JONATHAN BOYARIN: Good evening. I'm Jonathan Boyarin, director of the Jewish Studies program here at Cornell. Welcome to the fourth event in our fall series: "Technologies of Memory," which marks and contextualizes Cornell's access to the USC Shoah Foundation visual history archive, a collection of over 53,000 individual video testimonies by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and other experiences of recent genocide.
Our next event in the series will take place two weeks from tonight, at 5:30 PM. On Thursday, November 10, Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University and Leo Spitzer of Dartmouth College will speak on school photos and Holocaust Europe, archives of possibility. And that event will be held in the auditorium in Klarman Hall. After tonight's talk and discussion there will be a reception in the History of Art Gallery, which is a great room right down at the end of this hall on the right.
Christopher Browning, Frank Porter Graham Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is, to my mind, quite possibly the most distinguished and influential historian of Nazi genocide in the United States in our generation. Of course, I may be somewhat prejudiced, having had the distinct pleasure of being his colleague at Chapel Hill for several years before coming to Ithaca. His work, centering on Nazi bureaucrats, as well as, in the words of one of his titles, "ordinary German men," are models for thinking how to talk about those who commit terrible crimes without mythologizing them as coming from some unknowable, demonic realm.
While his more recent work on Jewish victims of the Nazis, about which we will hear more tonight, talks about those who suffered terrible oppression without patronizing or heroizing them, among his notable publications, constituting a decades-long and intellectually consistent examination of some extraordinarily challenging terrain are The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office-- first book; the book I have just alluded to, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, from 1992. And I mention that publication date because Professor Browning has just told me that a new edition will shortly be published to mark the 25th anniversary of that landmark book. Then Nazi Policy: Jewish Workers, German Killers; and The Origins of the Final Solution; The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policies: September 1939 to March 1942; and most recently, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp.
Now certainly the transmission of memory from human voice to human ear-- what we call oral history-- is very much part of the technologies of memory. So please join me in warmly welcoming Professor Browning, who will speak tonight on Holocaust history and survivor testimony, the case of the Starachowice factory slave labor camp.
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: In February in 1972, a elderly retired German policeman, Walther Becker, stood in a courtroom in Hamburg awaiting the verdict at the end of a six-month trial. Becker had been born in the late 19th century. He had served on both fronts through all four years of World War I as a soldier. He had then joined the police as a career in the 1920s. In 1930 he joined the German Social Democrat party-- the SPD-- in a move that in 1933 temporarily cost him his career. He was one of those purged when the Nazis came to power because of his Socialist Party affiliation.
Becker then quickly made his peace with the Nazi regime, joined the Nazi Party, was reinstated in the police. But his attempts to join the SS consistently failed. He was not accepted among the SS elite, even though Himmler in general was trying to amalgamate and merge the police and the SS as much as possible. Clearly, Becker was not seen to be of sufficient caliber to merit that kind of distinction.
In 1940 he was assigned to a small industrial town in south central Poland, Starachowice, which had a munitions factory and a steel mill. It was a town of some economic importance greater than its size for the war economy; and a town that was bordered by an older town, Wierzbnik, which contained a Jewish population of some 3,000, or 3,000 to 5,500 people.
So within his remit, in effect, was to be the master of life and death over the Jews of Wierzbnik. And in that capacity he basically presided over the ghettoization of the Jews of Wierzbnik, presided over the liquidation of that ghetto on October 27, 1942, when his population had already swollen considerably.
Some 4,000 Jews were shipped to Treblinka on that one day, from which there was not a single survivor. And some 1,600 Jews were sent to three different factory slave labor camps in the neighboring town of Starachowice to work in the steel mill, to work in the munitions factory, or to work in the lumber yard, which built the cases from which shells and grenades would be shipped, and so forth.
In any case, he remained in Starachowice throughout the war, with neither a promotion or a move. In terms of Nazi careerism, he was a nonentity, a man of no distinction, who whatever his efforts, neither retained SS membership or promotion or recognition in any significant way.
He presided over the evacuation of the Jews in the labor camps of Starachowice in July of 1944 as the Soviet army approached. No one knew they were going to stop at the Vistula. They thought they were just days away when the Jews of the labor camps were then packed onto a train and sent to Birkenau.
