Survivor Accounts: Witness the First Person
Jennifer L. Goss
- To learn from the experiences, testimonies, and resilience of Holocaust survivors
- To examine the growth of availability of survivor testimony.
- To consider the benefits and challenges of utilizing survivor testimony as a source of Holocaust knowledge.
For many individuals, the study of the Holocaust culminates with the liberation of the camps in Spring 1945. For those who experienced Nazi persecution for being identified as Jewish and endured after liberation, Holocaust survivors, the events of this 12-year period would have a lasting impact. This chapter will explore the ways that we can learn from the experiences, testimonies, and resilience of Holocaust survivors .
Survivor accounts are now available to all in various forms, including written, audio, and audio-visual formats. During the Holocaust, many survivors and victims recorded their experiences in diaries, letters, and other forms. Some were created in more structured forms while others were done on scraps of paper or other available materials.
After the Holocaust, memories of persecution were shared in many forms, although the collection and abundance of memorial culture was not immediately or universally accepted as important history. This chapter will focus on post-war recollections.
Interviewing and listening to or viewing accounts by Holocaust survivors is itself an important process which varies with interviewer and context. Survivor accounts can be described formally and finally as testimonies, but the process of working with survivor testimonies leads to the recognition that there are many different forms of recounting, often for different purposes, and that each telling is provisional, each narrative a necessarily partial story of an extended series of experiences and events (Greenspan 2010, 3). Using the legal term ‘testimonies’ when describing what many consider stories or narratives by survivors reflects the basic fact that many forms of Nazi persecution have been found to be a diverse series of crimes.
The Initial (post-War) Period
During the 1940s, witnesses who experienced persecution during the Holocaust developed a desire to share their experiences in real time. People who later would become known as survivors or victims maintained this desire to bear witness after the war ended. While Yad Vashem began collecting oral and written accounts in the late 1940s, a limited number of published survivor experiences were available to a wide audience (Waxman, 2008). A select number of publications written by Holocaust survivors appeared in the 1930s.
These early works included works by political prisoners who were interned in the early camps, and some who were then released after the Nazis believed they were “rehabilitated.” Other works, such as Renya Kulkielko’s Escape from the Pit, were published by individuals who experienced aspects of the Holocaust but then escaped to safe zones where they were able to speak about and publish their recollections prior to liberation (Kulkielko, 1947). These works were not widely distributed and were frequently overshadowed by the concerns of wartime; therefore, it was not until after the liberation of the camps that greater attention began to be placed upon survivor testimony with some accounts even being recorded by Allied troops during liberations.
One of the first well known efforts to record survivor accounts occurred in 1946. David P. Boder, a Professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), traveled to Displaced Persons (DP) Camps in Europe where he recorded 109 interviews with survivors on a wire recorder invented by a colleague, Martin Camras (Wetmore, 2018). Initially, Boder selected eight of the interviews and published them in book form in a text entitled, I Did Not Interview the Dead (Boder, 1949). The other interviews would not become readily available to the public until the early part of the twenty-first century. When analyzed in the 21st century, the interviews showed early forms of resilience in the voices of these survivors as they remembered and sought to preserve religious practices, songs and other aspects of their pre-war life (Rosen, 2010). While Boder’s works sat for an extended period of time, other delays in publication or public recognition were not uncommon. Primo Levi’s ‘Survival in Auschwitz’ took over a decade to be published in English and to reach a wide audience (Levi, 1961).
Although Boder’s efforts were accompanied by the efforts of others within the displaced persons camps to record stories, much of the focus in the immediate post-war period was on the re-establishment of life under new circumstances. Many survivors, particularly those in Eastern Europe, did not feel safe or comfortable returning to their homes. Antisemitism did not end with the Holocaust and many Eastern European Jews feared for their lives; this affected their considerations of returning to their pre-war homes. The pogrom (Russian) that occurred in Kielce, Poland on July 4, 1946, is just one example of violence that continued to be perpetrated against Jews in post-war Europe. At least 42 Jews were killed and another 40 were injured during this violent attack (Gross, 2006).
