Survivor voices are crucial in trying to understand the Holocaust. It is not only that those voices are integral to providing a Jewish perspective; they are sometimes the only sources we have. At the same time, firsthand accounts are imperfect sources and, indeed, no documentation is unbiased and unflawed. Used with sensitivity, however, survivor voices help us sketch the historical record and, no less importantly, provide a window on the actions, thoughts and feelings of Jews in the maelstrom of the Shoah.
Much of the outline of the Holocaust comes from traditional documentation – memoranda, reports, letters and messages – created by the main protagonists . The overwhelming volume of this material is from the point of view of the Nazis and their partners, the local authorities in the areas where the murder was perpetrated and, to a lesser extent, from the Allied forces that fought against the Nazis and the neutrals who observed events from their safe havens.
Of course, Jews in the areas of Nazi domination also left precious written records, but given their plight, the vast majority of their experiences were not recorded in real time. It is up to postwar sources to reveal them, but no source can tell the entire story of the Holocaust, since six million people who knew best what they endured were murdered.
It is clear from German documentation that the Nazis engaged in the wholesale murder of Jews simply because they were Jews. Reports such as those issued regularly by the murder units on the Eastern Front (Einsatzgruppen
and others) provide details about the time and place of mass murders, enumerating the victims and declaring that the vast majority were Jews. But such reports can tell us little about the behavior of the killers, and nothing of the Jews on the precipice of death.
MIRACULOUSLY, SOME survived the carnage. In her testimony, featured in Yad Vashem, Dina Beitler describes the scene at Ponary outside Vilna, where Germans and Lithuanians murdered some 40,000 Jews in the second half of 1941. After being led to a killing pit and forced to stand at its edge with machine guns trained on her, the shooting began.
She remembers: “I stood next to my grandfather... When they gave the order to shoot, my grandfather, Shmuel Lifshin, my mother’s father, started praying “Shema Yisrael... I only managed to say “Hear O Israel” once before they fired. I fell before the shots went off and the dead fell on top of me. I lay like that for a long time. I didn’t cry. I was petrified. I lay there. They kept on shooting. Later, after a long time the shooting died down and it became more or less quiet. I thought it was night. I started to move around, trying to get out. When I began to move, someone grabbed my leg. It turned out that another boy was lying on top of me... It turned out that he wasn’t injured either, he was okay. Somehow we helped each other get out from under the dead.”
We learn from Dina important facts. The murderers did their best to be thorough. Families (at least in this case) stood together and shared the moment of death. The moment and its aftermath were terrifying.
Such survivors lived to bear witness, and in Dina’s testimony this includes recalling her grandfather’s last words: “Shema Yisrael
.” In this, Dina tells us that there were Jews who died as Jews, with the time-honored words of martyrdom on their lips.
OF ANOTHER scene of murder, that of Hungarian Jewish forced laborers in a collective farm at Dorozhischche in the Ukraine, there appears to be no contemporary written record. But from the testimony of survivors, we know that on April 30, 1943, the Hungarians placed between 600 and 800 Jews, sick with typhus, in a barn and set it ablaze. As the flames consumed the building, some men fled successfully, but most who tried were cut down by machine-gun fire. Not all of the mortally wounded and charred men died immediately; some lingered for days, in agony from their burns and bullet wounds, until their end finally came.
It is not only atrocities that are evoked by survivor voices. The
struggle to maintain human dignity, comprehend the situation, and
devise strategies to cope also comes through. In his memoir, Jack
Werber explains how he learned to work more efficiently in the quarry
at Buchenwald. He writes: “Crucial to survival was learning how to
select and hoist onto your shoulder the right stone in a split second.
It took me about a week to master how to carry the stones. If you took
a stone that was too small, they beat you up for being a loafer. And if
you chose one that was too large, you ran the risk of collapsing under
its weight. After a while, I learned how to select stones that looked
big but were lighter because they were a little hollow.”
Those of us lucky enough not to have suffered the horror of the Shoah,
or to have been born after it can never fully comprehend what Jews
endured. At best, we can sometimes approach an understanding. When we
listen carefully to the voices of survivors – the words and the silent
spaces between them – we learn, we empathize and we commemorate,
thereby ensuring that their stories will not be forgotten, and that
their experiences remain etched in our souls.
The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries and author of
Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell.