Memoirs of Survivors

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Memoirs of Survivors

Genocides destroy human communities, physically and culturally. Unimaginable acts of cruelty characterize genocide, and the horrific becomes commonplace. For those who manage to survive the maelstrom, the tasks of reconstructing broken lives, often in new settings; of making sense of the nonsensical; and of piecing together the fragments of memory represent new and daunting challenges. The temptation to repress the past and live only for the present and future is powerful, yet without confronting the past, healing is impossible. Some survivors almost immediately record their experiences, bearing witness to an indifferent humanity of the crimes they endured; others take decades before they can examine their shattered pasts in this manner; and still others can only come forward as the end of life approaches. An outpouring of oral and video testimonies and of written memoirs has accumulated, especially from survivors of the Holocaust and, to a lesser extent, from those of the Armenian Genocide. For many other twentieth century genocides, however, survivor memoirs are rare. This may be because these survivors were not literate, or lacked the resources to create their memoirs, or perhaps they had to continue to live among or under the perpetrators of the genocide.

Survivors write for multiple reasons. For many, the commitment to bear witness—and thus deny the perpetrators one more victory—is motivation enough. Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, published a powerful survivor's memoir, Se Questo è un uomo (1947; published in English as Survival in Auschwitz; 1986). In the introduction to a second English-language publication of the book, issued in 1993, he explained his reasons for writing:

Its origins go back . . . as an idea, an intention, to the days of the Lager concentration camp. The need to tell our story to 'the rest', to make 'the rest' participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs.

To speak for the silenced and to commemorate their lives and communities, to reinforce the identity of their people, to instruct one's children, to sound a warning for the future, and to make meaningful and coherent their own inchoate memories are among the other reasons survivors assume the burden of writing. Elise Hagopian Taft, who wrote of her experiences during the Armenian genocide, observes, "I did it for my three sons so they would know something of their roots, the mass deportations, the atrocities perpetrated by the Turkish government in 1915 and thereafter," and she admonishes, "May the world get to know through these pages the true meaning of Genocide and what it does the human spirit, and resolve never to let the Holocaust happen again to any people on earth" (1981, pp. vii–viii).

In writing, survivors might find some relief from their wounds. This was true for Isabella Leitner, a Hungarian Jew, who wrote:

America . . . put its healing arms around me. Still the pain would not go away. To get some relief, I needed to talk. But to whom? . . . Auschwitz was—and is—unfathomable. Naïve questions only increased my frustration. Yet I had to talk. . . . I began to "speak" on little scraps of paper in my native tongue, Hungarian, using a pencil (1994, p. 15).

Those little scraps became a part of her first book, Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom. Similarly, as Gerda Weissmann Klein finished her celebrated memoir, All But My Life, she felt "at peace, at last. I have discharged my burden, and paid a debt to many nameless heroes. . . . For I am haunted by the thought that I might be the only one left to tell their story" (1995, p. 1). To be sure "there are pains that will not go away, adding their burden over extended periods of time" (1995, p. 252), but even in surveying the desolate landscape of genocide, survivors often find some therapeutic value.

If survivors' memoirs serve a critical function for their creators, they are of inestimable worth for those spared such trauma. Despite the inadequacies of language to render the unimaginable, powerful survivor memoirs can draw readers into the depths of genocide, touching hearts and heightening understanding. Were historical narratives solely dependent on the sanitized records of the perpetrators, or on the more distanced descriptions of bystanders, they would be impoverished. The concrete, personal narratives of survivors can break through numbing impersonal statistics and cultivate empathy, arouse compassion, and fuel anger at injustice. As survivors of the genocides of the first half of the twentieth century pass away, their memoirs become an enduring legacy to educate the inquiring and confound the denier.

To be sure, memoirs should not be treated as sacred texts. Like all written work they reflect the conventions of the memoirist's genre. The author benefits from hindsight and thus can impose a degree of coherence on a fragmented past. While the memoir derives its authenticity and power from lived experience, it can also be enriched by historical research—to check the vagaries of memory and expand its reach—and by the reconstruction of scenes and conversations unlikely to have been preserved intact in memory, but which capture the essential truth of the event. Survivor memoirs present an interpretation informed by strategies of historical and literary reconstruction, and must be subject to critical evaluation, just as any other source. For example, in his best selling memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl "wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones" (1985, p. 16). However, in carrying out this purpose, his critics argue that Frankl made himself the hero of the story and created a myth of heroic survival that belied the devastating reality of Auschwitz. Critical judgment also needs to be applied when reading Abraham Hartunian's moving memoir of the Armenian catastrophe, Neither to Laugh nor to Weep (1968). Hartunian, an evangelical Christian pastor, understands his survival and that of his family in the face of numerous encounters with death as a result of God's providential mercy. He cannot, however, ask why that mercy was withheld from all those who perished in misery.

Although they shared certain experiences, survivors and their memoirs reflect considerable diversity, depending upon the genocide about which the survivor writes and upon the particular aspects of the genocide experienced: the ghetto, labor camp, concentration camp, death camp, death march, forced relocation, hiding, passing, or fighting in a partisan band. Further, the survivor's age, gender, class, and location can all produce important variations in the survivor's story. Such diversity reminds us of how critical survivor memoirs are as sources for reconstructing the complex histories of modern genocides and of our need for caution in generalizing about such diverse materials.

SEE ALSO Diaries; Memoirs of Perpetrators; Memorials and Monuments; Memory


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Donald G. Schilling

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Memoirs of Survivors

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