Jews whose pre-Holocaust lives existed in Central and Western Europe were also eager for a fresh start. Hundreds of thousands of survivors were initially put in displaced persons camps, facilities that were run by the newly established United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) (Kwiet, 2018). Some of the DP camps were simply located in former concentration camp facilities, exacerbating the already challenging circumstances of living among strangers with limited access to anything beyond one’s basic needs. Although the DP camps were created for altruistic and practical purposes, the bureaucratic nature of these facilities and the unprecedented nature of their populations made their existence simultaneously beneficial and controversial.
Jewish DPs (the ‘surviving remnant’) emerged from the Holocaust to form vibrant, active, and independent communities that helped diplomatic negotiations leading to the creation of the modern state of Israel. Transitional living situations added challenges to these survivors coming to terms with the destruction of pre-war communities, homes, families, and lives. “Life in the aftermath” was new and different for Jewish people in Europe and later in the new nation of Israel (Patt, 2020, 159-162).
The Allies initially grouped DPs by place of origin and categorically by Allied or enemy zones of occupation. Based on agreement in Yalta (February 1945), Germany and Austria were divided into US, British, and Soviet zones, with a small French Zone of occupation. Some liberated Jews made a choice to return to their nations of origin (or initially to do so), while others refused repatriation (often because of loss of family and home). Some six million DPs were repatriated by September of 1945, many non-Jews, with the remaining population more often Jewish and often stateless. Immediate needs were paramount; the paradox remained, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Klausner, that Jewish people were ‘liberated but not free’ (Patt 2020, 1963-65).
Within and beyond the displaced persons camps between 1945 and 1952, numerous efforts began to record accounts of what had been experienced in the war years. Rachel Auerbacher, who was also part of a project known as , was one survivor who had helped create a unique archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. She compiled accounts of family and ghetto life from those who were willing to share their experiences, while also living in the challenging circumstances of a displaced persons environment. These efforts provided roots for later archives, the environment of the DP camp was focused more on recovery of health and housing, as well as family reunification, and less on recording the details of recent experiences. A more official effort transpired with the establishment of the Central Historical Commission of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews. This Munich-based organization was created in December 1945 and formed sub-committees throughout Eastern, Central and Western Europe that ultimately collected 2,550 testimonies (Waxman, 2008).
Survivors who emigrated to Israel were not only crucial in shaping the development of their new nation but also in creating a repository of survivor testimony that would grow into Yad Vashem. Their work was soon recognized by the Israeli and led to the official state-sanctioned formation of Yad Vashem in 1953. The testimony collection that began in Israel continues until today and has led to the formation of one of the largest repositories in the world. Yet, this collection of testimony was not the first institutional effort in the world. Waxman notes, “Centres such as the Wiener Library in London (founded in 1939), the Jewish Historical Commission in Lublin (August 1944), and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation) in Grenoble (1943) had begun to interview the Jewish survivors even before the end of the war” (Waxman, 2008)
A myth exists that most survivors did not want to speak about their experiences in the aftermath of the war. Recent scholarship has drawn upon a wealth of survivor testimonies that counter this myth (Cesarani and Sunquist, 2012). Numerous survivor testimonies make it clear that, for decades after the war, few people wanted survivors to discuss their experiences, especially during the immediate aftermath of the war. Even so, to some extent, survivors did continue these conversations, often within survivor communities as migrants and refugees in new nations. In Israel, many survivors relayed that their primary focus was on the establishment and solidification of their new nation. While their past experiences, along with resistance and resilience, could be worn as a badge of honor, focus was placed on the present. In the United States, many survivors were discouraged from sharing outside of their communities, sometimes by reactions that countered with the difficulties experienced in the U.S. resulting from rationing and other wartime challenges ‘at home.’ Frustrated or discouraged by such responses, some survivors chose to focus more on embracing their new nation and its customs, keeping wartime and Holocaust experiences private, or minimizing their experiences in conversations with friends and family (Stein, 2014).
