Testimony and Truth after Auschwitz

Testimony and Truth After Auschwitz

Sarah Gordon
Indiana University


Survivor testimony of the Holocaust often deviates from historical fact.  Postmodern theory allows for the near nihilation of that testimony by arguing that history is nothing but a version of events.  This paper seeks to authenticate survivor testimony in a postmodern context through the exploration of an ethics of testimony, concluding that factual truth and testimonial truth are members of fundamentally different categories, the latter dependent not on accuracy but on the social, ethical mandate to respect the memory of people who suffer and die so that others may live to tell the story.

In Testimony, Dori Laub recounts her experience of showing videos of Holocaust survivor testimony to a hall full of historians.  One Auschwitz survivor recalled the events of the inmate insurrection, which she’d witnessed:  “ ‘All of sudden [sic],’ she said, ‘we saw four chimneys going up in flames, exploding.  The flames shot into the sky, people were running.  It was unbelievable.’”  The historians leapt on the woman’s story.  Only a single chimney exploded during the Auschwitz insurrection, not four, they said.  And in Laub’s words, “since the memory of the testifying woman turned out to be, in this way, fallible, one could not accept – nor give credence to – her whole account of the events” (Felman and Laub 59).

I find this understanding of testimony to be troublesome on two levels.  First: on a purely visceral level, it feels disrespectful to deny a certain authority to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor.  Has she not earned the right to be believed?  Second:  if we deny all fundamental veracity of the words of the survivors, then a space is created for people to present equal-and-opposite versions of what happened.  In Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt rails against the scholars who “spoke of relative truths, rejecting the notion that there was one version of the world that was necessarily right while another was wrong”(Lipstadt 18), underscoring that “Holocaust denial is a part of this phenomenon” (Lipstadt 19).

A variation on the same rationale which allowed Baudrillard to claim that the Gulf War never happened allows so-called “Revisionists” to argue that the Holocaust never happened – survivor testimony is irreparably rift from its source event and is part of a simulacra that masquerades as actual history (Hartman 11). Barthes’ death of the author acquires another level of figurative meaning:  by detaching testimonial text from its author, he denies to that author the ability to properly testify.  Dori Laub describes the need for witnesses not only to testify, but to have an attentive audience to receive their stories; she describes the listener as “a guide and an explorer, a companion in a journey onto uncharted land, a journey the survivor cannot traverse or return from alone” (Felman and Laub 58-59)[1]. Primo Levi, in the preface to The Drowned and the Saved, describes a common recurring nightmare among prisoners in which “they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved person, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to” (Levi 1994: 121). There is a difference, of course, between disbelief and deconstruction, but deconstruction widens the opening for disbelief because it emphasizes the constructedness, and therefore malleability, of history.

This phenomenon, while not exclusively postmodern, is most directly articulated in the theory of postmodernists such as Baudrillard and Derrida:  the events of the past are open to deconstruction and reshaping in the present. The postmodern is sometimes referred to as the post-historic, because historic truth disappears, submerged in the layers of meaning imposed by individual perspectives and contemporary value systems.

In the discussion of the history of the Holocaust, deconstructionism becomes particularly problematic in the study of survivor testimony. The witness, instead of testifying to his/her experience of a particular past event, can only testify to his/her particular experience.  The survivor’s experience of Auschwitz is merely one of an infinite number of stories that could be constructed out of the sequence of events s/he witnessed, because experience is necessarily one step removed from reality.

All of this is not to say that a purely emotional and contextual sense of moral responsibility should grant testimony immunity from the touch of critical theory.  It is not even to say that deconstructionism is inherently misguided.  Rather, my purpose is to explore that tension, and to see if a space can be made for authenticating testimony in a postmodern context.

It is unquestionably true that survivor testimony has certain limitations, including the limits of human memory, the influence of personality and opinions on how events are rationalized, and, of course, the impossibility of a single person’s lived experience to represent the entirety of (in this context) the Holocaust as a historical event.

