Masterful Historians Take Use of Oral History to New Level

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"Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp" by Christopher R. Browning (W.H. Norton and Co., 2010)

"The Death of the Shtetl" by Yehuda Bauer (Yale University Press, 2010)

Among the great privileges of reading contemporary Holocaust history is seeing the maturation of a field, especially the distinguished work of its most senior and most respected historians as they break new ground, cover new fields and hone their skills.

Two recent books have done just that, in the process advancing the tools by which we can understand this history.

A word about their authors, their subject matter and their methodologies: Christopher R. Browning, born in 1944 and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is best-known for his pathbreaking work “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” (HarperCollins, 1992). Through the examination of the trial records and the interrogation of men of this reserve police unit, he offered impressive insights into the character, motivation, behavior and diverse deeds of a group directly involved in the killing process. Browning has also written extensively on the emergence of the Final Solution, most especially on how the killers killed. Hitherto, he has written of this history by understanding its perpetrators. In this new work he turns his attention from the killers to their victims, and the result is most impressive.

Yehuda Bauer, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is an Israel Prize winner for his three-fold contribution to Holocaust scholarship — as a historian, a master teacher and a public advocate of Holocaust education. Bauer’s new book, despite its brevity, is rich in detail and never loses sight of the larger issues involved in the study of the final years of the shtetl communities. At 85, he has lost none of his intellectual vigor.

A word of definition: Bauer defines the shtetl as a “township with 1,000-15,000 Jews, who formed at least a third of the total population and their life was regulated by the Jewish calendar and by customs derived from traditional interpretations of the Jewish religion.” Size matters because without that critical mass, the communal ties among Jews are personal and their institutions virtually undifferentiated. He deals with the Kresy — prewar Northeastern Poland, Volhynia and Eastern Galicia — which came under Soviet occupation between September 1939 and June 1941 and under German occupation in the period before liberation.

Both these historians rely deeply on oral history. Both argue that traditional claims that oral history is unreliable must be balanced by two overriding considerations: Sometimes our only access to a historical event is through the recollections of survivors, and, in studying the Holocaust, the number of testimonies collected, and the repeated recollections of specific events and persons add immeasurably to our understanding. Both authors caution, however, that, like documents, oral histories must be verified, viewed in context and weighed against other evidence. They also remind us that Holocaust testimonies were given by survivors and not the dead, and that they are overwhelmingly from middle-class Jews.

Browning began his study because he was outraged by the decision of a German court to dismiss, out of hand,  survivors’ testimonies because of their “unreliability,” and thus to exonerate the perpetrators. This led him to examine documentation of the slave labor camp of Starachowice through early testimonies, interrogations by the police, court interrogatories, testimonies given two, three and four decades after the event, memoirs and historical accounts culminating in the testimonies gathered by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education). Because of the magnitude of the foundation’s efforts, it has the most testimonies and hence the most variegated depictions of the camp.

Still, Browning does not accept what was said uncritically, and he recognizes that the format of testimonies can shape what is revealed. Since the Shoah foundation interviewers were instructed, at least at the beginning, to essentially devote one-third of their interview to prewar and one-third to post war, sometimes the Holocaust period was covered too rapidly and considered only in order to provide a narrative sequence. More important, since families were invited to appear on camera at the end, survivors often felt constrained by the fact that their families would be viewing the tape and therefore omitted discussion of some deeply sensitive topics, such as sexuality and rape, abuse, homosexuality, even cases of cannibalism and the silencing by killing of an infant in hiding. He also reminds that when Jewish victims were interrogated by the postwar German police and the courts, they, too, omitted vital information as to the misdeeds of Jews against Jews.

Still, Browning has shown how these testimonies can provide detailed access to the history of the camp, to its perpetrators, its commandants and to the role of the Germans and the Ukrainians. He is able to portray the different epochs and events of the camp and the impact of individual leaders. He depicts the Jewish and German responses to the typhoid epidemic — vital information that could not be found in documents. He is able to decipher different responses on the part of Jews, their interactions with outside groups and their ability, however limited, to respond to their situation. In short, Browning is able to portray actions taken by Jews to grapple with their situation.

Jews were not only passive victims, but also active agents who could help, but only in part, to determine their own fates. The corruption of German leaders helped some Jews survive, at least sometimes. Resources, even those given to Poles for safekeeping, sometimes helped Jews survive or at least postpone their death for a time. Middle-class Jews knew how to hide and husband their resources, and these resources could be essential for escape, hiding and survival.

There is a difference between women’s testimony and men’s, and the experience of labor camp survivors upon arrival at Birkenau was radically different. They arrived as a working group, faced no selection and were sent immediately to work. Even the few Starachowice children who entered Birkenau in 1944, mostly children of wealthy and/or prominent Jews, were sent to work and survived for a time.

Browning proves himself to be an attentive listener to testimonies. He is able to place them in the larger context of the events of the time, see the conflicts within German policy as it evolved and also distinguish what is authentic historically from what was read back into events based on what had been learned later, even through popular culture.

For his part, Bauer shows the impact of Soviet occupation on the shtetl, and he makes a compelling case that the period from fall 1939 to summer 1941 atomized the shtetl and essentially brought about its demise. The Soviet Union destroyed much through its totalitarian control, but also through the use of carrots and the diminishment of official anti-Semitism. Offering Jews opportunity also posed danger to the Jewish community.

Because Bauer relies on oral history, he is able to offer diverse and divergent portrayals of Jewish leadership during the periods of Soviet and German control. So, too, he is able to describe assistance offered to the Germans by the native inhabitants and see that assistance within the context of larger inter-ethnic conflicts, which predated the war and which had much to do with the agenda of the ethnic community.

He demonstrates that character counts and religion matters (would that we had known this upon invading Iraq). Bauer sees differences in religious orientation between Catholic and Russian Orthodox; Jews were helped by Baptists, Mennonites, Old Believers and Czechs, but also by some within the groups that oppressed them, even the Germans. It would be foolish to imagine that all non-Jews were the same.

But Bauer does not only deal with specifics; like Browning, Bauer never loses sight of the larger issues and has begun to use tools of genocide studies as a means of also understanding the Holocaust and its implications. His side remarks on the Armenians and Darfur, on Rwanda, on rescuers and the indifferent are profound.

He understands the impact of geography. Towns located near forests, where Jews could hide, offered escape options not available in Western Poland. He also understands the very difficult but essential role of the Soviet partisans and of the Soviet army, which he credits with defeating the Nazis.

Bauer also understands the double bind of the local populations, who, once they had enjoyed the spoils of war, did not want their Jews to return, but who also, in 1943 and 1944, began to fear the return of the Soviet Union and the consequences that would have to be paid for having worked with the Germans. “Follow the money” is good advice, not just for journalists, but even for historians.

He portrays the variety of Jewish responses to the onslaught: “disorientation, despair, individual and group heroism, collaboration with the perpetrators in the hope of surviving, family cohesion, but also occasional abandonment of children and parents, and resistance, chiefly armed resistance.”

For Bauer, Jewish communal responses when it occurred — and it did not always occur — is termed Amidah, consisting of mutual aid, education, health care, food-smuggling and morale-building, including cultural and religious activities. He asserts, but does not quite prove, that Amidah was unique to the Jewish response.

While he offers few generalizations, Bauer’s work glistens with insights. Together with Browning, Bauer has now made it essential for all historians to reconsider and reject the blanket dismissal of oral history. There is much to be learned, and we have only scratched the surface.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.


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