Ordinary Memory

“I wanted to write an integrated history,” Saul Friedländer told a magazine in 2007, in an interview marking the long-awaited concluding installment of his Holocaust study Nazi Germany and the Jews. By “integrated history,” Friedländer meant one in which the designs of genocidal perpetrators were fused with the personal testimony of the victims. “Business-as-usual history flattens the interpretation of mass extermination,” Friedländer explained. “But the voices of the victims—their lack of understanding, their despair, their powerful eloquence or their helpless clumsiness—these can shake our well-protected representation of events. They can stop us in our tracks. They can restore our initial sense of disbelief, before knowledge rushes in to smother it.”

It is striking to note how recently the imperative to listen to survivors as a source for history took hold. Raul Hilberg left out personal testimony on principle in his epoch-making The Destruction of European Jewry of 1961. As recently as 1996, Daniel Goldhagen inveighed against “historians of the Holocaust and of Nazism [who] rarely, if ever, listen to the voices of the dead Jews speaking to us through their surviving diaries or to the voices of Jewish survivors recounting the manner of their treatment.” He was on firm ground here if not elsewhere—and the field, epitomized by Friedländer himself, followed Goldhagen. But the uses of survivor testimony as historical resources are many and varied. And the risks of invoking it do not disappear simply because doing so comes to seem ethically necessary.

Christopher R. Browning’s new history of a single town during the Holocaust and the slave labor camps that were erected there, while important for a number of reasons, is most interesting for facing up to these problems. Browning has done more than anyone, over the course of a career marked by path-breaking enterprises and unextravagant empiricism, to teach new things. He first became known for brilliant interventions into the debate around the timing of the decision for genocide, in investigations that culminated in The Origins of the Final Solution, a massive recent study that provides the best current account of the evolution of Nazi decision-making. His most visible contribution, however, remains his now classic Ordinary Men, which followed a single unit of the German order police and its killing activities, based on perpetrator testimony.

Browning writes that he first turned to his case study of the Polish town of Wierzbnik and its slave labor sites at Starachowice out of exasperation on reading the transcript of the trial of the murderer who perpetrated some of the worst crimes there. The Nuremberg trials had not only slighted the Holocaust, but also preferred contemporary documentary records rather than live witnesses as sources of proof. When Germany itself began to try war criminals in the early 1960s, its courts did hear survivor testimony. The testimony was beset, however, by some of the same flaws that once led Hilberg to ignore it. Even when recorded shortly after the events in question, witness memories were spotty, changed from one occasion to another, and did not always jibe with the recollections of others who saw the same things. But Browning shows that in the case of the trial of Walther Becker, who helped clear the Wierzbnik ghetto, other factors were at work too. The undoubted difficulty of reconstructing the past reliably on the basis of testimony—and an ulterior motive to exempt perpetrators—led Becker’s judge to let him off scot free. “Never have I studied a case in detail,” Browning writes, “and encountered a verdict that represented such a miscarriage of justice and disgrace to the German legal system.”

And so he threw himself into a reconstruction based on survivor testimony—for there was little else to use—by gathering all the memories he could of Wierzbnik/Starachowice. They came from the German judicial proceedings, but also earlier sources like the immediate postwar Polish Historical Commission, and then a glut of recent testimonies recorded as Holocaust commemoration took off, in endeavors like Yale University’s Fortunoff collection and the Visual History Archive (funded by Steven Spielberg). In the end, Browning had amassed statements from 292 different survivors. Then he conducted interviews of his own.

If this book can rely on these painstakingly assembled testimonies to extraordinary and revealing effect, it is most of all because of Browning’s distinctive and persuasive view about why survivor testimony matters. In Friedländer’s opinion—a rather strange one on reflection—it is important because it disrupts the reader’s easy assimilation of what happened. For him, the purpose of testimony is to interfere with any easy reckoning with the past, with what he called the “business-as-usual” of history. Meanwhile, Goldhagen had stumbled onto testimony out of the conviction that it would prove how gleefully Germans killed Jews: it would provide information, not so much about what actually happened, but regarding the emotional state of the killers.

Browning has another view. There are many events in the Holocaust where the systematic exclusion of survivor testimony as evidence would erase their only traces. True: the difficulties of using such testimony are forbidding. But is there any alternative? In Wierzbnik/Starachowice, moreover, Browning found a perfect case. For reasons he explores, a disproportionate number of Jews survived the clearing of the town ghetto, and later the slave labor experience. The large number of testimonies on which he could draw meant he could plausibly reconstruct what occurred throughout, basing his strongest inferences on the agreement of different accounts. Without relying on testimony, the sole alternative for many aspects of the Holocaust would, as Browning observes, be “foregoing any attempt to write their history at all.” But Browning goes much further, powerfully and convincingly vindicating the use of survivor testimony as a precious source for the reconstruction of the past. Testimony, far from disrupting epistemology, makes it possible.


n his quiet manner, Browning converts the mass of testimony he has collected into historical narrative. He begins with background on the Jewish community of the town and its relations with Polish neighbors before the war that will bring his protagonists so much ruin. Step by step, the Holocaust in one town unfolds through Browning’s movingly understated story of the German army’s arrival, the ghettoization of the Jews of the area, and the arrival through force or flight of Jews from other places. What would turn out to be minor infractions were experienced with a shock, even from the first days. Rosalie Laks recalled that when she saw her father— one of the town’s most eminent Jews—pushed into the street and kicked over and over, she understood from his shattered glasses “what the war was all about.”

