Survivors’ Toil. The First Decade of Documenting and Studying the Holocaust

Survivors’ Toil. The First Decade of Documenting and Studying the Holocaust

Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI); Center for Jewish Studies, University of Florida, Gainesville
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
02.11.2022 - 04.11.2022
Nadjeschda Stoffers, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on Consequences of War, University of Graz

Already in 1945 Philip Friedman emphasised the urgency of investigating what later became known as the Holocaust – an urgency due in part to the growing number of trials of war criminals. During Friedman’s time as director of the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland, his expression of this importance of Holocaust research was shared by other survivor scholars. All throughout Europe, these men and women worked to build foundations of documentation and research, relying on emerging networks and communal support. They examined and collected primary sources, developing pioneering methodological approaches, and being confronted with various challenges.

The conference shed light on these individual and collective efforts of documenting and studying the Holocaust in the first decade after 1945. It was opened with welcome notes by JOCHEN BÖHLER, ÉVA KOVÁCS (both Vienna) and NATALIA ALEKSIUN (Gainesville).

In her keynote, LAURA JOCKUSCH (Massachusetts) reflected on the history and developments of Holocaust research, highlighting how survivors shaped and influenced this field. She emphasised the changing perspectives during the last decades, e.g., the process of democratising survivors’ voices, the shifting of geographical research focusses from Germany to (especially Eastern) Europe, the changing accounts from heroic to complex and ambiguous rhetoric and the shifting focus from camp experiences to local, micro and flight history, sexualised violence, and intersectional approaches. Jockusch concluded by reflecting the influence of personal sensitivities on the researchers’ choices of topics, pointing out that sometimes e.g. the research on revenge challenges the researchers’ expectations of survivors.

The first panel was devoted to the ethics of Holocaust documentation. DAN STONE (London) gave an overview of the psychological studies of survivor Eddy de Wind, who adumbrated and studied the symptoms of what later became known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as early as the end of the war. Stone underscored the pioneering approach of de Wind’s “theory of stupor”, which challenged the simplistic narratives emerging about the (psychological consequences of) Nazi crimes in the late 1940s and emphasised the relevance of his work for today’s Holocaust research.

CHRISTINE SCHMIDT (London) and VICTORIA MARTÍNEZ (Linköping) methodologically compared two collections of interviews conducted with survivors: the Vienna Library’s Eyewitness Accounts Collection in London, gathered in the mid-1950s, and the Polish Research Institute (PIZ) in Lund, gathered in 1945/46. Schmidt and Martínez analysed the historical backgrounds, key differences and similarities of the two institutions. Emphasising the roles of women and gender, they gave examples of how the interviewers themselves shaped the interviews, reflecting the possibilities and limitations their position brought with it.

DIMITRIOS VARVARITIS (Vienna) delivered insights into the genesis, translations, reception, and handling of Isaac A. Matarasso’s essays, among others the text “L’occupation allemande de Salonique et les Juifs” (1945). Varvaritis pointed out the cutting-edge importance of Matarasso's work, which can be read as an example of the immediate documenting of the Shoah.

DANIEL SCHUCH (Jena) gave an overview of the collection of recorded interviews with DPs conducted by Latvian-American psychologist David P. Boder in 1946. Boder, who had a special interest in the language and narratives of DPs, created his own trauma theory, arguing the interviewees’ traumatic experiences could be studied “in their own words”.

The second panel was dedicated to the building of documentation networks. EWA KOŹMIŃSKA-FREJLAK (Jerusalem) analysed the background and motivations of the employees and associates of the Jewish Historical Commission in Poland, which was led by Philip Friedman during its three years of existence from 1944 to 1947. She provided an overview of, among other things, the employees’ social and family genealogy, which generation, class, and gender they belonged to and gave insights into their educational background.

RITA HORVÁTH (Vienna) spoke about the collection of the National Relief Committee for Deportees in Hungary, analysing the deportees’ descriptions of concentration camps. Horváth delivered insights into how some of the organisation’s staff began to study and analyse these sources, emphasising that their research findings had been lost for decades and only recently surfaced.