That the Holocaust was a single, administrated, coordinated, and purposeful entity on the side of its creators is generally accepted, but on the level of prisoner experience, no entirety exists.  In fact, the opposite is the case – not only does no prisoner know the extent of the international project, but no single prisoner even knows the extent of the events within the camp.  The perceived goals of testimony are therefore no more to testify to “the Holocaust” than they are to simply recount personal experiences.  The former of these is too broad, and the latter, too narrow.  A further examination of the question of who testifies begins to point us in a useful direction: that testimony points to the potential for further destruction, indicating what the witness did not become, what he escaped becoming – in other words, the dead, or even more, the Muselmann.

Levi describes the Musselmänner as

an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer.  One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

[. . .] if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image [. . .] an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen (Levi 1987: 96).

Levi points out that the problem with Holocaust witnessing is that the vast majority of people who experienced the Holocaust were rendered unable to testify (either because they were traumatized into silence, or simply because they died in the camps).  Theorists refer to the “lacuna of absence” in Holocaust testimony – that point at which survivor testimony collapses in on itself, because the ability to testify implies a position of privilege in the camp.  Primo Levi, of course, refers to “the drowned and the saved,” in which he counts himself among the saved, but points to the drowned as those on behalf of whom he testifies.  The drowned are the dead, of course, but perhaps even more the Muselmänner with whom he co-existed – the walking dead, shadows of people.

There are unspeakable elements to the testimony of survivors; silences which are not mute, but pregnant with that which cannot be expressed; Laub says that “silence was itself part of [. . .] testimony, an essential part of the historical truth [a witness] was precisely bearing witness to” (Felman and Laub 62). The irony of the unspeakable is that it is only through an expression of language that it can be made visible by its very absence.  And speech (by which I mean the use of language in all forms), a human quality, depends on the retention of some element of humanity – a trait possessed only by a privileged few in the camps.  Privilege comes from many places – not all obvious ones.  Proficiency in German and training as a chemist were Levi’s own skills, and he describes others in If This Is A Man:  Elias’ privilege was insanity, which allowed him to be happy in the Lager; Henri’s was a remarkable skill in strategy and manipulation of people; Alfred L.’s was a near-superhuman sense of self-control and tacit expression of power in the face of adversity (Levi 1987: 98-101). To survive, to be one of the saved, one must

battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold, and the resulting inertia; to have no pity for rivals; to sharpen one’s own wits, build up one’s patience, strengthen one’s will-power.  Or else, to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts [. . .] Survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world – apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune – was conceded only to very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints (Levi 1987: 98).

Virtually all of the saved, with their moral sacrifices and “beast-against-beast” mentalities, contribute to the fall of the drowned; every one of the saved must have stood, in some way, on someone’s shoulders to keep afloat.  In this gray zone, drowned and saved create each other dialectically.  And of those who retained some sense of humanity, the will to live (i.e., the resistance to suicide) was often born out of the desire to bear witness to what they had seen.  Levi refers to a survivor of the maligned Sonderkommando who said that “Certainly, I could have killed myself or got myself killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and to bear witness” (Levi 1989: 36). Because they could still speak, they survived.  And because they survived, they could speak, and testify.  Giorgio Agamben articulates Levi’s paradox well:  “‘The Muselmann is the complete witness.’ It implies two contradictory propositions:  1) ‘ the Muselmann is the non-human, the one who could never bear witness,’ and 2) ‘the one who cannot bear witness is the true witness, the absolute witness’” (Agamben 150).

The truest witness is, then, the one who cannot speak – and further, the one who becomes inexpressible.  The condition of the Muselmann is precisely the condition of non-speech, of inexpressibility, of facelessness (Levi 1987: 96). The paradox of the Muselmänner as witnesses is that they “have nothing to say, nor do they have instructions or memories to be transmitted [. . .] whoever assumes the charge of bearing witness in their name knows that he or she must bear witness in the name of the impossibility of bearing witness” (Agamben 34). In bearing witness to the Muselmann, one bears witness to that which is inherently outside of the realm of language.

