What testimonies teach us: Reflections from 2019-2020 Shapiro Scholar Peter Hayes

I much enjoyed my stay at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research in early March, just before the pandemic turned all of our lives upside down. Meeting the wonderful members of the staff and seeing how much the operations of both the Foundation and the Center have grown since my last visit in 2014 were remarkable experiences. I especially valued the chance to reacquaint myself with the survivor testimonies of the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive in a more focused way than when I helped students use them while teaching a research seminar just before I retired from teaching in 2016. Back then, my attention centered on testimonies relevant to each student’s research topics, but this time I got to hone in on some matters more pertinent to my own interests.

I have written a lot about the German chemical industry in the Third Reich, in particular about its exploitation of slave labor, and have long been puzzled about one of the blank spots in that awful story, namely what happened at a vast, still largely unexamined synthetic fuel factory in Silesia called Blechhammer. Quite a few testimonies refer to this site, and they gave me new insights into who was sent there from Auschwitz, what they had to do, and what they knew and could not know about the place at which they were suffering.

Even more eye opening were the testimonies I discovered as I delved into an unusual aspect of the death camp at Treblinka, namely the surprisingly large number of people who passed through it somehow and survived. The accounts of Sol Liber and Runia Lunski helped me grasp the multiple ways in which this could happen, but the real stunner was the testimony of Richard Rozen, a doctor’s son whom partisans smuggled off of the infamous unloading ramp in a hay wagon during a backup in the arrival of trains. That the Polish underground knew when the father, whose medical skills they needed, was arriving and could arrange an escape were amazing enough, but even more astounding to me was Rozen’s account of how he survived in the forests of Eastern Europe for the next two years, while he grew from eight to ten years old. To earn his keep with the partisans, he became “the feather boy.” They usually ambushed German patrols at night with knives, since shots would attract attention, and Rozen’s job was to put a feather under the noses of soldiers whose throats had been slit to confirm that they were dead.

In all my years of studying the Holocaust, I never had heard of the existence of a “feather boy” and never listened so raptly as I did to Rozen’s account of both his wartime experience and his difficult, complicated, and accomplished emergence from it. I will never forget his story, which is both extraordinary yet also emblematic of what, even after so much has been written, the video testimonies collected here can teach us.