SARA BUDA (Milan) held a lecture about Massimo Adolfo Vitale, the president of the Research Committee on Jewish Deportees, focusing on his efforts to document and reconstruct the history of anti-Semitic persecutions in Italy.

KATA BOHUS (Tromsø) referred about diplomatic and (trans-)national aspects of the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, Sweden’s diplomatic representative in Budapest from July 1944 to January 1945, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.

The following panel dealt with the politics of Holocaust documentation and research. MÁTÉ ZOMBORY (Budapest) presented his research on Hungarian journalist Jenő Lévai, focusing on the historiographical contextualisation of Lévai’s work between 1948 and 1957 as well as his political, anti-fascist interests in Holocaust documentation. Furthermore, Zombory analysed Lévai’s international institutional and personal networks.

DANIELA OZACKY STERN (Akko / Ramat Gan) spoke about the late- and post-war activities of Jewish survivors in Lithunia and Belarus who had managed to escape from ghettos and had become part of local partisans’ movements. Focusing on two groups, she delivered insights into their internal organisation as well as their efforts of gathering testimonies.

ALEXANDER WALTHER (Jena) continued by introducing the audience to Helmut Eschwege, a Jewish self-trained historian in the GDR, who in the 1950s and 1960s investigated the persecution of Jewish population under Nazi rule. Walther pointed out Eschwege had to deal with a lack of sources and secondary literature, focusing on Eschwege’s autodidactic working techniques as well as his research network on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The fourth panel focused on the making of Holocaust research institutions. STEFANIA ZEZZA (Rome) delivered insights into the early efforts of Greek Holocaust survivors Michael Molho, Josef Nehama and Isaac A. Matarasso to collect and publish the memories of survivors. She emphasised the urgency and singularity the latter three were confronted with as well as the moral duty they reported to feel.

MALENA CHINSKY (Paris) presented her research on Shmerke Kaczerginski, a Lithuanian collector of songs composed by Jews in ghettos and camps, focusing on the genesis of Kaczerginski’s first published collection as well as his social networks.

JUSTYNA MAJEWSKA (Warsaw) held a lecture about the origin and history of the Ringelblum Archive, starting in 1940, when Emanuel Ringelblum established an underground documentation of Jewish life in Poland, trying to collect as many different perspectives of Polish Jews as possible. Furthermore, Majewska delivered an overview of the main steps and problems in the process of publishing these sources.

Eventually, OLGA KARTASHOVA (New York) presented her studies regarding networks of Polish Jews and their efforts for justice in court after the end of the war. Kartashova pointed out these pro-active endeavours of individuals as well as Polish, Jewish and international institutions provided testimonies and other sources for the Holocaust-related trials, increasing the chances for sentencing the perpetrators.

The following Panel addressed the culture of testimonies and was opened by ELENI BEZE (Thessaly) who gave a lecture on how the Holocaust was addressed by Greek women. Presenting the activities and contributions of several Greek female Holocaust survivors immediately after the end of the war, Beze pointed out female aspects of documentation and commemoration.

THOMAS CHOPARD, also speaking on behalf of his absent colleague CLAIRE ZALC (both Paris), described the genesis of a memorial book which was attempting to document local Jewish life in Lubartów before and after the Holocaust. Chopard attributed these endeavours a dual function: On the one hand the book became a crucial source, on the other hand the collective efforts of the authors restored the Jewish community.

Afterwards, NATALIA ALEKSIUN (Gainesville) discussed the origins of the Jewish scholarly journal “Bleter far geszichte” (“Pages for history”) appearing from 1948 in Warsaw. Aleksiun analysed the self-positioning of the authors between the past of the Polish Jewry and the future of Jewish history writing.

The sixth panel was dedicated to the challenges of methodology and terminology. PHILIP SCHWARTZ (Warsaw) presented the work of Elye Spivak, a Soviet linguist, philologist, and teacher, who analysed Yiddish literature relating to the atrocities of Nazi Germany in the Soviet Union of the 1940s. Schwartz emphasised Spivak operated by grouping words in semantic fields discussing shifting meanings and describing implications, e.g., in metaphors or underlying concepts.