In that light, the irregularity of survivor testimony acquires new meaning.  Consciously or not, survivors must bend the rules of language to create a space for that which language cannot convey; it is an expression of the bending of the mind required to accommodate such a contradictory notion of the in/human, living-dead that the drowned represent.  The hyperbole of the four-chimney explosion is an example of this.  More common is the often-mentioned silences – as Laub says of this same witness, “it is not merely her speech, but the very boundaries of silence which surround it” (Felman and Laub 62). Language, after all, is an element of human interaction, and most inmates at Auschwitz could barely call themselves human.  Thus the medium impedes the message; as Lawrence Langer says, there is a “rift that separates words from the events they seek to animate” (Langer 26). Every person to write about Holocaust testimony stresses that silences are pregnant with all the things that go unsaid.  Rather than handing to its audience a complete rendition, testimony presents itself as the mouth of a cave, indicating the presence of darker depths accessible only through it.

Agamben uses this dialectic of drowned and saved to develop a post-Auschwitz “ethics of testimony,” whose fundamental task is to “bear witness to the drowned, to the horror of the inhuman surviving the human” (Ziarek 200). The Muselmann, he says, confronts us with a completely new kind of human whose very existence challenges the foundational categories of all previous ethics – dignity, guilt, respect.  The Muselmann has lost all sense of these.  There is nothing human about the Muselmann, though he is human.  Therefore, these ethical paradigms are insufficient, because “no ethics can claim to exclude a part of humanity” (Agamben 64). The ethics that Agamben constructs is one that “begins where dignity ends;” the Muselmann is proof that there is physical human life even beyond the erasure of all humanity (Agamben 69).

The “lacuna of absence” is the point at which the testimony of the survivor collapses in on itself, because it bears witness to the impossibility of witnessing.  The witness, who has not touched bottom, testifies on behalf of – or instead of – the Muselmann, and for Agamben “this means that the one who truly bears witness in the human is the inhuman, it means that the human is nothing more than an agent of the inhuman, the one who lends the inhuman a voice.”

The inhuman and the human are coextensive; the non-human survives the human and the human survives the non-human.  Testimony truly testifies to the indestructibility of the human – for even in her utter destitution, even in her complete loss of humanity, through testimony, she persists.  The speaker survives for herself, and testifies for the other.

Testimony is thereby separated from history and historical accounts of the Holocaust:

its authority depends not on a factual truth, a conformity between something said and a fact or between memory and what happened, but rather on the immemorial relation between the unsayable and the sayable, between the outside and the inside of language (Agamben 158).

Testimony is the gray zone between the drowned and the saved.  Agamben goes so far as to say that this understanding of testimony provides the only complete opposition to the denial of Auschwitz.  Because if a subject testifies to the Muselmann – the complete loss of subjectivity – one testifies to something whose possibility is indicated as that which is on the other side of testimony.  And since the Muselmann is the personification of the atrocity of Auschwitz, one cannot have one without the other. Agamben thus detaches the “truth” of testimony from consonance with historical fact, while emphasizing its inseparability from the truth of Auschwitz.

All of this is not to say that testimony and history never belong in the same sentence.  The postmodernists are right when they say that history, like any other text or narrative, is constructed, and it is constructed of language.  There is an aphorism that “victors write history” – one often cited by Holocaust deniers, and used by the SS to taunt prisoners, as Levi describes in The Drowned and the Saved:

However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness [. . .] And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed: they will say that they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you.  We will be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers (Levi 1989: 1).

Testimony is what allows survivors to fight back against that challenge.  Some might argue that since the survivors side with the victors of World War II, their testimony is a part of the writing of history on the part of the victors.  But can anyone really call a Holocaust survivor a victor?  Surely, they would not say that of themselves – the language of survival used by the survivors tends to break the standard vocabulary, as Langer highlights in reference to a woman who insists she survived through “stupidity” (Langer 26-40). Their role as witnesses prevents them from asserting victory, because victory implies superiority, which contradicts their ability to testify on behalf of the Muselmann, who is superior to nobody.

But listeners pay attention to the testimony, and they are moved.  Testimony delineates history; it is the conscience with which we in the present view, and judge, the past.

