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HISTORIANS AND HOLOCAUST MEMOIRS
It has become more common for professional historians to write about their own lives during the last few decades, but no other group of contemporary historians has shown such a propensity to write personal memoirs as those from Jewish origins whose lives were directly affected by the Holocaust, whether or not it has been their principal subject of study. (1) The fact that historians from this particular group have been so prone to writing about their own lives indicates that the general issues raised by the confrontation of history and autobiography are especially intense with respect to the Holocaust. These historians' published recollections have become a significant part of the literature of first-person recollections from the Holocaust era. In some respects, however, the stories they tell are at odds both with the dominant tendencies in the larger body of survivor literature and with major assumptions about modern Jewish history. These memoirs thus raise important questions about the representations of the Holocaust and about the construction of twentieth-century Jewish identity.
Fundamentally, the problem that autobiography poses for historians is that it challenges history's claim to be the science of the human past, the only set of procedures by which a valid representation of events can be generated. Among the bases for history's claims are the fact that it is a collective enterprise and thus overcomes the subjectivity of individual memory, and that it operates on the basis of traces or evidence that are available to public scrutiny. History takes as its subject, not individual human beings with their arbitrary life spans, but larger collectivities, and it inserts their narratives in a larger temporal framework that, in principle, incorporates all human experience.
As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has shown in Time and Narrative, his monumental analysis of the relations between different forms of narrative, history can usually coexist peacefully enough with fiction, even historical fiction, because fictional narratives do not claim to be "true" in the same way that history does. (2) Autobiography, however, which Ricoeur discusses only in passing, claims, like history, to be a true account of things that actually happened in the past, even though the bases of its claim to truth are very different. Autobiographies are individual stories, not collective enterprises, and they are based at least in part on evidence that is not available to examination by anyone except their author--namely, personal memory. Historians traditionally asserted their discipline's superiority over autobiography by classifying these texts as sources, and not very respectable sources at that. Manuals for history students tell them to regard memoirs and autobiographies as the "least convincing of all personal records" (3) and teach them how to deconstruct the distortions and biases they are likely to find in them. Nevertheless, history has not completely separated itself from autobiography. Even if they are doubtful historical sources, autobiographies are still sources, in a way that works of fiction are not, although historians have reserved for themselves the prerogative of deciding to what extent each first-person narrative can be trusted.
Because historians do, however grudgingly, acknowledge that autobiographies contain some truth about the past, the changed evaluation of autobiography in contemporary literary theory has important implications for the historical discipline. Whereas historians had traditionally rejected autobiographies because they had too much fiction in them, literary critics long considered them uninteresting because they were too bound to literal truth and did not offer enough scope for the imagination. The new interest in the genre of autobiography since 1970, associated with the work of critics such as James Olney, Philippe Lejeune and Paul John Eakin, has reversed this situation. By stressing the connections between autobiography and fiction, and de-emphasizing the issue of autobiography's truthfulness, these critics have firmly incorporated first-person narrative into the domain of literature. (4) Walter Laqueur, one of the historians whose memoir is discussed here, sampled some of this critical literature before writing his book and was unhappy to learn that, in these theorists' eyes, "the value [of autobiographies] as a source of historical insight is very limited because they shed more light on the state of mind of the author when he wrote his recollections than on the events when they actually occurred." (5) By blurring the frontier between autobiography and fiction, literary criticism has sometimes also laid claim to the territory of history itself. A number of literary critics have seized upon historian Hayden White's application of the categories of literary analysis to historical writing, in Metahistory, as evidence that practitioners of the historical discipline themselves now recognize the essentially fictional character of our work. (6) White is distinctly a minority voice among working historians--some would say that he has been read out of the discipline altogether--but a situation in which one genre of ostensibly factual narrative about the past--autobiography--comes to be classified as a category of fiction while another--history--tries to maintain its status as truth is clearly an uneasy one. Historians who write about their own lives, even if they have no conscious intention of challenging the accepted rules of their discipline, are therefore treading on contested terrain.
