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Professor Novick says that Holocaust eye-witness testimonies are in fact not a very useful historical source

The Holocaust in American Life
by Peter Novick, Eric Chinski (Editor)

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Hardcover - 320 pages (June 1999)

Houghton Mifflin Co (Trd); ISBN: 0395840090

Quote from the Book


IT HAS been argued -- less now than formerly -- that once the survivor witnesses are gone, Holocaust deniers will flourish in the absence of those whose memories refute them. More generally, it is held that survivors's memories are an indispensable historical source that must be preserved, and elaborate projects are under way to collect them. In fact, those memories are not a very useful historical source. Or, rather, some may be, but we don't know which ones. A few years ago the director of Yad Vashem's archive told a reporter that most of the twenty thousand testimonies it had collected were unreliable: "Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on secondhard information given them by friends or passing strangers." Primo Levi, one of the most renowned of survivor witnesses, has described this phenomenon:

"The greater part of the witnesses ... have ever more blurred and stylized memories, often, unbeknownst to them, influenced by information gained from later readings or the stories of others ... A memory evoked too often, and expressed in the form of a story, tends to become fixed in a stereotype ... crystallized, perfected, adorned, installing itself in the place of the raw memory and growing at its expense."

LipstadtTo say that survivors' memories, or some unknown portion of them, are not a reliable historical source is not to say they haven't been, or won't continue to be, important in evoking the Holocaust experience. [....] (When evidence emerged that one Holocaust memoir, highly praised for its authenticity might have been completely invented, [*] Deborah Lipstadt, (right) who used the memoir in her teaching of the Holocaust, acknowledged that if this turned out to be the case, it "might complicate matters somewhat," but that it would still be "powerful" as a novel.)

Through various initiatives, of which the largest is Steven Spielberg's $100 million project of collecting videotaped testimonies, survivors' evocative accounts will outlive them. The uses to which they'll be put in the future, and how much of an audience they'll command, we can't know. [**]


Website note: * This is a reference to the Wilkomirski "memoirs", on which see this Website [1] [2]

Original footnotes:

** Early indications suggest that the way the testimonies have been collected and presented by Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation will result in a meretricious, Hollywood-to-the-max sort of evocation. Most interviewers have only the sketchiest knowledge of the Holocaust. The format of the interviews (at Spielberg's insistence) manipulates them in a "redemptive" direction, with all narratives ending with the survivor surrounded by his or her family. The way in which the material is being put to the public also bodes ill. The foundation's first educational CD-ROM is narrated by teen sex idol Leonardo DiCaprio.

Peter Novick, "The Holocaust in American Life", Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1999, Boston, p. 274-275, 351n


Now see the scholarly debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education
"Do Americans obsess over the Holocaust? Has the focus on the Holocaust distorted scholarship and our understanding of history, and our perception of other atrocities and war crimes?"
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