This malleability of history and function of testimony in the construction of history gives rationale to the pathological fear of forgetting evoked by most survivors.  Primo Levi refers to the history of the “millennial Reich” as “a war against memory” and a “negation of reality.” If testimony – the articulation of memory – shapes our interpretation of the facts of history, then it follows that the loss of a genuine form of memory would create a space for the re-interpretation of those facts.  Even the most concrete remnants of the Holocaust, such as the still-standing Auschwitz itself, are poor substitutes: survivor Eleonora Lev’s describes today’s camp as “the bottle of formaldehyde where the corpse of memory is kept,” and Levi himself says that he felt nothing on his return visits to Auschwitz (Levi 1987: 390) [2]. Hartmann describes this as an “anti-memory – a representation that takes the colors of memory yet blocks its retrieval” – and it is worth mentioning that he makes explicit Lipstadt’s implicit challenge of Baudrillard (Hartman 4-5).

Holocaust survivor testimony, in testifying to the atrocity of the camps, and even more in testifying to the Muselmann, is testifying to the ultimate suffering – to a suffering so extreme it loses awareness of itself as such, so extreme that it might even transcend the word.  It is that suffering which implies the evil to which all people have a responsibility to respond.  History alone, with its raw facts and figures and, literally, textbook narratives, cannot demonstrate that suffering. Suffering cannot be experienced at one remove.  Testimony, and only testimony, can express the suffering of Auschwitz, and thereby express its evil.


[1] Emphasis mine.

[2] Interestingly, a visit to Birkenau, kept in its original run-down condition, sparked in him a “profound sense of anguish,” though he was never imprisoned there himself.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub, MD. 1992.  Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History.  New York and London: Routledge.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. 1994. Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Langer, Lawrence. 1988. “Interpreting Survivor Testimony” in Writing and the Holocaust. Berel Lang, ed., New York: Holmes & Meier. pp. 26-40.

Levi, Primo. 1987. If This Is A Man – The Truce (transl. Stuart Woolf). Suffolk: Abacus.

Levi, Primo. 1989. The Drowned and the Saved (transl. Raymond Rosenthal). Suffolk: Abacus.

Levi, Primo. 1994. “The Drowned and the Saved” (transl. Raymond Rosenthal) in The Holocaust and the Limits of Representation, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, ed.,  Jerusalem: Akademon.

Lipstadt, Deborah. 1993. Denying the Holocaust:  The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. London: Penguin Books.

Ziarek, Ewa. 2003.  “Evil and Testimony: Ethics ‘after’ Postmodernism” Hypatia 18:2, pp. 197-204.

Sarah Gordon holds an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of London: University College London, and is currently a doctoral student in Folklore at Indiana University.  Her research interests include oral storytelling traditions, testimonial and first-person narratives, and ethnopoetics, particularly among the Dene of northern Canada.


5 thoughts on “Testimony and Truth after Auschwitz

  1. Quite an interesting account of theorists’ view that memory is individually shaped, and the need to offer witnesses to history authority nevertheless. You can apply these ideas to my stories about the disappeared in Chile. Two women tell tales of their sons being kidnapped, tortured and murdered. But in writing one story in particular, I ran into inaccuracies and contradictions. But I found it important to tell their stories nevertheless. See http://www.kena3.com. Click on “Cover Story,” and see the “Archive.”

  2. Hello Sarah,

    I was quite taken by the ideas presented in your paper and how you worked with them. I am interested in reading any later thoughts you’ve had. Is there a later draft of this paper? Have you had any of these ideas published?


  3. I was quite taken by the ideas presented in your paper and how you worked with them. I am interested in reading any later thoughts you’ve had. Is there a later draft of this paper? Have you had any of these ideas published? and you should add some pictures on.

  4. The last two comments have the aura of spam (given that they are identical but associated with different authors on different dates), but it is important to note that this article IS PUBLISHED. Folklore Forum is a journal with a deep history that goes back to the print-only era. This article was reviewed and published according to the same editorial processes that this journal has always used and Ms. Gordon’s article stands ready to be cited, discussed, built upon, and taught just as if it appeared in a print-only journal in 1974.

  5. Good pt Jason. BTW, the link I provided no longer contains the articles I mentioned. Instead, the link is http://www.kenacubed.com. Another BTW: I graduated from the ethno dept in the same year this journal began the transition from print to digital (or the officers at least began discussing it). I can attest to its high scholarly expectations, as I submitted an article (a very good one at that) back in around 2003 or 2004 and it wasn’t accepted. Not that I have any hard feelings or anything… ;)

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