And it was particularly the role that Walther Becker had played in the liquidation of the Wierzbnik ghetto that had him eventually end up in the courtroom in Hamburg in 1972. What distinguished that trial above all others was the large number of Jewish witnesses that were called to the trial. Because so many people had been sent into the labor camps, in Starachowice a significant number-- I estimate 600 to 700 Jews-- eventually survived, and well over 100, 125 were interviewed by German judicial investigators. And many dozens, in fact, agreed to come to Hamburg and to give testimony against Becker, particularly concerning his obvious role as the man in charge on the market place on the day in which Jews were assembled, selected, and most were sent to their deaths in Treblinka.
The question then was, unlike most Nazi trials, where it was very difficult to find any or more than a handful of Jewish witnesses, here the prosecution had to decide between a huge number of who they would actually call, and whose testimony would be heard. So there was no shortage of testimony, and no shortage of witnesses in this case.
The judge began reading his verdict. And he began explaining that in the court of law there were different kinds of evidence-- documentary evidence, material evidence, circumstantial evidence, eyewitness evidence. And among all of those, he considered eyewitness testimony to be the quote "least reliable."
He then went on to say for a eyewitness testimony to be taken seriously the eyewitness had to be dispassionate, distanced, uninvolved, intelligent, observant. And he concluded that none of the Jewish witnesses met that definition. They were, as he went on to say, quote, "bad witnesses."
He then proceeded to denigrate them in groups and individually with all sorts of the most specious kinds of legal reasoning that I had ever encountered, even in the low standard of German Nazi criminal trials. For instance, among these were if you were a young boy in the camp, and you were now of middle age, you might be an adult capable of giving testimony. But you couldn't possibly have remembered, as a young boy, or understood, what was going on at the time. If you had been adult then and were elderly now, you were too old now to remember accurately what you had experienced as an adult. So gotcha. You're all gone.
The very way in which the German investigators collected evidence was to, of course, interview a survivor rather generally. Then they picked out those that had evidence that would be pertinent to a German trial for murder or accessory to murder, go back and to pursue those parts of their previous testimony in much greater detail in order to build a case.
The judge announced that typically people over time forgot more, rather than remembering more about the past. And so therefore, if the testimony showed in the second and third interview more than had been there previously, that was evidence they had collaborated with others. They had talked. They had invented. And that the very method by which the German investigators collected evidence was used to discredit all the evidence they had collected. And I'm just telling you some of the reasoning in this judgment.
In the end, the judge then pronounced that given the fact that there was no reliable evidence against Becker, he had to be declared innocent. And he walked out of the court a free man with his pension intact.
Now I had, by then, already spent many decades reading German trial records. And I had never so far encountered anything so as egregious-- such an egregious miscarriage of justice-- as in that case. And I have never encountered such a miscarriage since.
My first reaction to that was anger. And I thought, well, if the Germans can't put Becker in jail, I can at least put him in historian's hell. I can write a book between two covers, and it'll be on the bookshelves for eternity. His sentence will never end.
But I had a lot on my plate. And I couldn't return to this case for quite some time. And by the time I did finally get to working up this topic, fortunately, anger had cooled. Anger is not the best motive for historians to write. And increasingly, as I began my research, and carried it out, two other aspects of the project became increasingly much more important than getting Becker. One of these was the very phenomenon of the factory slave labor camp, three of which were in Starachowice, to which so many of the Jews of Wierzbnik had been sent.
We knew a great deal about the major ghettos-- Warsaw, Lodz, and so forth. We knew about the major death camps-- Warsaw, Auschwitz, Treblinka-- the main SS concentration camps-- Dachau, Bergen-Belsen. But the factory slave labor camp was a phenomenon that was at that point a lacuna in the historiography-- almost unstudied. This was in effect the free enterprise Holocaust, the corporate Holocaust, where the German corporations basically handed out all of the industrial goodies of Eastern Europe as these countries were conquered, took over the various factories, and as a major component of their workforce, used local labor. And increasingly, as Polish labor was shipped to Germany as forced labor, they then used Jewish slave labor on the spot.
That when the Holocaust Museum began a project of creating an encyclopedia of Nazi places of internment. They thought that they could do this in a few volumes. Very quickly, almost everything they had planned doubled. They were to have an initial volume on concentration camps, and that turned out to be two volumes; a volume on ghettos that turned out to be two volumes. They're now working on prisons and some other things.
The last thing they want to tackle is the factory slave labor camps. But by now, they have an index file of 42,000 places of Nazi internment, out of which 30,000 are basically factory slave labor camps-- camps set up by private entrepreneurs to use Jewish labor. So the scale of this was something we had not imagined before. This is something that kind of slipped under the radar.
