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  • The Era of the Witness
  • Catherine Hobbs (bio)
Annette Wieviorka . The Era of the Witness [L'ère du témoin; Paris: Plon, 1998]. Trans. Jared Stark. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006. 168 pp. ISBN 978-0-8014-7316-6, $19.95.

This admirably compact and readable history by one of France's few Holocaust historians clearly sets out the problematic of the conflict between personal testimonies—often highly emotional, at times factually wrong—told or written by individuals who experience historical events as opposed to [End Page 230] objective, critical histories crafted by historians proper. The book tells how personal narratives of the Shoah (the French-preferred term) emerged into the public sphere from the earliest Polish works in the late 1930s to the latest video-genre oral memories by the Yale archives (1982) and the Spielberg project (1994). Moreover, Wieviorka sketches the recent trajectory of Holocaust history's "Americanization"—an amazing tale of the Hollywood-ization of the Jewish narrative and US hegemony in acquiring testimonies and archival materials in numbers greater than Yad Vashem, the Israeli archive that had previously aspired to be the central world Holocaust repository.

Wieviorka, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, has published among other books Auschwitz Explained to My Child. Her corpus includes many scholarly books, including two on Auschwitz and one on Nuremberg, in addition to a co-authored work on Polish memorial books—key background synthesized in this volume. The translator, Jared Stark, assistant professor of literature at Eckerd College, chose the common American term "Holocaust" for the book, although the French author uses "Shoah." A note explains that the French resist the first term because it translates as "burnt sacrifice." This makes the terminology of the book consistent with US uses, as well as, ironically, participating in the Americanization of the Shoah.

As described in a brief introduction, The Era of the Witness is offered in three phases: the first "concerns the testimony left by those who did not survive the events. The second, organized around the Eichmann trial, shows how the witness has emerged as a social figure. The third, finally, examines the evolution of this figure in a society that has given rise to what I call the era of the witness" (xv).

This chronological narrative begins in part 1, "Witnesses to a Drowning World," with Oneg Shabbat's [Joy of the Sabbath] Warsaw ghetto archives collected and organized in the early days of the German occupation of Warsaw. Wieviorka weaves in John Hershey's novel The Wall, with its basis in Oneg Shabbat's founder Emmanuel Ringelblum's experience, noting at several points in her history that literature is the way most of the public has learned about the Shoah, since historians have shown little interest in these archives of Warsaw as well as other rich historical materials in collections. The chapter begins with Yiddish Jews who knew, despite the urgency to write their history, that their central problem would be to engage the world's interest. As Wieviorka explains: "The world will not want to know anything about this disaster. Indeed, despite the profusion of testimonies, does the world know? And what does it know? In order to know, one must first nurture the desire to know" (4). [End Page 231]

The "most successful" of the traces left behind by the "drowning" witnesses were the archives documenting life in the Warsaw and Łódź ghettos. The Łódź ghetto (in Warthegau, annexed by the Germans) was created early in 1940 and was one of the last "liquidated" in 1944 (8). The Germans knew about only a part of this ghetto archive, written in both German and Polish, in which various citizens produced a collective chronicle of their days in the hermetically sealed ghetto, with daily bulletins issued from 1941 to July 12, 1944. In addition to these chronicles, diaries, literature, letters, and a variety of personal journals and materials were produced by those ultimately killed. Many of the materials were saved by being buried in the ghettos or in the concentration camps, perhaps near the ovens. After the war, survivors on "archaeological" missions, dug them up. Two sections of the Warsaw archives...


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