These sections are so powerful, because in spite of the indignities they document, they only set the stage for the ghetto’s horrific destruction on October 27, 1942. With Becker’s assistance as local security expert, the district’s “Jewish destruction” battalion—an SS unit with Eastern European Hilfswillige as indispensable helpers—marauded through the streets murdering as they went. As thousands were shipped to Treblinka for immediate extermination on that fateful day, others survived through a terrible “selection” to work in various labor installations; having bought and bribed their way into slavery before, Jews survived at a much higher rate here than elsewhere in the Radom district where Wierzbnik was situated. After the ghetto-clearing, the slave labor camps were the only places Jews could have a real chance to stay alive.

It was nevertheless a slim chance and grim alternative. In detailed, vivid descriptions, Browning tracks his witnesses through the ordeal of terroristic massacres and the typhus epidemic brought on by obscene conditions. Before the crisis of the eastern front leads to the closure of the installations, and the shipping of the survivors to Auschwitz, Browning is able to dedicate attention to topics with ramifications far beyond the specific history of this place: the underground economy, persisting relations with former neighbors often asked to guard property, encounters with the Ukrainian guards who patrolled the gates (and sometimes looked the other way) as the Jewish hierarchy took charge of the camps themselves, and more difficult subjects like sex and rape. Throughout, Browning pays careful attention to details, like the relevance of gender and age in determining experiences and outcomes.

Finally, in a particularly damning chapter, Browning narrates the return of surviving Jews to the Wierzbnik area. His account of Polish violence complements Jan Gross’s recent study of the postwar moment. Though during the war some Poles had kept property on behalf of their persecuted neighbors, with the closure of the town’s camps and the disappearance of their inmates, “it was as if a switch had been flicked.” When survivors returned to seek their belongings, nationalist agitation and local selfishness combined to lead as far as murder.


he primary purpose of Browning’s book, however, is to understand the still obscure and contested subject of Jewish slave labor as an alternative to extermination. And Browning is certainly right that, aside from some memoirs and a recent study of the Gross Rosen camps by Bella Gutterman, slave labor installations have not gotten their due in either historical study or general perceptions of the era. Alongside the eventually vast concentration camp system (which originated in 1933 for the earliest Nazi enemies), and the killing centers like CheÅ‚mno and Treblinka, there were also a great number of installations outside “the SS state.” In these little-known sites, Jews were “rented out” by the SS as slaves to private industry. Browning proves decisively, in a work that illuminates the entire phenomenon as much as it does a particular camp, that Goldhagen was wrong to view slave labor as merely another form of death-dealing, accomplished by different means. Instead, the slave labor system was where the contending imperatives of killing the Jews and winning the war met. “Jewish work here,” Browning concludes, “was clearly not contrived as a gratuitous means of torment but rather was an essential contribution to the German war effort.” Correspondingly, and in spite of much death through work and indeed episodes of deliberate mass killings, “the Jewish strategy of survival through labor was not entirely illusory.”

If this terrible slavery ultimately allowed some Jews to remember survival, the book that results remains most thought-provoking and interesting for illustrating the uses of their testimony and its limits. Browning’s response to the German judges is not to reverse their skepticism about testimony into credulity. For the historian, Browning insists, what matters is “accuracy, and not just sincerity.” And he is alert throughout to problems of contradiction within and among testimonies and the role of time in distorting (but also, he shows, sometimes improving) recall. Lawrence Langer entitled his study of Holocaust testimony “the ruins of memory”—as if recollection were not merely difficult psychologically but impossible epistemologically. But Browning interestingly notes that most Holocaust witnesses have tried to “provide a conventional chronological narrative.” And contrary to the dominant view that testimonies tell more about the present in which they are given than the past they narrate, Browning finds that witnesses over time have given very similar accounts in new contexts.


rowning is right to conclude that, especially when testimonies are amassed in large numbers, “the crucial issue … is that the problems of evidence are recognized and taken into account, not that problematic evidence remains unused.” All the same, there is little explicit reflection on this point, save in the standout section in which Browning enumerates rival ways of remembering how selection was escaped or survived as the Nazis closed the ghetto. Browning disarmingly concedes that much of his decision-making about when to follow witnesses and when to ignore them depended simply on his trained intuition.

Yet there is a downside, too, to the valuable rediscovery that witnesses are useful for recording facts that would otherwise escape historians. Browning honestly acknowledges that “among the survivors of the Starachowice camps, there is no Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel.” And Browning’s reliance on testimony typically reduces it to the shortest of snippets, when he quotes it at all. Most revealingly, the longest single piece of testimony in the entire book is from a literary memoir, recounting events the memoirist had not herself witnessed. In this book, Browning has ground his testimonies into the atomic facts they provide, and cemented the parts together into the history that memory by itself could not generate. If anything is missing, it is a sense of what one would otherwise expect in a study based on memories of horror, even in the absence of literary eloquence or philosophical depth: a story of personal experience.

The host of Jewish names that populate Browning’s pages provide a sense of authenticity. Yet they serve as not much more than interchangeable victims. If any strong personalities emerge, it is in the series of demonic perpetrators on whom witness memories unsurprisingly converge. Most chilling is the occasional glimpse one has of the remembered psychological state of the Jewish victims, especially the constant fear of being buried alive that more than one recalls. Browning has successfully turned subjective testimony into objective history, and it is a fine achievement. But subjectivity, in all its depths, is also a part of history.


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