C. Zalc u.a. (Hrsg.): Microhistories of the Holocaust

Microhistories of the Holocaust.

Zalc, Claire; Bruttmann, Tal
War and Genocide 24
New York 2017: Berghahn Books
Anzahl Seiten
X, 325 S.
€ 90,14
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Gaëlle Fisher, Zentrum für Holocaust-Studien am Institut für Zeitgeschichte, München

Every historian will at some point come across some inspiring microhistorical material. Often, however, it is difficult to know what to do with it: it is usually too singular, too detailed or too complicated to do justice to or to include in a larger account – not representative enough, or even not at all. And yet it also often seems as though these particular cases, anecdotes or exceptions touch on something fundamental. Microhistory, as one commentator recently put it, "brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while somebody else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’"[1]

By offering a range of examples and presenting some of the tools that can be used to deal with such material, this book helps us think of these "normal exceptions" (p. 4) as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Beyond this, it offers a reflection on what a microhistorical approach means for the study of a topic such as the Holocaust. The interplay, weighting, and disentanglement of agency and structure, or what can also be described as strategy and contingency, is central to any attempt at a balanced and nuanced historical account. But it seems all the more fundamental in a context of genocide and extreme violence where the quest for understanding also often has an ethical dimension.

The present volume is the outcome of a conference that took place in Paris in 2012 and builds on the research work of the two editors, Claire Zalc and Tal Bruttmann, who have pursued a longer-term engagement with these themes and historiographical questions. Published in English, the current collection not only makes these insights accessible to a wider audience, but it also broadens the geographical scope of their previous work, and constitutes a more systematic exploration of the methodological potential of a microhistorical approach to the study of the Holocaust.[2]

The introduction outlines concisely what the editors mean by microhistory, namely the adoption of a narrow focus, from the bottom up. As they concede, the idea is not entirely new. But as they also insist, it is not synonymous with local history either: While it is methodological, it is not a single approach. For them, microhistory is not just about changing scale, but also about displaying an awareness of scale and its implications for the production of knowledge. As they write, "the change of scale entails a change of paradigm." (p. 2) Microhistory thus also involves a constant reflection on what it achieves and how.

Accordingly, the theoretical discussion is pursued throughout. Indeed, most of the 17 chapters read more like essays than full blown research articles and almost all of them have a similar structure: a case study, its contextualization and a reflection on the added value of the microhistorical approach in this specific instance. Together, therefore, the contributions do not simply constitute a series of interesting illustrations of this approach but rather a collection of distinct and yet related methodological pieces in their own right.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first six articles explore the character of persecution from the perspective of personal trajectories and local settings. The essays here discuss how particular individuals or groups of victims negotiated the structural constraints of persecution. They focus on their practical circumstances, their room for manoeuvre, their strategies of survival, and their emotions.

The concentration on singular cases and local contexts help us qualify or reconsider our understanding of larger topics such as the relationship between Jews and the German bureaucracy in Nazi Germany (Christoph Kreutzmüller), the impact of persecution on Jewish family life (Melissa Jane Taylor), the connection between indifference, antisemitism, and genocide (Leon Saltiel), and the significance of solidarity for survival (Kenneth Waltzer). In their contribution on the case of Budapest, Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano even encourage us to rethink what is "a ghetto."

In the book’s longest piece, Claire Zalc and Nicolas Mariot give insight into their attempt to reconstruct the decision-making process of the Jews of Lens in northern France in the face of persecution by adopting a prosopographic and statistical approach. They thereby seek to explain why some people survived and others did not, but also probe a new way of doing social history that would give a sense of both the richness and randomness of social life.

The second section, with eight contributions, deals with the personal confrontation and encounter between victims and perpetrators. It draws attention to the diversity of the social worlds in which the Holocaust took place, and thereby also sheds light on the kind of social conditions and relationships that the experience of physical and genocidal violence created.

It opens with a striking piece by Jan Grabowski on the experiences of Jews in Poland in which he insists on the importance and methodological challenge of discussing the fate of those who died and not just those who survived. Many of the following pieces call on us to re-evaluate our understanding of particular social processes and situations relating to the Holocaust. These include: the use of slave labour in the German war industry (Daniel Uziel), the dynamics of killing and rescue in rural Poland (Tomasz Frydel), modes of Jewish resistance under Nazi rule (Wolf Gruner), the behaviour and (self) perception of perpetrators (Markus Roth; Vladimir Solonari), the treatment of Jews in occupied France (Tal Bruttmann), and the intersection of military defeat, and anti-Jewish violence in Romania (Alexandru Muraru). While many of the essays deal with either victims or perpetrators, at the heart of this section is the intersubjective character of their relationship and of these categories themselves.

The third section with just three contributions deals explicitly with the issue of sources and the material that microhistory relies on. In a sense, many of the previous pieces could have been included under this heading too. However, here, the emphasis is on the fact that the change of scale is not only necessary for answering new questions, but also serves to pose old ones anew.

Andrew Kornbluth re-assesses the Polish government’s stance on retribution after the war on the basis of local trials and Hannah Pollin-Galay re-examines post-war narratives of Holocaust survivors from Lithuania by comparing different types of testimonies. The last piece by Jeffrey Wallen serves as a kind of conclusion by offering a useful reflection on the relationship between microhistorical and macrohistorical approaches in Holocaust research in general. Beyond the obvious need for an integration of the two perspectives (the necessary contextualization of the micro and illustration of the macro), he points to the tension between the humanist tendency to try to re-humanize the victims by means of microhistory (something mentioned in some of the contributions) and the necessity to continue to convey the macro, dehumanizing character of the Holocaust itself.

As always in the case of such a collection, the pieces are not only very different in terms of topic, but also not all equally strong. In general, however, this selection of mostly highly stimulating and well-researched case studies not only gives insight into the diversity of what we think of as the Holocaust, but also a sense of how differently we can go about studying this topic and past social life in general. There is much to be gained, therefore, from reading this collection not selectively, according to one’s own research interests, but as a whole. In this sense, this is a very effective publication and a great addition to the literature.

[1] Rosemary Hill, Snakes and Leeches. Review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 by Ashton, R., in: London Review of Books 40/1, pp. 23–25, here p. 23. Available from https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n01/rosemary-hill/snakes-and-leeches (28.03.2018).
[2] Claire Zalc et al., Pour une microhistoire de la Shoah, Paris 2012.