- Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and its Transformations
Jürgen Matthäus's edited volume of essays, all centered around the story of one individual Holocaust survivor, is a unique contribution to the growing literature on Holocaust testimonies. As a social psychologist, Director of a Center for Holocaust Study, and Holocaust educator, I resonated with both the conclusions of individual essay writers and the overall conclusions of the volume: how testimony may be transformed by "outside intervention," and how scholars may not "reflect sufficiently on the effects of their own transforming (by way of translating, editing, or annotating) of these very accounts" (121).
While all survivor stories are unique in their own way, the survivor who is the focus of these essays is especially unique. Helen "Zippi" Tichauer was one of the first Jewish prisoners to arrive at Auschwitz in 1942. Her training as a graphic artist before the war (one of the few women in this profession) led to her eventual assignment in Auschwitz of painting a red stripe down the back of prisoner clothing and later printing registration numbers on the white strips of cloth that were to be sewn next to the colored triangles that prisoners wore on their uniforms. In this position, Zippi gained knowledge of registration and record keeping procedures at Auschwitz, as well as the fate of many who passed through the camp. She also learned about the activities of those who were engaged in resistance (although she insists that she herself was not a member of any resistance movement). After the war, Zippi made her way to the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp in the American zone of then occupied Germany, where she met her husband, a DP and UNRRA police chief in charge of the entire region. Here again, Zippi had access to information that the "average DP" may not have had. Finally, Zippi was among the 130 displaced persons who were interviewed in 1946 by psychologist David Boder, the first person to systematically gather survivor testimonies. A subset of these testimonies, including Zippi's, was subsequently translated and published between 1950 and 1957 in Boder's sixteen volume set, Topical Autobiographies. Still later, Zippi's testimony was included in Donald Niewyk's 1998 anthology, Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival.
The central essay in Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor, written by Matthäus, analyzes the mistranslations, misinterpretations, and decontextualizations that occur as Zippi's testimony moves from Boder's original oral tapes in German to written translations to Niewyk's reworking of the testimony into idiomatic English. Demonstrating how the systematic changes made to Zippi's testimony change its meaning, MatthäUs concludes that the [End Page 563] further we move from survivors' original words (or decontextualize them), the less historians will actually understand the past.
Other essays in the volume discuss how moving from concrete descriptions provided by survivors to abstract conclusions creates challenges to historical accuracy. Konrad Kweit, author of the first essay, reports that even after countless interviews with Zippi over thirteen years, he is "left with fragments, not a whole story" because she resists abstractions and insists on staying very close to the concrete facts of what she experienced: "Instead of buying into 'big questions,' she sticks … with unadorned answers to small questions" (8). As someone who has spoken to numerous survivors myself, I agree that Holocaust scholars and educators are often left to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations. I can also identify with Kweit's description of his tense interactions with Zippi when he notes that her story conflicts with other survivor accounts and findings of other scholars; she in turn tells him to "Forget what others have written and said" (25). Kweit ends his essay by surfacing the basic dilemma between "history" (or written texts) and "memory" (the lived experience of a person). Quoting from Raul Hilberg's autobiography, he describes how the historian, in creating his own account of the past, "usurps the actuality, substituting a text for … reality" so...