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Witnesses and Testimony: Special Interview Issue - November 2015

Editor’s Note

In the foreword to his last book, “The Drowned and the Saved”, Primo Levi refers to a dream that has become the nightmare of many prisoners: 

“[M]any survivors […] remember that the SS militiamen cynically enjoyed admonishing the prisoners: ‘However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world would not believe him.' Strangely enough, this same thought […] arose in the form of nocturnal dreams produced by the prisoners’ despair. Almost all the survivors, verbally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of imprisonment […]: they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved person, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to.” 1

Levi’s nightmare, which reflects the survivors’ fear that no one will believe them has become a founding text over the years.

The view of the witness and the testimony has changed over the years both in the society’s regard to the survivors, and from the viewpoint of researchers. With time, Israeli society has learned to listen to the witnesses and properly appreciate their story. The witnesses have taken a major part in shaping the Jewish legacy, and play an educational role in shaping the memory of the Holocaust. In 2002 an international convention was hosted in Yad Vashem, in which Zvi Gil read from the Survivors Manifest: 

“We, the members of the survivor generation, are getting fewer. In a short number of years there will be no one on earth who will be able to say: ‘The Age of Holocaust survivors is drawing to a close. Before long no one will be left to say, "I was there, I saw, I remember what happened." All that will be left will be books of literature and research, pictures and films, and multitudinous testimony. This will be a new era. The dark inheritance of the Shoah that was so indelibly stamped on the survivors' souls and hearts will become a sacred mission imposed upon humanity.”2

Historians, law experts, thinkers, writers, and artists have dealt to great length with the role of the witnesses in research and in shaping memory. Presently, at this point of generational change, questions regarding the place of the witnesses trouble the survivors and concerns us educators and researchers as well: What will the world look like without survivors? Uncharacteristically, we chose to present a selection of interviews in order to examine the issue from different perspectives, and to that end spoke to researchers, academics, and educators.
We met historian Professor Israel Gutman for a discussion about the role of testimonies in historical research, and about his memories as a survivor and as a witness in the Eichmann Trial. We spoke to Shulamit Imber, Yad Vashem’s Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies, about the educational significance of the witnesses’ role. 
We met psychoanalyst and survivor Dori Laub to discuss his book “Testimony” (co-written with Shoshana Felman (about the witness’s difficulty to testify, and the significance of lacuna in testimony.3

Not knowing what happened to his family members during the Holocaust, and a family secret concerning them, led author and researcher Daniel Mendelsohn on a self-discovery journey to trace six members of his family, as detailed in his book “The Lost”.4 In an interview with Mendelsohn we asked him about the significance of the journey he made following his family members and the need to discover the details of their untold story. This interview is accompanied by a special article and a book review.

We wish you a pleasant reading, and end with another quote from “The Survivors' Declaration”:

“The Holocaust, which established the standard for absolute evil, is the universal heritage of all civilized people. The lessons of the Holocaust must form the cultural code for education toward humane values, democracy, human rights, tolerance and patience, and opposition to racism and totalitarian ideologies. [..] [T]he words of Rabbi Hillel need to ring out loud and clear: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being!”

Interview with Professor Israel Gutman, Historian

Interview with Professor Israel Gutman, Historian

Professor Israel Gutman was born in Warsaw in 1923 and was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, the Jewish underground resistance in Warsaw, and the Jewish Combat Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He was a prisoner at the Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen concentration camps. After the end of World War II he was active in the Jewish and Zionist youth organizations in Austria and in Italy. In 1946, he immigrated to Israel (then British Mandatory Palestine) and was a member of Lehavot Habashan Kibbutz until 1971. In 1961, he testified at the Eichmann Trial. He was also a founding...
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Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, Author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, Author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Professor Daniel Mendelsohn is a member of a Jewish family from Long Island, New York. He was born in 1960 and currently lives in Manhattan. Mendelsohn is an author, a researcher, and a literary scholar specializing in the classical period. He has a PHD from Princeton, is academically active and heads the Charles Ranlett Flint Humanities Department at Bard College. He also works as a columnist and book critic for the New Yorker, New York Times, The New York Review of Books and Esquire. He has written a number of award and praise winning books which were translated into many languages, among them...
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Interview with Professor Dori Laub, Expert on Interviews and Survivor Testimony 

Interview with Professor Dori Laub, Expert on Interviews and Survivor Testimony 

Professor Dori Laub was born in Czernowitz, Romania in 1937. With his parents, he was deported to Transnistria in 1942. His father disappeared during a German raid prior to liberation by the Soviets and he and his mother were reunited with his grandparents who had survived in Czernowitz. He immigrated to Israel in 1950 where he attended medical school. Today he is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University and a psychoanalyst in private practice. In 1979 he co-founded the Holocaust Survivors' Film Project, Inc., which subsequently became the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust...
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Interview with Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem 

Interview with Shulamit Imber, Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem 

What will the study of the Holocaust look like for a generation without living witnesses? What makes the encounter between students and those witnesses into a unique one? And how can that uniqueness be preserved for the next generations?
We interviewed Shulamit Imber, the Pedagogical Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem about the role of the witnesses in education and about the challenges facing teachers and educators at a time when students will not be able to hear directly from the survivors.What, in your opinion, is the educational significance of testimonies...
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The Holocaust: An Introduction (MOOC – Massive Open Online Course)

The Holocaust: An Introduction (MOOC – Massive Open Online Course)

The Holocaust was an inconceivable historical event, which forever robbed Western culture of its innocence. As civilized human beings, we fail to understand how events of such horror could have taken place, and how an idea so inhumanly warped could have spread like wildfire through an entire continent, instigating the systematic annihilation of millions of Jews. This free online course was produced jointly by Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem – the World Center for Holocaust Research. The course tracks the history of the Holocaust and has two parts....
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