And so clearly now, in Starachowice, one of the main aspects that I would be looking at is a case study of this phenomenon of the factory slave labor camps, how they worked. How did the Jewish prisoner communities cope in those circumstances when they were not under SS control, but under the control of factory security forces, and men who were trying to make a profit out of their labor? And that had a somewhat different agenda, at least at times, than the SS.
The second topic that became increasingly central in this study was what sources could I use. German bureaucrats in the government, though they destroyed many documents-- in fact, left many documents-- the Nuremberg documents, and the others that we now use to write our history of Nazi Germany. Somehow they just couldn't quite bring themselves to destroy all their beautiful files.
Corporate Germany had many fewer compunctions, I think, about destroying their records. And particularly the corporations that set up business in Eastern Europe, and didn't exist in the post-war period, we have almost no paper trail for them. So if I was going to write a history of the Starachowice factory slave labor camps, I was going to have to do it on the basis of the memories of the survivors. There was no written documentary trail, or contemporary Nazi documentation that I could use.
As I began to collect the survivor testimonies, the numbers grew beyond anything I had expected. In the end, I had 292 different survivors who had given one or more testimonies. Some of them gave a German judicial testimony in the '60s, a Yale Fortunoff Archive testimony in the '80s, a Shoah Foundation testimony in the '90s. And I would interview them after 2000. I would have three or four different testimonies from the same person. Most of them are single, but some of these I had two, three, or four testimonies from the same person.
And the question is, could one write a professionally respectable history accepted by my colleagues as meeting the standard of professional history on the basis of that kind of evidence-- and almost only that kind of evidence? Some of my colleagues were very skeptical about the use of survivor testimony as an historical source. They use it to illustrate something they already have in the documents. They use it to add color and flavor. But for the nitty gritty of what they're doing, they want contemporary documents; are very leery of using survivor testimony.
Even Saul Friedlander in his major work, wanted to rely on contemporary diaries and letters, and did not want to use post-war survivor testimony in his major opus, Pulitzer Prize-winning Years of Extermination-- Nazi Germany and the Jews: Years of Extermination. So the question was, what could I do with this material? What was the nature of it? And what were the problems I had to deal with?
First of all I found that the testimonies clustered into five groups, each of which had certain characteristics-- some advantages, and some disadvantages. One group of testimonies were what I called the early testimonies, taken between 1945-- immediately after liberation-- up until 1948. This was mostly done by what became the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, though several others were taken in other ways. But I had only 11 of these. And out of that, only three were extraordinarily detailed.
Some people say, well you can use the survivor testimony, but only the very earliest ones, when the memories are still fresh, before they have begun to forget and lose all the detail. Well, I did have three extraordinarily detailed early testimonies. The others were quite perfunctory, and not particularly useful. But I couldn't write a history of the camp based on three testimonies.
Then there was a period of silence. And then only in the 1960s, when the Germans launched their judicial investigation, German judicial officials interviewed 125 Starachowice survivors. And in this case, they focused particularly, of course, upon the collection of testimony relevant to trying a German-accused criminal in court.
After 1960, '61, the only crimes that were beyond the statute of limitations-- were not beyond the statue of limitations-- were murder and accessory to murder, for which you not only had to have proof that the suspect had killed someone, but they had killed that person either out of a base motive-- race hatred-- or had committed that crime in a particularly, cruel, malicious, or malicious way. So you had to have testimony not only that I saw so-and-so kill so-and-so. You had to have the details that proved the state of mind, or the very particular way in which the killing was done that would allow that person to be prosecuted in a German court, [INAUDIBLE] get it into court.
So this, of course, was what the interviews were about. Who were the Germans there? What were their names? What can you remember about each of them? Which created a body of testimony very different than whenever the survivors are telling their own story in their own way. Most of the time they're telling the story of their family. They are not naming names and giving details about Germans.
So this group of testimonies was absolutely vital in terms of filling in who were the Germans in Starachowice. And that body of testimony was indispensable, but it didn't tell me much about the inner life of the Jewish community, or the life stories of the Jewish survivors. It did tell me about what they remembered about the Germans.
By the 1980s, the collection of testimony changed. We began to videotape. And it was the people working that [INAUDIBLE], and they created the Fortunoff archive collection at Yale, that in the '80s did a series of tapings of some 5,000, I think it is. And these were free-form testimonies. That is, the interviewer introduces the survivor, the camera begins, and the interviewee basically tells the story as he or she wishes without questions, without interruptions.