By analysing hitherto unknown sources from the archives of Jewish Soviet linguist, philologist, and historian Nachman Blumental, KATRIN STOLL (Jena) discussed the beginnings of the “Vernichtungswissenschaften”, which Blumental practised in Poland from 1944 to 1950 by collecting evidence of the Holocaust and interrogating the local populations.

AURÉLIA KALISKY (Berlin) encouraged researching the overlapping and merging of methodologies used by Holocaust survivors at the intersection of disciplines. By analysing the pioneering work of Joseph Wulf, Kalisky demonstrated how survivors developed their own methods which merged in documentation, claiming justice and mourning.

The last panel was devoted to the culture of documentation, focusing on the diversity of materials. DÓRA PATARICZA (Turku) presented her ongoing project on the return of Jewish survivors to Szeged in summer 1945. Methodologically, Pataricza pointed out a data cleaning tool for analysing the 1760 report cards, which provide information about the surviving revenants. The project aims to present the origin of these cards and to fill gaps where there is missing information about the survivors.

VIKTÓRIA BÁNYAI (Budapest) presented her research on the megillah Horthy, which was part of the monument “Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr” in Paris. The megillah was written by the post-war Jewish community in Hungary for the inauguration of the memorial in 1956. Pointing out that the Commission for the Memorial had asked several post-war Jewish communities in Europe to write a megillah, Bányai emphasised her interest in an international collaboration for comparative analyses of texts written across Europe.

RACHEL E. PERRY (Haifa) pointed out the diversity and potential of a medium for Holocaust memory that had been neglected for a long time: graphic albums. Presenting her studies and therefore her current collection of such albums, she gave insights into the variety of materials, styles, and appearances as well as various origins and different intended purposes. Perry pointed out that these cross-discursive image-text-combinations created a portable memorial culture.

ALINA BOTHE, also talking on behalf of the absent CHRISTOPH KREUTZMÜLLER (both Berlin), presented the project “Last Seen” of the Arolsen Archives and partner organisations. The project aims to collect photographs of the deportations of Jews from Nazi Germany, contextualising their visual aspects and origins as well as how they were handed down during the following decades.

In their closing remarks Éva Kovács and Natalia Aleksiun reflected on how the seven panels kept on connecting each other’s issues analysing the stories of individual and collective biographies and efforts, limitations and new connections, intensions and illusions, transnationality, and translation. They also pointed out the (self-)reflexivity of Holocaust researchers from 1945 until today, thereby referring to the challenges in today’s research on the Holocaust which had been brought up in Jockusch’s keynote lecture.

Building on the VWI international conference “Before the Holocaust had its Name” in 2012 and highlighting new sources, research approaches, projects and findings as well as further strengthening international and interdisciplinary networks, the conference delivered an important contribution to the advancement and networking of current global Holocaust research.

Conference overview:

Welcome Notes

Jochen Böhler (Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies – VWI), Éva Kovács (VWI) & Natalia Aleksiun (University of Florida, Gainesville)


Chair: Jochen Böhler (VWI)

Laura Jockusch (Brandeis University, Massachusetts): Survivors’ Toil and Aftermath Histories: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

Panel I: The Ethics of Documenting

Chair: Éva Kovács (VWI)

Dan Stone (Royal Holloway, University of London): Survival through Stupor: Eddy de Wind and Early-Postwar Psychoanalytic Studies of the Nazi Concentration Camps

Christine Schmidt (The Wiener Holocaust Library, London) & Victoria Martínez (Linköping University): Survivor-Interviewers as Companions of Misery: A Comparative View from Post-war Sweden and England

Dimitrios Varvaritis (University of Vienna): “And yet they did not all perish”: Isaac Matarasso and the Early Accounts of the Shoah in Greece

Daniel Schuch (Friedrich Schiller University Jena): „A man-made holocaust“: David P. Boder’s 1946 Audio Recordings as Pioneering Research on Trauma

