Christopher Browning, the 2018 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence at USC Shoah Foundation’s Center for Advanced Genocide Research, talks about the changing attitudes about witness testimony and how the process of gathering it has changed since the end of World War II.
On March 29, 2018, the renowned Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, the 2018 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, gave the annual Shapiro Scholar public lecture based on his 2010 book Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-labor Camp. The lecture, entitled “Holocaust History and Survivor Testimony: The Case of the Starachowice Factory Slave Labor Camp,” examined the use and value of eyewitness testimonies for historiographic research.
Professor Browning opened his lecture with the story of the infamous 1972 trial of Walther Becker, a retired policeman, who was a chief of police in the Polish town of Starachowice from 1940 to 1945, during the German occupation of Poland. Becker was tried for his involvement in three forced labor camps that existed in Starachowice during the war; he was in charge of the liquidation of a nearby ghetto, from which he sent nearly 4,000 Jews to Treblinka and 1,600 Jews to these forced labor camps. However, Becker was acquitted in what Professor Browning characterized as one of the two worst judgements he has ever encountered in his research. Among the reasons the judge acquitted Becker was the judge’s perspective that eyewitness testimonies were weak and unreliable, which was unfortunate considering that the case against Becker was almost entirely built on the testimonies of survivors of the slave labor camps.
Professor Browning explained that out of the 42,000 Nazi internment sites during World War II, 30,000 were slave labor camps. Yet despite this staggering statistic, Holocaust historians were slow to explore these camps, focusing instead on death camps. The story about Becker’s acquittal piqued Professor Browning’s interest in Starachowice as a case to learn more about the dynamics of factory-owned slave labor camps. In these camps, SS officers were not present. Instead they were run and secured by factory staff only. To investigate these camps, Professor Browning continued, he needed to rely almost entirely on survivor testimonies, because businessmen in charge of these factories were much quicker in destroying their documents than the German government officials. So, in order to learn about the Starachowice camps, he had to rely on survivor testimony, a source that many historians have been reluctant to use because of the problem of traumatic memory.
Professor Browning then focused his discussion on the types and sources for the testimonies he used in his research, the way he categorized them, the role they had in his work, and the distinctions between them. For the purposes of his research, Professor Browning used 292 testimonies. Considering their respective characteristics and differences, he ordered the testimonies into five groups. The first group he named “early testimonies.” These were the testimonies collected between 1945 and 1948, and are the smallest group he worked with. Most of the 11 of these early testimonies were mainly “itineraries” of the survivors’ internment. Three of them, said Browning, were “classic” early testimonies characterized by the depth of details and clarity. The second group of testimonies were records of judicial investigations. This group of testimonies contained survivor interviews conducted by German officials for the purposes of prosecution. Professor Browning worked with 125 of these interviews, and they were important because they provided details, including the names of perpetrators and details about killings, that were not to be found anywhere else.
The third group of testimonies included local collections of survivor testimonies conducted by various organizations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, namely the interviews of the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University and the interviews collected by the United States Holocaust Museum before its opening. These two collections were characterized by free-ranging interviews that were often chaotic and in which survivors did not tell their stories in chronological order. The fourth group contained the interviews collected by the USC Shoah Foundation that are housed in the Visual History Archive. Unlike the Fortunoff and USHMM interviews, Professor Browning stated, these testimonies are structured life histories that offer a broader context to the survivor’s story. Noting that he was often frustrated by these testimonies in various respects, Professor Browning discussed both positive and negative aspects of the methods used in the collection of these interviews. Professor Browning then described the fifth group of testimonies he worked with: 15 personal interviews that he conducted with survivors after 2000. These interviews were conversational and became very important for his research. He concluded this part of the lecture by stating that all approaches to interviewing survivors are useful in their own ways, and that there is no best way to interview a survivor.
Professor Browning then focused on the uses of testimony, namely the fine line between neglect and uncritical use of testimony. He emphasized that he is interested in accuracy, and that he does not see authenticity of testimonies (that is, their emphasis on the way survivors experienced certain events, and not necessarily the way those events really happened) and their accuracy as mutually exclusive. In addition, Professor Browning noted that, during his research, he expected the testimonies to become homogenous over time, but also ripped off of all sensitive topics, such as sexual violence against women and revenge killings among the Jews. However, he admitted, he was wrong. Although there were three respective communities of Starachowice survivors – one settled around Toronto in Canada, the other around New England in the US, and the third around Haifa in Israel – that were pretty self-contained, the common, core memory remained consistent in all three groups, and all survivors agreed on some basic facts. Professor Browning noted that some sensitive topics, such as sexual violence against women and revenge killings among the Jews, only emerged in later testimonies, raising interesting questions about the temporal dimensions of telling one’s story and when one is ready to recount certain stories or when communities and researchers are ready to hear them.
Professor Browning then turned his attention to the fact that dealing with testimony means dealing with memory. When it comes to memory, he devised four rough categories or layers of memory he is grappling with in his research: 1) repressed memory, or traumatic memory survivors repressed in order to cope and survive; 2) secret memory, or memory that the survivor does not share with others until she decides to; 3) communal memory, or memory of a group of people who experienced the same event, but are aware that those who do not know a context may misjudge some events, like killings among the Jews themselves, and; 4) public memories, or memories shared with others. Following this, Professor Browning listed two great challenges of work with memory: the challenge of collective memory, and the challenge of incorporated memory. Professor Browning stated that collective memory is memory that is shaped and transformed after the event, and becomes a selection of what is to be remembered and what is to be forgotten. This memory, he said, tells us more about what a community wants to know thirty years later than what actually happened thirty years before. During his research, he encountered this collective memory most in how survivors described their memories of pre-war life in Wierzbnik-Starachowice. Professor Browning described the challenge of “incorporated memory” as the difficulty in differentiating between the memory of what a survivor experienced and what they learned from others and incorporated into their own story.
Professor Browning concluded his lecture by arguing that while historians are often reluctant to use survivor testimonies as a source because they consider testimony problematic evidence, all historical evidence is problematic in some way. He closed by stating that the issue is not whether to use testimony, but how to use it so that we can write an accurate and respectable history.
A lively Q&A with the large audience followed Professor Browning’s lecture. Some of the questions raised included the question about the proportions and differences between the three slave labor camps in Starachowice; the current existence of corporations that ran these camps; the explanation of survivors’ silence during the 1950s about their experiences; a question about whether anyone can commit atrocities; whether there is any historical value where there is therapeutic value, especially when it comes to repressed memories; the personal history of a judge involved in the Becker trial; lessons we can learn from history in the current climate of alternative facts and fake news; and the question about the use of interviews with perpetrators in historiographic research.
Summary by Badema Pitic