Finding détente between Holocaust survivors and historians
Over time, Holocaust survivors and historians have come to understand each other better and listen to one another more respectfully.
Primo Levi, the great Italian Jewish writer who was an inmate at Auschwitz, wrote of the difficulty of language: “If the lagers had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born, and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and the knowledge of the end drawing near.”
He suggests caution, for we use ordinary language to describe the extraordinary conditions of the death camps and the brutal circumstances of its prisoners. Caution is required, even modesty — even by historians who are writing monumental works that require courage and tenacity.
Historians “know” what survivors could not know, at least not then. Historians have access to documents and memos, memoirs and letters, architectural plans and coded messages, information that was then classified and deemed top secret by many of those who were involved: the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders and the rescuers, leaders of the Axis Powers and the Allied and neutral nations. These must be evaluated in context and weighed against other evidence.
For some historians, such as the dean of the field of Holocaust studies, the late Raul Hilberg, only documentary evidence was worthy of consideration; diaries and letters were to be considered, but often with a caveat that those written in proximity to the event were given greater credence, accorded more respect. Survivor testimony was considered inherently unreliable, a mixture of what was recalled from the camp and what was learned subsequently, fallible as human memory is fallible, most especially with the passage of time. Errors were pounced upon to discredit the entire testimony.