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Teaching Jewish Studies: Listening to Holocaust Survivors Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Interpreting a Repeated Story Henry Greenspan University of Michigan 83 I focus today on a course-really, one moment of a course-that I have been teaching since 1988 at the Residential College of the University of Michigan. Entitled "On Listening to Holocaust Survivors," the class is one of our first-year seminars offered during students' first semester in the College. It thus serves as an initiation in several respects-for most students, to the !itudy of the Holocaust and of survivor testimony in particular; to university courses and the seminar format; and, quite essentially, to the challenges of self-conscious listening itself. The ways we attend to survivor testimony in our teaching will reflect, of course, the ways we approach it in our work in general. As a clinical psychologist and playwright, I have been centrally concerned with how survivors retell: not only their use of narrative form but also survivors' specific, situated uses of repetition, silence, and voice. The relationship between survivors and their listeners has also been focal, particularly the impact of listeners' expectations on what is actually retold. Finally, I have been interested in the ways a survivor's testimony evolves over time, over the course ofseveral retellings, in the context of an evolving relationship between survivor and listener.I Indeed, I believe-and will illustrate in what follows-that some communications essentially require telling more than once. All these dimensions are central in my course. Here, I describe one specific class exercise that we do toward the middle ofthe semester. The relevant background is this: "Leon" (a pseudonym) retold the story of a prisoner's execution in each of three different interviews I conducted with him over two months in 1979. The prisoner, a man named Paul Lieberman, had been caught trying to pass a loaf ofbread to his sister, who was starving in a nearby camp. Lieberman was shot by SS-corporal Schwetke a few days later. It was apparent in each of Leon's retellings that he did not remember having told me the story before, and this was the only episode that he repeated in this way. This story, therefore, seemed to be quintessentially Leon's testimony-a recounting that ISee Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History (Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT: 1998). Quotations are from pages 156-161 of this book and are used by permission of the publisher. 84 SHOFAR Summer 1999 Vol. 17, No.4 appeared to have a mind and a memory all its own. Even further, at each of his retellings, Leon noted that this memory, because of its horror, was precisely the kind of thing he rarely does remember, let alone retell. So here we have a man repetitively remembering what he says he hardly ever does remember yet without remembering that he keeps remembering it. And, therefore, I ask my students, as I have asked myself, what it may be about this memory that makes it, simultaneously, so compelling and so horrifying for Leon to recount? What follows are the texts of Leon's first two recountings of the episode. I should say, however, that there are two important differences between their presentation here and the way my students receive them. First, the students have read much of the transcript of each interview, and thus they have access to a context that the excerpts alone do not provide. Second, the students have read Leon's own reflections about the significance of this episode. As you will hear, I directly asked Leon about the story's importance, and why he thought he might have repeated it, at his third retelling and again in a fourth interview a few weeks later. Thus the students' interpretations are meant to engage with Leon's own. Leon's First Retelling of the Story of Lieberman's Execution The memory is selective, no question. And the selection is probably toward suppressing traumatic events and concentrating on others that have some human or redeeming quality. It's funny-about fifteen years ago someone visited who was in one of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 83-88
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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