“Missing Links: Social Bonds and Barriers amongst Italian Jewish Deportees” by Bieke Van Camp (PhD candidate, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier, France), 2018-2019 Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies, April 23, 2019 (lecture summary)

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 12:00am

Bieke Van Camp, the 2018-2019 Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, delivered a public lecture entitled “Missing Links: Social Bonds and Barriers amongst Italian Jewish Deportees.” Van Camp presented about a part of her dissertation research in the Visual History Archive, which focused on social bonds between Italian deportees in Nazi concentration camps and the significance of these bonds for survival.

Van Camp opened the lecture by situating her research in the broader field of genocide studies. She pointed out that the topic of social bonds in Nazi camps, including the importance of these bonds for survival and the conditions necessary for their creation, is still under-researched. According to Van Camp, historians of the Holocaust have focused on the study of camp inmates as individuals, while neglecting the topic of social networks in the camps. Van Camp said that little attention is paid to social interactions, social barriers, and social classes and their influence on life in the camps. In this regard, Van Camp’s main question is not simply who did survive, but whom did they survive with. She explained that she chose to examine the case of Italian deportees because of the availability of data (for example, lists of all Italian deportees and other digital resources) and previous scholarly work. In addition, Van Camp said that the Italian case is well suited for network analysis because deportations happened within a relatively short period of time (between October 1943 and the end of 1944) and all Italian Jews were initially deported to the same Nazi camp – Auschwitz. Finally, she noted that the group’s limited knowledge of other languages also increased the probability of Italian Jews staying together.

Next, Van Camp detailed her methodology of selecting the sources. She said that she selected those Italian Jews who had the deportation experience, and who gave testimonies about their time in concentration camps. Considering that 220 survivors in Italy met these criteria, Van Camp applied the French socio-historical approach and methods of micro-history to narrow down her sample. She put the emphasis on biography, and selected the survivors based on their background (e.g. age, social background, education, data related to deportation, etc.). While Van Vamp consulted a variety of sources, including oral history testimonies, memoirs, letters, and similar, she limited her research sample of Italian Jewish deportees to the 28 of those who gave their testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. She pointed out that she prioritized oral history testimonies over written accounts because the former include the overall context of the individual’s experiences, including the names of other people, while the latter emphasize the witness herself. Van Camp’s sample included 16 female and 12 male deportees from 10 different regions (including from abroad) and all social classes, who also had differing work assignments in the camps. When analyzing these testimonies, Van Camp focused on mentions of other people, and the nature and duration of created bonds. She reflected on the limitations of her sample, but also the limitations of memory and testimony as a historical source.

Van Camp continued her lecture by focusing on network analysis of witnesses and individuals they quoted in their testimonies. She showed maps she has created of the social bonds and networks of these 28 Italian deportees. While her sample only contained 28 people, the map is thick and full of social bonds. (Video of lecture is above.) Van Camp detailed the methods and results of the social mapping she has conducted using the software called Pajek, noting the categories of created bonds based on the factors that brought individuals together (e.g., kinship, shared social class, or geographical origin), with a special emphasis on bonds created in Auschwitz barracks. 

Nationality, language, and social class of deportees played major roles in the creation and strength of social bonds in the camps. Van Camp’s analysis reveals that the deportees from Rome had social bonds mainly with others from Rome, and their social networks, along with other deportees from the working class, were the largest and had the largest number of strong bonds. Van Camp also touched upon the places of creation of these bonds (prisons, convoys, concentration camps), noting that some bonds lasted through all the phases, from prisons to camps. 

Van Camp combined her explanation of the social map with selected quotes from the VHA testimonies of the 28 survivors in her sample. She reflected on the nature of strong and weaker bonds among deportees, stating that weaker bonds usually played a part in survival mechanisms. However, stronger bonds, Van Camp argued, enabled survivors to maintain their pre-war social identities and therefore retain their sense of being human. 

Van Camp concluded her lecture by emphasizing the importance of social proximity for the creation of strong bonds. She argued that similarities in age, education, and social upbringing were crucial for the creation of these bonds. In addition, Van Camp noted that most strong bonds she analyzed continued after the war. She ended her presentation by touching upon several other dimensions of social bonds that she plans to examine, like group dynamics, as well as her ongoing comparative analysis of the Italian and Dutch deportees that will be part of her dissertation.

Van Camp’s lecture was followed by a long Q&A session, which included questions about the role of the interviewers’ follow-up questions in identifying the names of and bonds between deportees; the memories of bonds with deportees who perished; the reasons why camp functionaries were all upper class, and how did they figure in bonds; a question about romantic bonds in the camps; the role of culture in the formation of bonds; the way the combination of place and work assignments in the camps influenced bonds; and the importance of the time as a dimension to add to the map, to reflect when the group entered the camp and how bonds and networks may have changed over time. 

Summary by Badema Pitic

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"Missing Links: Social Bonds and Barriers amongst Italian Jewish Deportees" - Public lecture by Bieke Van Camp (PhD Candidate, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier, France), 2018-2019 Katz Research Fellow

In this lecture, Bieke Van Camp presented some of the findings of her ongoing doctoral research on social interaction and group survival strategies in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. She explored how network analysis of Italian testimonies from the oral collections of the Visual History Archive and the Centro Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea of Milan suggests that a very large majority of Italian Jews were deported initially to the same Nazi Lager (Birkenau) during a rather small lapse of time (October 1943 – 1945). Both arguments enhance the possibility that the individuals would come across one another.