of the Witness, translated by Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) is a book anyone interested in archives and historical sources must read. This is what Jeannette Bastian of Simmons told me in her recommendation of the book, and I concur. Wieviorka examines the creation of hundreds of thousands of oral testimonies accumulated over the decades since the end of the Second World War. “No other historical event, not even World War I – when the practice of recording testimonies first became common – has given rise to such a movement [of testimony recording], writes Wieviorka, “which is so vast and long-lasting that no researcher can pretend to master in its entirety” (p. xi). Despite these sources, many deposited in archives and libraries, Wieviorka notes that historians have treated them with “considerable mistrust” (p. xiii), and she proceeds to construct an intriguing study of how the testimonies have been used in history and collective memory, resulting in a compelling rumination about the nature of historical evidence.

The Era of the Witness carefully charts how the collecting of testimonies evolved over the past six decades, from early efforts by the Historical Commissions of the Central Committee of Polish Jews to the work of Stephen Spielberg in his Visual History Foundation. In the immediate aftermath of the war, there was little coherence among Holocaust survivors. Rather, individuals tended to keep their memories “confined within closed, family-like groups” (p. 55). This approach changed with the Adolph Eichmann trial in 1961, where testimony became part of a political landscape, presenting a completely different courtroom experience from the Nuremberg trial where documents overshadowed the proceedings and testimonies were sparingly used.

Testimonies are seen not so much as historical sources but as manifestations of political, societal, and personal agendas. Wieviorka suggests that the “witness is the bearer of an experience that, albeit unique, does not exist on its own, but only in the testimonial situation in which it takes place” (p. 82). By the 1970s audio-visual testimonies were part and parcel of a political agenda of Jewish-American organizations, evident in the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Spielberg project, transforming just what these testimonies represent: “The person of the survivor is no longer at the center of the enterprise. The survivor has been replaced by a concept, that of transmission” (p. 111).

Using these testimonies presents a number of challenges and poses many questions. Considering the 39,000 life stories in the Spielburg collection, for example, Wieviorka suggests that a “historian who agreed to watch these stories day and night for two years would at most be able to draw a picture of how the survivors remembered their communities fifty years after their destruction. But the historian would in no case be able to reconstruct the history of these communities” (p. 113). The explanation for this can be seen in the careful manner in which these testimonies are crafted. Each is professionally filmed at two hours long, with 60 percent concerning the war, 20 percent to the periods before and after the war, and with each interviewee being asked to consider what they perceive their legacy to be for future generations. The end result are interviews full of optimism and hope, suggesting that the “project is not ultimately concerned with constructing an oral history of the Holocaust but rather with creating an archive of survival” (p. 115). Such an assessment suggests one of many assumptions this author makes about the nature and purpose of archives, but it is precisely this questioning that is so valuable and intriguing. We are more prone to read the works of historians who use archival sources without testing issues about how they came to be or why they have been preserved.

Such testimonies have been shaped into something else other than a typical document found within a repository. This investigator believes that this testimony has changed: “Survivors are no longer motivated to tell their stories before the camera purely by an internal necessity, though this necessity still exists. A veritable social cooperative now transforms the witness into an apostle and prophet” (pp. 135-136). As the witnesses aged and reached their retirement years, increasingly the “tone of their testimonies is heavily influenced by the ways they think about and assess their lives” (p. 138). And the various projects are now using the existing testimonies for getting younger people to be “witnesses for the witness,” a substantial re-imagination of the nature of historical evidence (p. 136).

Wieviorka ends her book wondering if historians should “wage war” against memory and these witnesses and the testy aspects of their accounts. While she concludes that this does not make sense, underscoring the fact that we need to understand the nature of value of these testimonies in ways that operate outside of other forms of historical documentation, Wieviorka ends on this high note: “Historians have but one obligation, to follow their profession, even if the results of their labors fuel public debate or collective memory, even if they are instrumentalized by political events. Because when traces fade with time, what remains of the written record of events in history, which is the only future of the past” (p. 149). And such a statement raises even more provocative questions about the role and nature of archives and archival work. This is an astoundingly fascinating book that makes you reflect and pushes you to question certain assumptions about archival evidence.