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The International School for Holocaust Studies

On Witnesses and Testimonies

Perhaps never before in the annals of history has such a man-made human tragedy as the Holocaust created such devastation and misery for so many people. It is difficult, therefore, to comprehend how concerted efforts have been made to deny and annul this watershed event in western civilization. Even as the Nazis themselves were attempting to hide from the eyes of the world what they were perpetrating on the Jewish population of Europe and other civilian populations, victims and survivors were already recording their anguished cries during the war.

These cries issued forth in real time from a deluge of deprivations, humiliations, and fears that were suffered by millions. The vast majority died and a minority survived. Part of the anguish was precisely because many survivors felt guilt at the fact of their survival whereas family members and friends had succumbed. Many of the accounts reflect this ambivalence at their very survival. As a result, the accounting is not complete and never will be. Add to all this the years of silence many of the survivors imposed on themselves in the first decades after the Holocaust and the feeling we are left with is gratitude that those that wrote and recorded for us had the courage to do so.

Holocaust testimonies appear in different forms. For example,

  • Sometimes they were scribbled down shortly before a victim was murdered or hidden.
  • Many paintings and drawings sketched both by children and adults in ghettos like Theresienstadt were buried so that they could be retrieved after the war. Today these sketches attest to the verity of the events.
  • More organized and structured efforts like the Ringleblum Archives, written by historians and other academics in the Warsaw Ghetto, were buried in milk cans underground and uncovered after the war. This archive documents the Germans’ intent to destroy Jewish life.
  • Personal diaries and family chronicles written despite the lack of materials during the period.
  • Poems that were literally inspired by the flames engulfing ghettos and hiding places were written by Jews before they died and by survivors

These different forms of testimony as well as others provide invaluable educational resources. The work of historians, the contribution of museums and the efforts of teachers throughout the world have been enhanced by the witnesses and personal accounts. Yad Vashem and other Holocaust-related organizations have invested much time and effort in collecting and preserving the testimonies of survivors. The new Holocaust history museum at Yad Vashem has incorporated numerous survivor testimonies interspersed throughout the exhibits. These accounts lend an immediacy through the prism of the personal recollection to the general historical narrative.

We will conclude this article with a poem written by Holocaust survivor, Dan Pagis, who settled in Israel after the war. Amongst other themes, it is essentially a poem about bearing witness. Presented below, it invokes the power of personal testimony twice, once in the title and the second time at the end of the short poem, in the sixth line:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car
/ Dan Pagis

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I

In a few words, Dan Pagis presents Eve’s heart-wrenching cry to whoever may hear her – to pass a message to her son, Cain. Her message, left open, denotes her intense need to convey some form of will and testament that she, in extremis, is incapable of formulating. The title of the poem immediately catapults us directly into the throes of the annihilation process together with the human need to leave some testimony, even if it is written in pencil.

The power of personal testimony, in poetry or in prose, lies in the unmistakable ring of authenticity that emanates from it. Our hope is that personal accounts together with the other forms of Holocaust-related primary sources will help educators convey knowledge to future generations.

This e-newsletter includes a ceremony and a lesson plan focusing on the theme of witnesses and testimonies.

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