- The Belated Witness: Literature, Testimony and the Question of Holocaust Survival
“‘We wanted to survive so as to live one day after Hitler, in order to be able to tell our story’” (1). With these words, spoken by Holocaust survivor Helen K. (in an interview for the Yale University Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies), Michael Levine opens The Belated Witness: Literature, Testimony and the Question of Holocaust Survival. Helen K. expresses a sentiment voiced almost universally by Holocaust survivors—that the struggle for survival during the Holocaust was indebted to the prospect of being able to bear witness. Levine’s study opens profound insight into the eventual psychological vicissitudes of that process. Levine focuses especially on the role and responsibility [End Page 1191] of the listener, interviewer, or reader who serves as witness to the testimonial account of the survivor. This “supplementary witness,” Levine writes, “implicitly commits himself to the task of assuming coresponsibility for an intolerable burden, for an overwhelming charge, for the crushing weight of a responsibility which the witness had heretofore felt he or she bore alone and therefore could not carry out” (7).
There are many obstacles to bearing witness. The survivor, for instance, runs the risk of retraumatization through the telling of his or her story. The supplementary witness, for his or her part, may face anxiety triggered by the traumatic narratives and may be prompted to “drown out in effect the intolerable otherness” of the narrative or take refuge in a compensatory overidentification (6). But these potential hazards must be accepted given what the survivor stands to gain from the process of witnessing. Drawing upon the work of psychiatrist Dori Laub, himself a survivor, Levine takes as his study’s point of departure the insight that the survivor’s ability to become his or her own witness to traumatic experience actually depends upon the intersubjective dynamic of witnessing. Levine cites Laub to emphasize this point:
“One has to conceive of the world of the Holocaust as a world in which the very imagination of the Other was no longer possible. There was no longer an other to which one could say ‘Thou’ in the hope of being heard, of being recognized as a subject, of being answered. […] when one cannot turn to a ‘you’ one cannot say ‘thou’ even to oneself. The Holocaust created in this way a world in which one could not bear witness to oneself. […] This loss of the capacity to be a witness to oneself and thus to witness from the inside is perhaps the true meaning of annihilation, for when one’s history is abolished one’s identity ceases to exist.”(8)
The intersubjective process of witnessing thus works to forestall this annihilation by belatedly laying the groundwork for the constitution and preservation of the internal Other; therein lies its ethical significance.
Indebted as his study is to Laub’s work, Levine also significantly departs from it in his conceptualization of the Other in the testimonial transaction. Whereas “for Laub, the ‘you’ is itself but another ‘I,’” for Levine, the other is not simply “another subject” (8). In tracing “some of the more radical ways in which the question of address is reposed and rethought” (8) in works by Art Spiegelman, Christas Wolf, Cynthia Ozick and Paul Celan, Levine demonstrates how the dialogic encounter between witness and interlocutor gives birth to an internal witness who is less a symmetrical ego than a dialogically constituted “I” inhabited by an inassimilable alterity. The birth of this “I” marked by self-difference and self-distance emerges in Levine’s reading, which focuses “less on the stories already in the speaker or writer’s possession, less on the constative dimension of his or her testimony, than on what happens in the very act of testifying, on what untold and unpossessed stories are unwittingly accessed and unconsciously performed in the very process of speaking toward another” (4).
To register and transmit these stories requires a mode of listening or reading [End Page 1192] that remains open to “the...