- The Belated Witness: Literature, Testimony, and the Question of Holocaust Survival
Every year, on the occasion of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jewish students from around the world join genocide survivors in a silent march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. While this march is primarily intended to recall the Nazi evacuation of the camps near the end of the Second World War—an evacuation that led to the deaths of thousands of starved and tortured inmates—it is also meant to demonstrate the survival of the Jewish people. Indeed, the participation of multiple generations of Jews at this event, which is appropriately called the "March of the Living," dramatically signals the failure of Hitler's genocidal "Final Solution." Jewish identity, the marchers make clear by virtue of their bodily presence at the former death camp, still remains vibrant and strong, even despite the Nazis' orchestrated attempt to exterminate it.
The prevalence of youthful faces at the annual March of the Living also places into relief another reality: the transferal of Holocaust memory from older individuals who directly experienced the event to young people whose knowledge of it is gleaned from the testimony of their elders. The student marchers, some of whom are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors, are in effect "belated witnesses" to the Shoah. Born long after the liberation of the camps, they are nevertheless indelibly marked by their elders' experiences; thus, in a radically physical demonstration, they bear witness both to their forebears and to their own inheritance of their elders' testimony.
The dynamic and complex relationship between the first- and the second-hand witness lies at the heart of Michael Levine's valuable monograph. Levine shows the figure of the "belated witness" to be a complex, multifaceted one. She is, first, the survivor herself, whose traumatic experience might [End Page 313] be qualified, via Lacan, as a "missed encounter": it is only in the aftermath of the event that one can begin to narrate and attempt to understand an experience whose initial occurrence eluded comprehension. The belated witness can also be thought of, however, as the witness-to-the-witness—that is, the interlocutor—who struggles to listen to, and bears the burden of, the survivor's testimony. Finally, the term stands for a testimonial process, or exchange, that occurs within the shadow of the past and continues—as does the March of the Living—for generations after the occurrence of the traumatic event.
To elaborate on his concept of the belated witness, Levine initially turns to Dori Laub's chapters in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (Laub and Felman 1991). The survivor's ability to bear witness to the Holocaust, Laub argues, depends upon the presence of an interlocutor to whom a narrative may be addressed; not unlike the work undertaken in analysis, the process of witnessing is necessarily dialogic and intersubjective. According to Levine, Laub's formulation of the dynamics of witnessing presupposes a direct transmission of narrative between a self-possessed, authorial "I" and an equally distinct, reading/listening "you." However, Levine maintains, "the passage between the 'I' and the 'you' conceived of as intact identities engaged in dialogic exchange" is not as unswerving or unidirectional as Laub would have it: not only are the two parties involved in the exchange never completely self-identical, but the intelligence passed between them is freighted with "untold and unpossessed stories" that are "unwittingly accessed and unconsciously performed in the very process" of testimony (4). That is, the writing/speaking "I" and the reading/listening "you" serve, in effect, as "host bodies" that "leave themselves open to that which speaks with and through them as the uncanny otherness of their own voices" (10).
The thrust of Levine's study, then, is to discern the multifarious voices and forces that emerge, belatedly, within and through the dialogue between the testifying "I" and the receiving "you"—and thus to complicate the ostensibly self-same identities of these two parties. Citing Osip Mandelstam and...