Holocaust Testimonies Essay - Critical Essays

Holocaust Testimonies

A professor of English at Simmons College in Boston, Lawrence L. Langer has long been a leading interpreter of literature about the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s planned total destruction of the Jewish people and the actual murder of nearly six million of them. Profoundly, HOLOCAUST TESTIMONIES takes his readers into a region that Langer’s subtitle aptly identifies as “the ruins of memory.”

The author painstakingly excavates those ruins in the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, established at Yale University in 1982. Its holdings contain more than fourteen hundred testimonies from Holocaust survivors or “former victims,” as Langer prefers to call them. He conducted many of the Archive’s interviews, and few people, if any, have witnessed more Holocaust testimonies. Nor has anyone observed so many of them so carefully. Definitely no one has written about these testimonies with more intensity, honesty, and telling impact.

Optimism is scarce in the ruins of memory, but what Langer does find and carefully guard is “unshielded truth,” an honesty that underscores what must be faced: “How overwhelming, and perhaps insurmountable,” as Langer puts it, “is the task of reversing [the Holocaust’s] legacy.” That legacy dwells in memory that is deep, anguished, humiliated, tainted, and unheroic. Correspondingly, that memory disturbingly uncovers selves who are buried, divided, besieged, impromptu, and diminished. Such is the taxonomy that Langer’s anatomy of melancholy requires.

These strains are not the only ones Langer heard. Some of the former victims tell about their determination to survive; they “knew” they would come out alive. Others accent their defiance against German brutality. There are also many who emphasize how important it has been for them to make their lives worthwhile and to retain some hope after Auschwitz. Philip K. speaks for many of his fellow-survivors when he affirms, “We lost. . . . And yet we won, we’re going on. . . .” Langer concludes that “several currents flow at differing depths in Holocaust testimonies.” All of them, he adds, are “telling a version of the truth.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, February 1, 1991, p. 1112.

Choice. XXIX, September, 1991, p. 179.

Commentary. XCII, November, 1991, p. 57.

Commonweal. CXVIII, September 27, 1991, p. 552.

Foreign Affairs. LXX, Fall, 1991, p. 179.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, February 15, 1991, p. 230.

Library Journal. CXVI, February 1, 1991, p. 87.

The New York Times Book Review XCVI, April 21, 1991, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, February 8, 1991, p. 42.

The Virginia Quarterly Review LXVII, Summer, 1991, p. 98.