The existence of a "negationist" movement that denies the occurrence of the Holocaust gives the defense of historical truth in this context a special urgency. It is no accident that one of the sharpest challenges to Hayden White occurred in an exchange with Holocaust historian Christopher Browning. (7) Even as they have had to defend the facticity of their accounts against these challengers, however, historians have also had to deal with the fact that first-person testimony has come to play an unusually large role in constructing Holocaust memory. In the field of the Holocaust, second-hand scholarship is often seen as necessarily lacking the power of conviction found in direct testimonies. Survivors' memoirs have sometimes been accorded an almost sacred status: Elie Wiesel, the archetypal survivor-witness, has recently been quoted as saying that "I want eventually to establish a principle that every manuscript [survivor's memoir] should be published." (8) David Patterson, author of a recent study of Holocaust memoir literature, argues that even the reading of such works has a sacred function: the reader "must become not an interpreter of texts but a mender of the world, a part of the recovery that this memory demands." (9)
Although historians are understandably reluctant to get drawn into arguments about what happened at Auschwitz with survivors who have numbers tattooed on their arms, their usual concerns about the reliability of autobiographal testimony exist here, too. In her essay, L'Ere du temoin, the French Holocaust historian Annette Wievorka has provided perhaps the most outspoken reaction to this literature. The danger she sees is that emotional first-hand accounts can obscure the importance of the historian's effort to "establish the facts and try to give them a meaning" through analysis. The attraction of the reliance on memoir is that it seems to "give history back to its real authors, those to whom it belongs: the actors and the witnesses who tell it 'live,' for today and tomorrow." But, she writes, there is a "tension between the witness and the historian, a tension, perhaps a rivalry, and, indeed, even a struggle for power which one finds at the heart of current debates about contemporary history, but that one finds in other fields as well, when individual expression comes into conflict with scholarly discourse." When historians examine Holocaust memoirs, she claims, they learn not to rely on them for "information on specific events, places, dates, figures, which turn out to be, with metronomic regularity, false." The vision of the Holocaust communicated in memoirs
addresses itself to the heart, not to the mind.... This vision makes the historian uneasy. Not that he is indifferent to the suffering, that he has not himself also been overwhelmed by tales of suffering, and fascinated by some of them. But because he realizes that this juxtaposition of stories is not a historical account, and that, in a sense, it cancels out the historical account. How can one put together a coherent historical account if it has to be constantly opposed to another truth, that of individual memory? How can one incite people to reflect, to think, to be rigorous, when feelings and emotions invade the public arena? (10)
Wievorka is unusually candid about the critical attitude Holocaust historians often take toward memoir sources, but she is by no means unique. Raul Hilberg, the dean of American Holocaust scholars, has also distanced himself from reliance on such retrospective accounts. Hilberg has pointed out that, by definition, all survivors of the Holocaust were exceptional cases, and historians relying on their testimony get a biased picture because they "did not interview the dead." (11) In Hilberg's view, which is also the standard wisdom of history manuals, the historian should seek as much as possible to work from sources generated at the time of the event, and written without any eye toward telling a story. Hilberg has described the excitement of constructing history from such documents, each one "an artifact ... the original paper that once upon a time was handled by a bureaucrat...." In their seeming objectivity, such artifacts appear far removed from memoir sources, and since they do not tell their own stories, documents leave the creative work of interpretation to the historian, the importance of whose role is thus underlined. When historians write up their research as comprehensible narratives, Hilberg comments, "the words that are thus written take the place of the past; these words, rather than the events themselves, will be remembered. Were this transformation not a necessity, one could call it presumptuous, but it is unavoidable." (12) Like Wievorka, then, Hilberg posits that the historian's methods produce a representation of past events that is in some sense truer and more accurate than that of those who were actually there.
Is there a paradox in the fact that Raul Hilberg makes these criticisms of autobiographical accounts of the Holocaust in the pages of his own autobiography? And that he makes his impassioned defense of the procedures of scientific scholarship in history in the context of explaining the intense personal meaning that this research had for an Austrian-born Jew who had had to flee to the United States and who found little interest in the Holocaust there, even among historians? Aren't historians who turn to the necessarily subjective genre of autobiography in fact acknowledging, as Walter Laqueur does, "that those who were not witnesses, however thorough their research and innovative their explanations, are missing one whole dimension ...."? (13) It may be objected that these historian-autobiographers have doubtless been careful in their reconstructions of their personal past: one of them, the French scholar Annie Kriegel, has even provided her autobiography with footnotes to the numbered cartons of her personal archives. None of them seems likely to endorse the literature scholar Frank Kermode's cheerful assertions, in his memoir, that "the action of memory depends on the cooperation of fantasy" and that "writing truthfully of one's life therefore requires what may seem to be a scandalous breach of the promise to be truthful." (14) Nevertheless, the fact that so many historians whose lives were affected by the Nazi era have chosen to venture onto the subjective ground of autobiography demonstrates the genre's powerful pull.
The autobiographical narratives texts examined here have two features in common. First, all of these authors' lives were directly and personally affected by the Nazi persecution of the Jews in that they were forced to flee their prewar homes and, in most cases, that they lost close family members during the Holocaust. Second, all also subsequently published significant works of historical scholarship, although a few (Reinhard Bendix, Raul Hilberg, Jurgen Kuczynski, Dan Segre, Nechama Tec) held academic appointments in other disciplines or had careers largely outside of academia (Reuben Ainsztein). About a quarter of these memoirists can be categorized as scholars whose main publications have dealt with the Holocaust and directly related issues. Half or more never addressed this subject outside of their memoirs, and the others wrote one or more historical works on themes related to the rise of Hitler or the Holocaust while being primarily concerned with other topics. (15) With the exceptions of Friedlander and Tec, these authors followed the classic pattern of autobiographers and published their memoirs late in their careers, often after their retirement, and indeed a good number of these authors have now (as of fall 2002) died. (16)
Aside from Saul Friedlander's When Memory Comes, none of these autobiographical texts has yet generated much critical discussion in its own right. Most have been reviewed with respect, in view of the painful experiences they recount, but Mitchell Hart's comments, in a critique of three of the books discussed here, that the authors "are far better historians than they are autobiographers" and that they are "uncomfortable with revealing too much of their inner lives, …