So the stories digress. The chronology is often broken. There are gaps in which you learn about what happened up until now. And then a person jumps, and you lose whole months that disappear. But these are testimonies given just as the survivor tells it in a kind of uninterfered, pristine way of how they remembered and chose to relate what they remembered to the camera.
Then in the 1990s, of course, after Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg funded the Shoah Foundation to create the visual history archive, where the numbers were ten-fold-- 50,000-- Jonathan tells it now, 53,000. And that this was on an immense scale.
But the clear difference was these were going to be structured interviews with an interventionist interviewer. For each group of survivors-- say, anybody from France, or anybody from the Warsaw ghetto-- was going to get a standard series of questions, so that anybody working in those areas would have what they thought would be a common database of how everybody had answered a particular set of questions if they came from France, or they came from Warsaw, or whatever.
And the interviewer was instructed quite explicitly to keep the survivor within a certain framework-- 25% on the pre-war period, 50% on the Holocaust, 25% in the post-war period. These were to be life histories. And to keep them telling the story chronologically, to not allow them to digress, and to lead them through what would then be a very coherent, clear, chronological story from beginning to end, with a standard set of questions that every person of every particular group would answer. So this was a very different kind of interview than the free-form interview with the Fortunoff archive.
And then finally, after 2000, I began to interview some of the survivors myself. In all but one case I had already seen one or two previous testimonies. And when they agreed to interview, I would then go back over those, make up for myself a particular set of questions just for that particular person-- not a standard questionnaire. And when we would meet, usually the first thing they would say is, well, what do you want to know? And I would say, whatever you want to tell me, and let them start to tell their story. And as they would approach or come towards a topic I wanted to go into in detail, I would then throw in questions in a kind of spontaneous, conversational way.
And very early in the conversation, I would ask a question of a very detailed nature so that they would know how much I already knew-- that they were not talking to a camera with a general audience that had no background. That I would ask about a particular commandant, or a particular person and they would then immediately realize that we were going to talk at a different level than the general story. And the whole interview would then take on a depth. And they would immediately plunge into talking about things that they wouldn't genuinely say in their ordinary and their sort of practiced story, because they knew I knew what they were referring to when they would go into detail.
So it turned out my 15 interviews are disproportionately important for the book. If one looks at the footnotes, that they are by far the single most important source. They turned out to be much more important than I had imagined when I began. I thought they'd be kind of a frosting on the cake. It turned out that they, in fact, were absolutely foundational for going beyond the taped interviews that I already had. So that was the body of evidence that I had to work with-- 292 survivors clustered into five different categories of oral testimony.
Certainly when I approached the topic, as I said, I was kind of caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Some of my colleagues thought that memory was so frail, and particularly traumatized memory was so frail, that a historian couldn't rely upon it, and that if you didn't have documentary evidence behind this you would be ending up, basically, writing unreliable or undocumented, unproven history.
On the other hand, there were those that felt to subject the witness testimony to a cold, historical, critical method, was a form of blasphemy. Who was I, a [INAUDIBLE] that had grown up on the safe side of the Atlantic, to sit there in judgment on people who were there, and say, I believe that and accept that, and I don't take that, and to make judgments about people's memory and stories of people who had been there when I had not been? And the notion that a historian could somehow subject these testimonies to the normal critical methods in the story, and bring to the documentation, seemed to some people to be not only unseemly, but even as I say, kind of blasphemous.
In the end, to me it was very clear that you could not do the project if you stood in awe of the testimony, and did not basically treat it very critically. Let me give you two examples of what happened when you don't.
One of these was a book called Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski. This was a book that was purported to be the childhood memoirs of somebody who went through the camps as a five-year-old. And it was lionized. It was given prizes-- until a Swiss journalist discovered the author, in fact, had been born after the war in Switzerland, and this was all fantasy. However sincerely he may have believed himself into it we don't know, but it is clear that all of this was imagined, and that for those who were using testimony, to have the whole book totally disproven was, of course, damaging.
A second case would be Ivan Demjanjuk. We knew that he was a Ukrainian recruited by the Germans to be a guard at camps. He went to the Trawniki training center for these people. We had his identity card that said he was dispatched from Trawniki to Sobibor.
