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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 18.2 (2004) 274-290
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Through the Eyes of Those Who Were There
Readers often collapse the two primary categories of autobiography—memoir and diary. Significant differences, however, should be kept in mind. Holocaust memoirs are written in relative comfort and security in a reflection upon one's life; Holocaust diaries were written in the terror and suffering of the camp, ghetto, or hiding place at the risk of the author's life. Both as historical documents and as human outcries, texts written on the brink of annihilation and those written at a safe distance must be read and understood differently. Even within the contexts of diary writing, those written in hiding or on the run differ from those written in a ghetto or camp. Then there are the gender, age, culture, and language differences among the writers. Equally diverse are the approaches to these texts: scholars, critics, and other readers regard them varyingly as historical archives, literary works, sacred chronicles, criminal evidence, cultural artifacts, and so on.
A question, then, arises at the outset: What distinguishes these memoirs and diaries—these testimonies—as Holocaust memoirs and diaries? An examination of the seven volumes under review provides one response. [End Page 274]
The Scholarly Contexts for the Inquiry
Among the first scholars to examine the subject is Terrence Des Pres. But while his book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camp (1976) broke new ground, Des Pres groups Holocaust memoirs with the testimonies of other survivors, especially those who passed through the Soviet Gulag; the author does little to explain what defines the Holocaust memoir as such. Lawrence L. Langer took a step toward such a delineation in Versions of Survival (1982), where he declares, "The women who died in degradation, the 40,000 Jewish children of Auschwitz, all those, in Martin Buber's words, whose deaths represent testimony without acknowledgment—and who continue to assault memory and imagination for that very reason—these exemplify a different version of survival."1 The problem facing the author of the memoir, he argues, "is to create a language and imagery that will transform mere knowledge into vision and bear the reader beyond the realm of familiar imagining into the bizarre limbo of atrocity."2 This problem is so great, in fact, that in Holocaust Testimonies (1991) Langer questioned the legitimacy of any writing as a medium of memory. The written memoir, he maintains, raises "issues of style and form and tone and figurative language that—I now see—can deflect our attention from the 'dreadful familiarity' of the event itself. Nothing, however, distracts us from the immediacy and the intimacy of conducting interviews with former victims or watching them on a screen."3 The problem of familiarity, as Langer presents it, however, is a problem of knowing what it was like to be there, as if empathy were on a par with historical or philosophical insight. Like Des Pres, then, he leaves out what distinguishes the Holocaust memoir...