Panel II: Building Documentation Networks

Chair: Michael L. Miller (Central European University – CEU, Vienna)

Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak (The International Institute for Holocaust Research Yad Vashem): Who Were They? Employees and Associates of the Jewish Historical Commissions in Poland: A Collective Portrait

Rita Horváth (Vienna): The First Historical Studies about the Holocaust in Hungary Prepared by The National Relief Committee for Deportees

Sara Buda (Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center Foundation – CDEC, Milan): Massimo Adolfo Vitale and the Research Committee on Jewish Deportees Contribution to Historiography

Kata Bohus (University of Tromsø): “This mystery will be hard to solve.” – Hungarian Holocaust Survivors, Diplomacy, and the Transnational Aspects of Raoul Wallenberg’s Early Memory

Simon Wiesenthal in Linz – A guided tour of the Wiesenthal Archives

Kinga Frojimovics (VWI) & Sandra Weiss (VWI)

Panel III: Politics of Holocaust Documentation and Research

Chair: Philipp Rohrbach (VWI)

Máté Zombory (ELTE University, Budapest): The Crucial Fifties: Jenő Lévai in the International (Political) Field of Holocaust Documentation

Daniela Ozacky Stern (Western Galilee College, Akko & Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan): Fighters and Documenters: Former Jewish Partisans’ Activity in the Immediate War Years

Alexander Walther (Friedrich Schiller University Jena): An Early Attempt of an Integrated History? Helmut Eschwege and Holocaust Research in the GDR

Panel IV: The Making of Holocaust Research Institutions

Chair: Stephen Naron (Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Yale University / VWI)

Stefania Zezza (Tor Vergata University, Rome): “Tell This to the Living” – Isaac A. Matarasso

Malena Chinski (Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, Paris): Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908–1954), Independent Researcher and Collector of Holocaust Songs

Justyna Majewska (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw): The Ringelblum Archive from 1940 until Today

Olga Kartashova (New York University): The International Networks and Polish Jews’ Efforts to Prosecute Nazi Criminals

Panel IV: The Culture of Testimonies

Chair: Marianne Windsperger (VWI)

Eleni Beze (University of Thessaly): Early Female Voices on the Shoah in Greece

Thomas Chopard (French Russian Studies Center – CEFR, Moscow & National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations – INALCO, Paris) [& Claire Zale (French National Centre for Scientific Research – CNRS & School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences – EHESS, Paris)]: Linking Memorial Books, the Holocaust and Post-war Communities: the Case of Lubartów

Natalia Aleksiun (University of Florida, Gainesville): Pages of Jewish History as a Testimony: The Making of “Bleter far geszichte”

Panel VI: The Challenges of Methodology and Terminology

Chair: Julie Dawson (Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, Paris)

Philip Schwartz (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw): Elye Spivak’s 1946 Study about the Soviet Yiddish Discourse on War and Holocaust

Katrin Stoll (Imre Kertész Kolleg, Friedrich Schiller University Jena): Documentary Truth: Nachman Blumental’s in situ Study of “Vernichtungswissenschaft“ in Poland, 1944–1950

Aurélia Kalisky (Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin): At the Crossroads of Disciplines: Unclassifiable Knowledge and Pioneer Methodologies

Panel VII: Material Culture of Documentation

Chair: Zuzanna Dziuban (Austrian Academy of Science – ÖAW, Vienna)

Dóra Pataricza (Szeged Jewish Community): The Return to Szeged (Hungary) in the Lights of the Survivors’ Report Cards of the Szeged Jewish Archives

Viktória Bányai (Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest): The Parchments of Remembrance: Megillot for the Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr in Paris, 1956

Rachel E. Perry (University of Haifa): Not by Word Alone: The Graphic Album as Medium of Holocaust Memory

Alina Bothe (Centre for Research on Antisemitism, Berlin) [& Christoph Kreutzmüller, Arolsen Archives & House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin)]: Saving Pictures – The Last Seen Project

Closing remarks

Éva Kovács (VWI) & Natalia Aleksiun (University of Florida, Gainesville)

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