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What the Survivor and Historian Know Detente Between Those Who Lived the Shoah and Study It

By Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Director American Jewish University

Jeff Cohen’s “The Soap Myth,” as produced by the National Jewish Theater Foundation and directed by Arnold Mittleman, has brought to life on the New York stage the inherent tensions between Holocaust historians and Holocaust survivors over facts and interpretation of facts. Time and again, survivors speak of the Nazis’ making human fat into soap, while Holocaust historians say that, at best, there is insufficient evidence to support that claim.

When, during its creation, I was project director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I rejected the display of a cake of soap. So, too, did my colleagues at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and at Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland. Rather than go into the minutiae of detail regarding the soap, however, it is worthwhile to consider the relationship between survivor testimony and historical fact.

Elie Wiesel, the preeminent survivor, set the bar impossibly high: “Only those who were there will ever know, and those who were there can never tell.” Survivors’ testimony was privileged. They alone could know. Nothing could be said by my generation, born after the war; what could we know?

Yet, over time, we have come to understand each other better and perhaps to listen to one another more respectfully.

Survivors “know” something that we who were not there may never quite know: what it was like to be there — the anguish, the cold, the brutality, the hunger, the fear, the lice, the degradation, the humiliation and the assault on even elemental humanity. But if we listen attentively, respectfully and cautiously, we can use the survivors as our guide to enter the portals of this evil.

Even documentary historians have come to understand that some events happened but were never detailed in writing; all that exists to bear witness to some slave labor camps are the oral testimonies of its victims. Survivor testimonies must be evaluated as historical documents: “Trust but verify” is not a bad motto. Written documents also lie, as anyone who has read a self-serving memo for the record can tell you. Both must be considered in context, considered one against the other, weighed against all other available evidence. Then, and only then, may they offer us invaluable historical evidence.

Hilberg’s leading disciple, University of North Carolina Professor Christopher R. Browning, offered us a model of such historical writing in his important work “Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp” [Starachowiche in German-occupied Poland]. Israel historian Yehuda Bauer, also a documentary man, tried his hand at evaluating oral history with his work, “The Death of the Shtetl.”

There now exist more than 70,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors. The largest collection, at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Institute, has 52,000 testimonies in 32 languages from 57 countries gathered over more than 15 years.

So what has happened in the past few decades? Survivors have spoken and historians have listened, and the best of the historians have considered the insights of literature and poetry, psychology and religion, sociology and anthropology to enrich their work.

Would that enable a museum to exhibit the bar of soap? Not without persuasive evidence. But the very nature of the encounter between historians and survivors would be different; the former would be prepared to listen and to learn, not necessarily to agree, and the latter would be heard respectfully and might even be willing to concede that we, who were not there, know something.

That may be the best that can happen. It was a long time in coming.