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, January 06, 2007

Holocaust Diaries

Diary writing is an area of personal recordkeeping that has been the topic of sustained discussion for the past several decades, with the scholarship becoming both deeper and broader in scope. Historian Alexandra Garbarini’s study of Holocaust diaries – Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0-300-11252, is an important addition to this scholarship. As this scholar notes, her study is “an analysis of why . . . people sustained such seemingly Herculean writing efforts and of what their diaries reveal about their perceptions of Nazi exterminatory policies in the midst of their implementation” (p. x). This is also a study of how the diaries were created, how they survived, and why they were used. Numbered Days is also an interesting addition to our understanding of diaries.

The initial chapter is a fascinating historical and theoretical investigation of the motivations for writing diaries under such circumstances. The individuals involved in this writing did so because they turned inward to make meaning of the new, strange, and hostile world they found themselves living in. As Garbarini suggests, while diarists through history compiled diaries as a mechanism to record their experiences, these Jewish diarists also wrote in order to live, “writing themselves into the future” (p. 5). Indeed, these particular diarists provide an opportunity to investigate the nature of this record form in interesting ways, with implications for comprehending other diarists. Garbarini comments that these “diarists wondered if it was possible to represent their experiences in language, and what the implications were of the representations they were in the process of creating” (p. 12). Furthermore, the Jewish diarists “often invested tremendous faith in history and envisioned their diaries as evidence for future historical writing about their plight. At the same time, they expressed doubt that historians who had not shared their experiences would be able to understand and accurately depict them,” foreshadowing, as Garbarini thinks, some of the postmodernist debates about history (p. 15). This study also notes how the Holocaust diaries pushed the diary form, appearing as group efforts, series of letters, or objective reports. Garbarini links these diaries into other studies of war diaries, suggesting that as the diarists were written to “absent family members and to the world at large,” they became “part of this longer tradition of diary writing as public performance” (p. 18).

This study divides up its analysis of the diaries according to predominant themes, such as diarists functioning as historians and interpreters of events; distributors of news (however flawed the news may be, especially as diarists tried to be more hopeful as events became worse) that became more difficult as German authorities increasingly controlled mail; correspondence writers to missing relatives to eliminate distance, provide moral advice, and give meaning for family (as families were being exterminated); and as individuals involved in a “cultural pursuit” (p. 129) whereby they located their place in the world gone mad. Some of these ventures share great similarities with diaries written by other diaries written under normal events, but Garbarini does suggest that often there was a different psychology present with those compiling their record during the Holocaust, operating under constant fear of being caught and read by any other than those the diaries were intended for.

This historian acknowledges how her study has been connected to the many recent academic theoretical discourses about history – such as the “relationship of memory to history, the concept of a fragmented self, the potential impossibility of mourning trauma, and the moral fallibility of Western science and democracy” (p. 165). All of these relate to the issue of the limits of representation. Whatever one thinks of these conceptual discussions, one can still read Numbered Days and gain insights about the nature of a fundamental way of self-documentation. One could ignore all of the theoretical discourse in this volume and simply focus on the personal diary or blog or, in the case of archivist, relate it to reflecting on the nature of documents they administer. Garbarini has given us a rich and insightful reflection about an important documentary process, one we should all read.