The 1960s & the Impact of the Eichmann Trial
The reception of survivor testimony underwent its first pivotal shift in 1961 when Adolf Eichmann, an SS official in charge of organizing the deportations of European Jewry, was placed on trial in Jerusalem following his capture by the . Eichmann was not the first Nazi official placed on trial – dozens had been tried in Germany during the previous 15 years; however, it was the first trial where the testimony of Holocaust survivors was put on center stage and received televised news coverage. Finally, people around the world had the opportunity to witness in real time the testimony of survivors and the vast majority were astounded by the accounts of the Holocaust that they heard (Yablonka & Tlamim, 2003). Reverence for survivors expanded in Israel, also bolstered by the collection of Holocaust testimony by Yad Vashem. Interest and awareness of survivor experiences increased in other areas of the world, including the United States. Still, there was limited development of what we now know as Holocaust memorial culture and little systemic Holocaust education in most school systems.
The 1970s and NBC’s Holocaust
Through most of the decade of the 1970s, interest in survivor accounts remained fairly level. In 1978, NBC aired the three-part miniseries, Holocaust, which told the fictional story of two families – one German, one Jewish – and their experiences during the Holocaust. The reception of the miniseries was unprecedented and created much more interest in what happened to the individuals who personally experienced these events (Shandler, 1999). This interest added to the passage of time from the event helped in part to the exponentially increase of Holocaust memorials in communities around the world, as did efforts to preserve the accounts of survivors. The United States established a commission to investigate how to memorialize the event in the United States which eventually resulted in the opening of the in 1993.
During the 1980s, the number of Holocaust-related films began to increase (Brownstein, 2021). With attention to the subject, and with continuing interest that came from the Holocaust miniseries, more survivors felt more comfortable recounting the Holocaust, telling their stories to their families and the public. According to Waxman, “Finally survivors felt that they were being asked to speak about their experiences” (Waxman, 2008). Survivor Itka Zygmuntowicz shared in her memoir, Remember, My Child that while she began speaking about her experiences earlier in the 1970s, the 1980s brought a flurry of invitations to speak in schools, prisons and community organizations (2016). Survivors’ stories began moving outside of their limited survivor-only bubbles and into the mainstream, or as historian Jeffrey Shandler noted in his ground-breaking work, While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, the word “Holocaust” became a household word (1999).
In 1985, films released included Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. This nine-and-a-half-hour documentary pushed boundaries and did not dramatize the Holocaust, showing heart-wrenching testimonies of survivors such as Abraham Bomba, who worked in the ; at Treblinka, alongside forthright testimonies of perpetrators. Lanzmann’s documentary was at times shocking and upsetting to viewers, and it continued to bring attention to the voices of survivors in their own communities, leading Shandler to dub this time period, “the rise of the survivor” (Shandler, 1999).
1993: A Watershed Year for Survivor Accounts
In April 1993, the opened to the public. The Museum’s founding had begun with the creation of a task force by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and during the 1980s work to create the Museum’s physical space and to build its archives began. Survivors played a significant role in this process, donating their time to record their stories, to fundraise for the physical structure and academic work and to take part on the numerous committees that comprised the creation process. For many survivors, the creation of a national institution in their adopted nation was an impetus to revisit memories that many had tucked away.
In December 1993, the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, was released. The film was monumental in generating interest in the Holocaust, and it led to the creation of the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, generated by Spielberg in 1994, using proceeds from the film. The Foundation’s goal was to record as many testimonies of survivors, liberators, and rescuers as possible before any more were lost forever (USC Shoah Foundation, 2020). While a goal was not set, the over 53,000 testimonies that were collected far exceeded anyone’s expectations. For years, the VHS recorded testimonies were housed in special trailers on the Universal Studios lot. In 2006, the Foundation joined forces with the University of Southern California and became the USC-Shoah Foundation. Now, an archive of genocide survivor video recordings are available at iwitness.com; these accounts are part of many educational resources, including those shared in curricular units by Echoes and Reflections.
