What we can learn from Holo­caust vic­tims’ di­aries

Record­ing the day-to-day dur­ing the Holo­caust did not re­store vic­tims’ sense of self, finds Dan Stone

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Trauma in First Per­son: Di­ary Writ­ing Dur­ing the Holo­caust

By Amos Gold­berg

In­di­ana Univer­sity Press 306pp, £54.00

ISBN 9780253029744 Pub­lished 20 Novem­ber 2017

In her di­ary from Ber­gen-Belsen, Hanna Lévy-Hass, a young Jewish com­mu­nist from Yu­goslavia, de­scribes a shock­ing scene of a boy whose body has been in­fested by fleas. He “couldn’t kill the ver­min that had set­tled on his body be­cause he couldn’t see them; they’ve bur­rowed deep into his skin and swarmed through his eye­brows. His chest is com­pletely black­ened by these fleas and their nests. We have never seen such a thing; we never imag­ined such a thing could oc­cur…Ev­ery­one avoids him. His brothers and sis­ter dread his pres­ence, his fleas, his howl­ing.” This is just one of many painful ex­am­ples with which Amos Gold­berg grap­ples in this bril­liant book, which overturns the ways in which we think about the ex­pe­ri­ences of the Holo­caust’s vic­tims.

His­to­ri­ans have in­creas­ingly turned to di­aries as a way of coun­ter­ing the de­pic­tion of Jews found in Nazi doc­u­ments. Gold­berg seeks to go be­yond the use of the “voices of the vic­tims” to show that fash­ion­able as­sump­tions about the “sur­vival of the hu­man spirit”, to which we turn all too eas­ily in com­mem­o­ra­tive cer­e­monies, have mis­un­der­stood what re­ally hap­pened. There is not the space here to do jus­tice to Gold­berg’s su­perb and gen­uinely in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary read­ings, which bring au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, psy­cho­anal­y­sis and his­tory to­gether in ways that ex­plode what is nor­mally un­der­stood by Holo­caust vic­tims’ “life sto­ries”. But in gen­eral, what he shows – first through a wide sur­vey of di­aries and the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion of the “life story” ap­proach, and then by close read­ings of the di­aries of Vic­tor Klem­perer (Dres­den) and Chaim Ka­plan (War­saw Ghetto) – is that the nar­ra­tives writ­ten dur­ing the Holo­caust were un­able to de­liver their au­thors from their dis­tress. His key in­sight is that, dur­ing the Holo­caust, the vic­tims’ “self” was an­ni­hi­lated and the di­ary was un­able to re­store it. The func­tion of Holo­caust di­aries dif­fers from the usual role played by “life sto­ries”: they do not pro­vide a ther­a­peu­tic al­ter­na­tive to an at­tack on the self; rather, they con­firm that the self has been de­stroyed. What we see in these di­aries, Gold­berg writes, is “a con­scious­ness that ob­serves the process of its own dis­in­te­gra­tion”, and thus the life story “be­comes the death story of the pro­tag­o­nist who is, bi­o­log­i­cally, still alive”.

This is hard read­ing – it overturns our de­sire to see the Holo­caust di­ary as a kind of spir­i­tual re­sis­tance, or as proof that the spirit sur­vives even in the most op­pres­sive of cir­cum­stances. The only com­par­isons I can think of – which prove Gold­berg’s point – are the hon­est and bru­tal sto­ries of Isa­iah Spiegel ( Ghetto King­dom), which show how the ghetto de­stroyed not just so­cial life and fa­mil­ial re­la­tions but the in­di­vid­ual’s sense of self, leav­ing them bi­o­log­i­cally alive but with no cul­tural char­ac­ter­is­tics that make hu­man or­gan­isms into hu­man be­ings.

This is a book that de­serves to be read well be­yond Holo­caust stud­ies. Gold­berg’s the­o­ret­i­cal in­sights into “life sto­ries” and his read­ings of law, lan­guage and what he calls the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal grey zone” – when di­arists take on some of their per­se­cu­tors’ ways of think­ing – pro­vide a stun­ning an­ti­dote to our un­think­ing treat­ment of sur­vivors as celebri­ties (as op­posed to just peo­ple who have suf­fered ter­ri­ble things) and to the ubiq­uity of com­mem­o­ra­tive plat­i­tudes.

Dan Stone is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern his­tory at Royal Hol­loway, Univer­sity of Lon­don.

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