A Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust — Part II: A Son’s Perspective
How does a historian and child of a holocaust survivor deal with his mother’s experience?
March 23, 2006
On some basic level, “What Time and Sadness Spared” is a testimony of the sufferings and tortures Nazi Germany inflicted on European Jewry that is part of the grand project of inscribing into the pages of history the memory of those that perished.
No memoir can claim to be merely a transparent record of the past, and survivors' recollections are no exception.
To be sure, there is the danger that admitting the uncertainties, ambiguities and treasons of memories in such an account could aid the deniers, whose ranks are only growing with the years.
These hate mongers, however, must not be allowed to shape the debate. Our narrative is not a trial-like testimony. It cannot be.
Five and a half decades after the end of World War II, in the midst of the deadliest season of suicide bombings in Israel, my recently widowed mother sat by her computer and wrote an associative journal of her World War II experience.
Her journal is the genesis and core of our book. I translated the manuscript into English. I probed into events and situations, asked questions and invoked episodes I remembered hearing about as a child.
I set her story in chronological sequence. I checked to make sure that details corresponded with documented historical evidence, knowing that minor errors could undermine the historical standing of the entire narrative.
My mother, for example, wrote that she was sent to work in Commando Canada by SS officer Heinz Schulz, commander of the crematorium in Auschwitz. I had a hard time finding a record of Schulz's presence in Auschwitz in the fall of 1943 and, in an earlier draft, I identified the selector as merely a German officer.
I reinserted Schulz's name only after I found the record during my 2004 visit to the Auschwitz archive of SS officers confirming that Heinz Schulz was indeed the crematorium Kommandoführer.
I could not ignore the tension between the obligation to remember what happened on the one hand, and my recognition of the limits and twists of human memory.
We tried to be sensitive to these issues. In direct description of events I chose to remain faithful to my mother's recollection of thoughts, feelings and actions of her younger, less-educated self who was unaware of the broader historical forces shaping her surroundings.
Since we could not be sure what people said to my mother exactly in the variety of tongues used in Eastern Europe during the war, we have opted to report conversations using, for the most part, indirect speech.
Only the sentences that burned their way onto her mind were put in quotation marks.
Further, we produced a narrative of things that happened to a young girl, told by an older woman, and put together by her son — a man who did not have a direct experience of the events, but who is trained as a historian and has a passion for psychoanalysis.
The text is thus layered with different levels of narration. There are the memories themselves. There are my mother's recollections of what she thought as she went through the events. There are the reflections of a mature woman about what she went through and how she coped.
There are the influences of culture, from Primo Levi to Hollywood, from Yad Vashem to Adolf Eichmann's trial. And finally, there is the guiding hand of the historian who imposed sequence and chronology and has shaped an associative journal into a historical narrative.
Acknowledging these complexities, however, does not compromise the historical reliability of our account. One of the most alarming trends of current scholarship of the final solution is its condescending attitude toward survivors' memoirs.
Because people have different recollections of similar experience, so the logic goes, these memories tell us little of what actually happened.
Instead of applying equally critical stance in relation to all texts, established historians attach greater truth value to the official documents of genocidal murderers than to the recalled experiences of their victims.
The Nazi officials who authored official documents were just as unreliable as those who survived the hell they had made.
Current historiography rests on prejudices that assume that those with power are more objective judges of reality than their victims. This perspective is all but extinct in other historical subfields.
Few would dare to write the history of slavery relying exclusively on accounts written by slave-owners, while dismissing the voices of the slaves — or to tell the history of colonialism exclusively from the perspective of London and Paris.
But a historicist reasoning which privileges the voice of the Nazis over that of their victims has assumed the dominant position in modern scholarship of the Holocaust.
I wholly reject this new trend. Our work is an act of witness. The events we recount did really happen. The crimes described were really committed. The ghettos, camps, gas chambers and death marches did not take place on another planet.
The persons we recall walked the face of the earth, breathed its air and were tortured and murdered in the most ambitious anti-Semitic project in human memory.
I do not deny that human memory is suspect. As a professional historian, I often thought of producing a footnoted scholarly history of my mother's journey. Yet, I felt deeply ambivalent about assuming the role of narrator to her story.
A few years ago, students in a class on American history turned the conversation to the Holocaust and asked specific questions.
They seemed hypnotized by the discussion. I realized that even though I told nothing personal, there was a commanding, almost demonic, power to the words that emanated from my intimate personal connection to the subject.
I was intoxicated and guilt-ridden at the same time. When the class ended I felt as if I was swimming in a swamp of sweat and humiliation.
I worried whether I violated the authenticity of the survivors' torturous memories.
Did I reap the psychological benefits that befall narrators of Holocaust horrors? Who authorized me to be the voice of the victims?
But the generation of survivors is passing from the world — and with them the living memory of that most awful chapter in human history.
Do their children have a special role in keeping the horrors of the final solution present in our modern culture? Should we deposit the holocaust in the vaults of Jewish and German historians?
Has the time come for recognizing the final solution as just one bloody chapter among many similar ones in the chronicles of Jewish existence amongst Christian and Muslim hosts?
We are, after all, living through a most worrisome re-emergence of anti-Semitism.
Jew baiting runs strong from the streets of Cairo and Jakarta to the ivory towers of the west — from the lips of the President of Iran to the Mayor of London.
Has the writing of the next chapter of Jewish death and destruction begun? Does the fact that the horrors of the final solution left a powerful imprint on the lives of survivors' children in numerous ways command us to be the living memory of the Holocaust?
I fear that we are not up to the task. The children of survivors must never yell or call out. Our voices are a whimper. Our sadness is never poignant enough. Our misery is in no way worthy of consideration — and our nightmares are always a cheap imitation.
We cannot become the authentic voice of our parents. And yet, my experience and my gut tell me that we cannot let go of the raw connection to that well of pain, for our sake — and, dare I say, for the sake of humanity.
Professor of history, Fordham University Doron S. Ben-Atar is chair of the history department at Fordham University. In addition to co-authoring “What Time and Sadness Spared,” Mr. Ben-Atar has written and co-authored several books, including “Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power.” Mr. Ben-Atar is also the co-director of the web-based […]