More Work to Collect Testimony and Survivor Accounts
While the efforts of the USC-Shoah Foundation are becoming widely known in the United States, other institutions began efforts as early as the 1950s, when Yad Vashem in Jerusalem began to document the stories of survivors who helped to settle this new nation. Survivor archives also began to develop in the United Kingdom through the efforts of the Imperial War Museum in the post-World War II era, and through informal efforts to record testimony in survivor communities that had developed worldwide. In the United States, Yale’s Fortunoff Archives stemmed from efforts begun in 1979 and an effort also developed at University of Michigan through the efforts of Dr. Sidney Bolkosky in 1981. Many other Holocaust Centers throughout the world have worked to preserve testimonies. In the twenty-first century access to many of these collections became much more accessible with the widespread use of new technologies including the internet.
Testimony in the 21st Century
The past two decades have brought increased access to testimony beyond access at physical structures serving as Holocaust institutions. The internet now allows for testimony to be streamed directly into individual homes and classrooms via general access services such as YouTube, as well as institution-based sites such as Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as other, smaller institutions whose repositories of testimonies were less well-known.
In 2012, a truly groundbreaking effort began with the creation of the USC-Shoah Foundation’s project, in partnership with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. According to the USC-Shoah Foundation, “…Dimensions in Testimony enables people to ask questions that prompt real-time responses from pre-recorded video interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide. The pioneering project integrates advanced filming techniques, specialized display technologies and next generation natural language processing to create an interactive biography. Now and far into the future, museumgoers, students, and others can have conversational interactions with these eyewitnesses to history to learn from those who were there” (USC Shoah Foundation, 2020). Pinchas Gutter’s testimony is an example of this new media for interactive biography.
Strengths and Challenges of Using Survivor Accounts
As we move well into the 21st century, the use of survivor accounts is taking center stage in the classroom. The availability of survivor speakers has significantly diminished yet their voices are needed more than ever to convey lessons of historical experience, resilience, and empathy. A 2020 survey of United States College students by Echoes & Reflections showed that, “In addition to the positive findings related to Holocaust education generally, one teaching modality—the use of video or in-person testimonies of survivors recounting their lives and accounts of their experiences during the Holocaust—stood out as having the most significant positive impact on students.
For example, in comparing differences between students who were exposed to survivor testimony and those who were not, those who learned through survivor testimony were more likely to report that their education helped their understanding of the Holocaust’s importance in significant ways” (, 2020). Students also glean other important lessons from listening to survivor testimony including resilience and courage. In 2020, the USC-Shoah Foundation launched an entire series entitled, “Mindful Explorations,” which uses testimony to engage students in reflection on these values. They are continuing development of this resource collection in 2021.
Growth of Holocaust education in nations around the world has collectively amplified the voices of survivors (Carrier et al., 2015). Testimonies are available in a multitude of languages and can be utilized in ways that engage students relative to their local experience – whether they are sitting in a classroom in the US, Germany, or Israel. Holocaust institutions worldwide are working to provide not only testimony to educators and their students, but also training to aid them in properly using these testimonies in their classrooms.
When using testimony, it is important to consider the context in which the testimony was collected. Was the survivor able to deliver their truth unobstructed or was it done for a specific purpose? Educators should also consider the survivor’s narrative; is it largely untainted by post-war memory incorporation or does it incorporate common misconceptions that a survivor may have been affected by in the post-war era? A frequent example is that many Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors tell of meeting Dr. Mengele during their initial ‘selection.’ While Mengele was present for many selections after his arrival at the camp in March 1943, many survivors who came to Auschwitz prior to this date and still recollect seeing him in their testimonies. This does not invalidate their whole testimony, but it is a pitfall of memory and testimony. Educators should also be mindful of providing context for chosen clips, reminding students that it is the story of one individual and is not representative of most or all Holocaust experiences (Shandler, 2017).
