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  • Material Witness:Conservation Ethics and the Scrolls of Auschwitz
  • Nicholas Chare (bio)

Not only the words that were written but our knowledge of the context of their writing, preservation, and discovery envelop each text with different layers of meaning.1

Introduction: The Matter

The documents commonly referred to as the “Scrolls of Auschwitz” comprise a variety of writings composed by members of the Sonderkommando, a group of predominantly Jewish prisoners who were tasked with the smooth-running of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau.2 The writings, which were penned in a period between 1943 and 1944, were produced for a variety of reasons but principally to bear witness to the horrors of the extermination-camp. They were concealed in the grounds of the crematoria in 1944. Between 1945 and 1980, eight caches of these documents by five known authors were recovered. The texts include lengthy witness accounts written in Yiddish, letters in Greek and French, and a list of murdered transports written in Polish. Several of the documents, two compositions by Lejb Langfus, two compositions by Zalman Lewental, a letter by Marcel Nadjary and the list, are now held in the archives of the Auschwitz Museum.3 This group of diverse writings and the ways in which their materiality contributes to their power as forms of bearing witness to the mass murders perpetrated at Auschwitz-Birkenau are my focus. [End Page 81]

My conception of materiality is one derived, in part, from understandings of it that are articulated, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Sonderkommando writings themselves. In this context, Zalmen Gradowski’s meditations on memory and artefacts and on what matters in writing are particularly important. I have also been influenced by the ways conservators often describe objects. Artefacts are frequently personified, invested with human characteristics, particular faults and frailties. Objects are perceived as ailing or corrupt. They are conceived as possessing a base vitality. It is possible to hear echoes of Jane Bennett’s idea of “vibrant matter” in these acts of personification. For Bennett materials evince “an active, earthy, not-quite-human capaciousness” (Bennett 2010, 3). She is an exponent of what Barbara Bolt has identified as “neo-materialism,” a strand of material thinking that recognizes “‘agential matter’ and resists the idea of a sovereign human subject who does things to passive materials” (Bolt 2013, 2). Bolt might have added that thinkers such as Bennett also resist according sovereignty to non-human things. Bennett is wary of ascribing agency to matter as agency is subject-centred. She discusses actant and operator as potential substitutes for agent (Bennett 2010, 9). Actants, vibrant materials, form impetuses as much as entities, exhibiting trajectories but not necessarily intentions (Bennett 2010, 119). They display “a creative not quite human force“ (Bennett 2010, 118).4 Although their conceptualisations might differ, Bennett and many conservators share in the recognition that materials possess vitality.

The processes of conservation and/or restoration that the Scrolls in the archive of the Auschwitz Museum have been subject to hold major implications for their status as testimony. Sometimes the procedures have had a clearly negative impact on the testimonial force of the documents because the conservators have tended to approach the writings purely as a source of information in which the words are of prime importance. The material aesthetics of the manuscripts, the ways in which the physical appearance of the documents summon sensory responses and prompt reflection in the people who view and handle them, have not been appreciated. The words on the page form only one aspect of this aesthetic experience.

The vital testimonial function performed by the materiality of the Scrolls has previously been recognized.5 This account will, however, extend these earlier analyses by specifically addressing the kinds of insights into material as testimony that the authors of the Scrolls themselves can provide. I will begin by considering the differing ways in which conservators anthropomorphize artefacts and the changes they are subject to over time. I will then consider how Gradowski’s ideas about materials can provide insights into conservation practices in relation to the Scrolls. I conclude by calling for the importance of lacunae in the documents to be acknowledged and respected. [End Page...


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