‘An Immediate and Violent Impulse’

Holocaust Survivor Testimony in the First Years after Liberation
  • Henry Greenspan


This essay grows out of a twenty-year project interviewing and re-interviewing a group of Holocaust survivors with whom I began speaking in the late 1970s.3 In contrast with projects based on one-time ‘testimonies’, my interest has been in the ways that recounting evolves over time, within sustained conversations, themselves contextualized by a changing cultural conversation about survivors and about the Holocaust more generally. As many have observed, that wider conversation has, indeed, changed dramatically during the past two decades.4


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  1. 1.
    Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Summit Books, 1986), p.9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p.66.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See, for example, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, ed. David Wyman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Alvin Rosenfeld, ‘The Americanization of the Holocaust’, Commentary (June 1995) pp.35–40; The Americanization of the Holocaust, ed. Hilene Flanzbaum (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999); and my own discussion in On Listening.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Annette Wieviorka, ‘On Testimony’, in Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), p.31.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Shmuel Krakowski, ‘Memorial Projects and Memorial Institutions Initiated by She’erit Hapletah’, in She’erit Hapletah, 1944–1948: Rehabilitation and Political Struggle (Proceedings of the Sixth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, Jerusalem, October, 1985), ed. Yisrael Gutman and Avital Saf (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1990), pp.388–98. I am indebted to Yaacov Lozowick and Naomi Halpern for providing me the opportunity to look at some of the Yad Vashem collection when I was in Jersualem in 1998. The early testimonies are almost all written documents; some structured by questionnaires, most written in whatever form and length chosen by individual survivors. Although American psychologist David Boder used a wire recorder for his own 1946 project, gathering just over one hundred testimonies in that form, the use of audio recording of survivor testimony did not become general practice until a decade later, in the 1950s.Google Scholar
  6. See David Boder, I Did not Interview the Dead (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949) and Donald Niewyk’s recently edited collection of some of Boder’s transcripts, Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 13.
    Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man) was first published in 1958. Its publishing saga is well known. In his Foreword to Richard Glazar’s Trap with a Green Fence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995), Wolfgang Benz notes that Glazar ‘wrote this account immediately after the end of the war, before his return to Prague. Because no publisher could be found for the Czech manuscript, it remained unpublished for more than four decades’ (p.viii). The first publicication was in German by Fischer Verlag in 1992.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    See Leon (Welizcker) Wells own report on this publication history in The Death Brigade (New York: Holocaust Library, 1978), pp.286, 291–2.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    On this point, see the important essay by Nanette C. Auerhahn and Dori Laub, ‘Holocaust Testimony’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5:4 (1990) pp.447–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 23.
    Ehe Wiesel, ‘On Generation After’, in One Generation After (New York: Avon Books, 1972), p. 14.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Two writers have described the ambivalent attitude toward remembrance in some of the first films about the Holocaust in which survivors were involved. See Lawrence Langer’s discussion of the 1947 Yiddish film, Undzere Kinder, in ‘Undzere Kinder: A Yiddish Film from Poland’, in Preempting the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp.157–165 and Ira Konigsberg, ‘Our Children and the Limits of Cinema: Early Jewish Responses to the Holocaust’, Film Quarterly 52:1 (1998), pp.7–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henry Greenspan

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