As the years pass by, in-person and real-time interactions with living Holocaust survivors will diminish and eventually disappear. In some cases, survivor stories are being carried forward by the efforts of Second Generation and Third Generation family members. Additionally, their written, audio, and audio-visual testimonies will allow us the opportunity to continue to learn from their experiences during this tragic era in history. Those who study the Holocaust are fortunate to have access to a vast collection of such testimonies and, when used with careful consideration, they add value to our study and reflection on this time.
Boder, D. P. (1949). I Did Not Interview the Dead. Univ. of Illinois Press.
Brownstein, R. (2021). Holocaust cinema complete: A history and analysis of 400 films, with a teaching guide. McFarland.
Carrier, P., Fuchs, E., & Messinger, T. (2015). The international status of education about the Holocaust: A global mapping of textbooks and curricula. UNESCO.
Cesarani, D., & Sundquist, E. J. (Eds.). (2012). After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence. Routledge.
Echoes & Reflections. (2020, September). Echoes & Reflections U.S. College Survey. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
Greenspan, H. (2010). On listening to Holocaust survivors: Beyond testimony (2. ed., [revised]). Paragon House.
Gross, Jan. (2006). Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation. Princeton.
Hodge, Freda. (2018). Tragedy and Triumph: Early Testimonies of Jewish Survivors of World War II. Monash University Publishing
Levi, P. (1961). Survival in Auschwitz, The Nazi assault on humanity. Collier.
Kulkielko, R. (1947). Escape from the Pit. Sharon Books.
Patt, A. J. (2020). Life in the Aftermath: Jewish Displaced Persons. In Laura Hilton & Avinoam Patt, Understanding and teaching the Holocaust (pp. 159–177). The University of Wisconsin Press.
Rosen , A. (2010). The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder. Oxford University Press.
Shandler, J. (1999). The Rise of the Survivor. In While America watches: Televising the Holocaust. Oxford University Press.
Shandler, J. (2017). Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age: Survivors’ Stories and New Media Practices. Stanford University Press.
Stein, A. (2014). Reluctant witnesses: Survivors, their children, and the rise of the Holocaust consciousness. Oxford University Press.
USC Shoah Foundation. (2020, November 03). About Us. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
USC Shoah Foundation. (2020, November 11). USC Shoah Foundation Offers Dimensions in Testimony to Online Students and Educators in IWitness. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
Waxman, Z. (2008). Writing the Holocaust identity, testimony, representation. Oxford University Press.
Yablonka, H., & Tlamim, M. (2003). The Development of Holocaust Consciousness in Israel: The Nuremberg, Kapos, Kastner, and Eichmann Trials. Israel Studies, 8(3), 1-24. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
Zygmuntowicz, Itka with Jennifer Goss (2016). Remember, My Child. McNally-Jackson.
- For more on this subject and to read some of these early testimonies, please see Tragedy and Triumph: Early Testimonies of Jewish Survivors of World War II, compiled and edited by Freda Hodge (2018). It is available as an OAR resource at this link. ↵
A collection of diaries, newspapers, other documents and small artifacts that was created by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. The effort was begun by Emanuel Ringelblum in October 1939, and within a year, gained several dozen other contributors. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Israeli Parliament. The Knesset is sovereign and thus has complete control of the entirety of the Israeli government. Wikipedia
An Israeli-intelligence, counter-terror, and covert operations agency. Wikipedia
A federal museum and institution in Washington, D.C. who seeks to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and support related research and action on modern-day genocide. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Groups of prisoners, mainly Jewish, who were forced to perform a variety of duties in the gas chambers and crematoria of the Nazi camp system. They worked primarily in the Nazi killing centers, such as Auschwitz, but they were also used at other killing sites to dispose of the corpses of victims. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
A hologram projection that individuals can interact with to question and learn from a Holocaust witness. iWitness.
A leading Holocaust education organization that is a partnership between the Anti-Defamation League, the USC-Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem. Echoes & Reflections