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The History of Contemporary Witnessing

Already before the end of World War II, the gathering and documenting of Holocaust survivors’ memories began. Since then, the role of contemporary witnesses as well as the function of their stories has been in a constant state of flux. Today it is hard to imagine the public perception without contemporary witnesses. However, this has not always been the case.

Early Documentation

Instructions for Interviews with witnesses, 1945; Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Instructions for Interviews
was published by the Central Jewish Historical Commission (since 1947 Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw). Holocaust survivors establish the commission in Lublin in 1944. They collect testimonies from survivors of the ghettos, concentration and extermination camps, together with memories of the destroyed Jewish communities, as well as evidence against Nazi perpetrators. To accomplish this task extensive guidelines are created to help deal with the traumatized former prisoners and partisans as well as children and adolescents.

Between 1944 and 1947 the Jewish Historical Institute interviews hundreds of survivors. These interviews lead to countless academic publications in Yiddish, Polish and Russian. It is only in the early 1990s that this body of research has started to draw international attention.

From Testimony to Contemporary Witnessing

Testimony Yehiel Dinur, Jerusalem, June 7, 1961; Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Jerusalem / Israel State Archives, Jerusalem. Running time: 3:01 min

Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem 1961 is a global event which is broadcasted worldwide. This trial stands out against previous court cases in Israel, and the Auschwitz trials that takes place in Frankfurt in the 1960s. For the first time the individual experiences of the witnesses take centre stage. Most of the witnesses have never met Eichmann in person.

The Eichmann trial thereby revisits the role of the witnesses: They do not testify to individual actions, instead their accounts serve to paint a general picture of the dimension of the National Socialist extermination policy. At the same time the role of the perpetrator is redefined: Eichmann is not found guilty for committing specific acts of crime, but for his role as the planner of the extermination of the European Jews.

On day 68 the trial sees the Israeli writer Yehiel Dinur, known under his pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik, In his testimony Dinur describes “Planet Auschwitz” and assumes the role of those murdered in the witness stand. At the end of his witness statement, Dinur collapses. His appearance at court is subject of much speculation: Were his testimony and the collapse staged to direct the public attention to the emotional strain of the witnesses or possibly Dinur’s own literary works?

The Second and Third Generation

Art Spiegelman: Maus. A Survivor’s Tale. Chapter Seven (initial publication), in: RAW, no. 8, 1982; Ole Frahm, Frankfurt a.M.

The graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman is published in a series of episodes in the comic magazine Raw between 1980 and 1991 and narrates the story of the author’s father, a Holocaust survivor. Besides retelling his father’s experiences during the Holocaust, Spiegelman also illustrates the burden descendants of Holocaust survivors feel by the stories of their parents.

During the 1980s, children and grandchildren of survivors begin to reflect critically on the fate of their parents and grandparents and start questioning their own identity. These debates mark the start of early reflection about the death of eye witnesses and the question if and how the contemporary witnesses’ legacy will be continued by the following generations.

Memorial Boom

Schindler’s List, feature film by Steven Spielberg, 1993; Ronald Grant Archives / Mary Evans /

This photo is taken during the filming of Schindler’s List in Poland and shows Steven Spielberg together with the actor Liam Neeson, who plays Oskar Schindler. When the movie comes out in 1993, it sparks a true “memorial boom”. Countless Holocaust survivors write down their memoirs. These memoirs in turn cause the creation of numerous movies, TV-documentaries and contemporary witness interview recordings.

An ever-growing audience is expecting ever more emotional and authentic stories of survivors. At the same time the eye witnesses accept and use this public willingness to listen and begin to enter the stage. The USC Shoah foundation, financed by the revenue of Schindler’s List, is one of the organisations conducting and recording contemporary witness interviews. They become frequent and well-loved guests in talk shows and other TV formats. Victim groups, such as Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and forced labourers, who were neglected in the four decades prior, are now able to publicly talk about their experiences as well.

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