Testimonies should be considered with equal validity to other forms of documentation when writing the history of the Holocaust, said Omer Bartov, a leading historian on genocide.
Traditionally, historians have been wary of using testimonies as crucial evidence, some eschewing their use altogether, calling them subjective and therefore unreliable.
Speaking to an audience at USC, Bartov said that view depletes our understanding of the Holocaust — and any other historical event. Testimonies bring into history events that would otherwise remain unknown, since they are omitted from conventional documentations mostly written by perpetrators or genocide organizers.
“Testimonies can at times save events from oblivion,” said Bartov, during the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education’s first International Digital Access, Outreach and Research Conference held March 25 and 26.
“But they also provide a very different perspective on events that are known from conventional documentation,” said Bartov, the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and Professor of History and German Studies at Brown University.
The conference was supported through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, which is assisting the institute in a worldwide initiative to broaden access to the testimonies and increase their educational use throughout the world.
During the lecture, Bartov said that testimonies often serve as a factual correction to official accounts. They also provide a different vantage point. They give insights into the lives and minds of men, women, and children who experienced the events — telling historians much more about the mental landscape of the period, the psychology of the protagonists and the perceptions of others — than would be possible in any official document.
Born in Israel, Bartov graduated from Tel Aviv University and St. Antony’s College in Oxford. An expert in the German Army and WWII, he challenges the popular view that the German Army had little involvement in crimes against humanity during the 1939 to 1945 global military conflict. Bartov argues that Wehrmacht — Germany’s unified armed forces from 1935 to 1945 — was a Nazi institution playing an integral role in the Holocaust in occupied areas of the Soviet Union.
“There is no reason to believe that official contemporary documents written by Gestapo, SS, Wehrmacht or German administrative officials,” Bartov told the audience at USC, “are any more accurate or objective, or any less subjective and biased, than accounts by those they were trying to kill.”
Housed in USC College, the Shoah Foundation Institute’s digital archive holds nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses in 32 languages, representing 56 countries. It is the world’s largest archive of its kind. Bartov said such testimonies are authentic documents of “invaluable importance that have been grossly underused by historians.”
Historians often reject such testimony largely because they may weaken trust in the historian’s craft itself, since the discipline is based on “the ability to divine the truth of the past and identify humanity’s progress,” Bartov said. Also, testimonies make it difficult to retain the necessary detachment from the material.
“They may hamper the practice of the methods and undermine the philosophical assumptions that have come to be associated with good scholarly writing since the birth of the modern historical profession,” he said. “In other words, historians want to protect their own psychology from the damage they fear might be caused to it, and protect their profession from the undermining potential of such testimonies.”
But historians should not leave these accounts to gather dust in crumbling boxes, he said.
“After all, these are accounts by individuals who were determined that what they experienced and saw and remembered would not be forgotten,” Bartov said. “Historians have largely betrayed these witnesses. By now the vast majority of them are dead. But their recorded accounts can and should still be used, not merely in order to respect those who left them behind, but in order to set the historical record straight.”
His lecture included a slide presentation comprised of WWII images from the Eastern Europe towns of Buczacz and Czortków and their vicinity. In this region of Eastern Galicia, most of the rural population was Ukrainian, while Poles and Jews constituted the majority of town and city dwellers. It belonged to Poland in the interwar period, was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939-41, and ruled by the Germans in 1941-44.
Much of the gentile population in this region both collaborated in and profited from the genocide of the Jews, he said. Also, most of the few Jews who survived the genocide in this area were helped by their gentile neighbors for a variety of reasons, including both greed and altruism.
Roughly half of those murdered during the Holocaust perished in ghettos and mass executions at or near their homes, he said. These were often open-air, public events. During his presentation, Bartov showed slides of public hangings. He said that even when the killings were conducted in forests or cemeteries, the brutal roundups — or Aktionen — frequently accompanied by gratuitous violence, took place in public view. Local militias and policemen actively participated.
In Buczacz, non-Jewish residents remembered “how the Hitlerites committed crimes against the Jews… how those people dug their own graves… how they buried them alive… and how the ground was moving over the people who were still not dead.” These witnesses described relations between local Jews and non-Jews in positive terms: “Our people,” says one, “Ukrainians and Poles alike — tried to help them however they could.”
Jewish witnesses interviewed at around the same time gave a different perspective. They spoke of local collaboration and denunciation, at times by the very people who had been hiding Jews. For example, Anne Resnik’s family bunker was betrayed by the barber whose shop was over it, and most of her family was murdered. Her sister was shot and killed shortly before the first liberation by “the same people that were pretending to hide” her. Regina Gertner’s sister was denounced by a Polish neighbor and killed just before the end of the occupation. Yitzhak Bauer and other witnesses reported that the Polish dogcatcher Nahajowski “specialized” in discovering Jews and handing them over to the Germans.
“These accounts, fraught and painful and contradictory as they are, constitute a crucial component of the past,” Bartov said. “Ignoring them, or using them merely as anecdotes, not only constitutes abuse of these records of human experience, but also distorts the historical record itself.”
Stephen Smith, executive director of the institute, said Bartov’s lecture illustrated that genocide does not happen by chance.
“It evolves slowly and as you described to us, locally, and that we all have choices to make in our lives,” Smith said. “How we make those choices affects how history unfolds. You’ve brought to us this evening a very potent challenge not to betray those voices in the way we write our history.”