When the OSI-- Office of Special Investigations-- was investigating Fedorenko, a guard from Treblinka, they created a photo spread so that witnesses could identify Fedorenko. But they put the other pictures-- similar Ukrainians-- from the identity cards of Trawniki so that they would have typical Ukrainians in photos taken of that period. And when Treblinka survivors were shown the photo spread, they said, much to the amazement of people doing this, there is Fedorenko, and there is Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, the man that drove people into the gas chamber.
And so they said, what do we do with this? Well, the card said he was sent to Sobibor. The witnesses say he was in Treblinka. He must have been transferred.
Some historians, like Raul Hilberg, said don't go there. You've got the wrong man. But the OSI decided that the survivor testimony was reliable. Ivan Demjanjuk was not only denaturalized, but then sent to Israel to stand trial.
In the trial itself, the survivors repeated with great certainty that this was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. And I think the crucial problem was that Demjanjuk himself, because he would not tell the truth, and told a repeated series of ever more implausible false accounts of his own life, convicted himself. Nothing makes somebody more vulnerable to conviction than to be caught totally inventing false alibis. So the combination of the certainty of the survivors, and the demonstrably false testimony of Demjanjuk got him convicted. He was sentenced to death.
While his case was on appeal, the Soviet Union collapsed. People went into the KGB archives-- this was before Putin shut them again-- and found, in fact, testimonies that made it clear that Ivan Demjanjuk was at Sobibor, and then on to Flossenberg and elsewhere; had never been in Treblinka, and that they had the wrong man. The real Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka was Ivan Marchenko-- a different man. And the Israeli Supreme Court courageously overturned the verdict, and sent Demjanjuk back to the States.
But both these illustrate that if you take survivor testimony uncritically, you are doing no favor to Holocaust studies. You are damaging the credibility of Holocaust studies, because you will make terrible mistakes that will basically discredit the whole integrity of the enterprise. And I've certainly also been in court with Holocaust deniers-- Zundel in Toronto, David Irving in London-- where the bulk of the thrust of what they are saying is survivors cannot be trusted. Survivor testimony is they've cooked the books. They fantasized this. And they, of course, play upon every provable case of error in survivor memory. So if I was going to do this, I was going to have to do it carefully, and I was going to have to do it critically.
Certainly in terms of the kinds of pitfalls I would run into, and assumptions that I made, I made two beginning assumptions of what I expected to find here. One was that since the survivors from Starachowice had basically split into three communities-- a Toronto community. Some had gone to Canada. That was the largest. Some had gone to the United States-- particularly Boston, New England. And some had gone to Israel, politically around Haifa.
And I thought that over time, as they talked among themselves but didn't talk to people across boundaries, I would get increasingly diverging, but increasingly homogenized survivor memory communities. And I would have a Haifa account, I'd have a Toronto account, I'd have a New York account. And they would be increasingly the same among that group as they ironed out differences, but that each of these accounts would begin to diverge from the other.
I also thought that over time difficult issues, sensitive issues, would disappear. These would become sanitized. And that you would increasingly see this in terms of black and white without nuance, without dealing with sensitive and difficult issues.
I was wrong on both accounts.
One of the major things that I found out is, one, is the stability of the survivor testimony over time-- whether it was New York, or Toronto, or Haifa. The people that told their stories told the same story in the 1960s as they did in the 1990s as they did to me in interviews. That the stories did not vary. I had, when I emerged, clearly, when you have that many testimonies, was what I considered a very reliable core memory, when you got all sorts of testimony from very different people who experienced this thing from different vantage points all agreeing on basics. You can say, this you can trust. This is going to be a core memory.
And once you begin, then, to be able to test people's reliability in that, when somebody tells you a story that only they tell, you at least have a baseline on their reliability. How plausible is it? Is it the kind of thing that's likely to have happened? How reliable has this witness been? And you can begin, then, to bring in other things for which you have no corroboration, but I felt I was equipped to trust and to make judgments about.
I had, as I said, also thought that testimonies would become blander and more sanitized. Here again I was wrong. There were certain topics that people were only able to talk about in late life that were taboo up until that point.
Two key ones. One was the issue of rape. That in the early period, middle period-- of course they're talking in the '60s to Germans. And what Jewish woman is going to be talking to a German prosecutor about sexual violence in the camp? So both the issue of time and an issue of context made it difficult.
And certainly in the Shoah Foundation tapes, the person who is giving the story, this is going to go into the archive, but it's also going to be given to the family. This is their family record. And at the end of almost every interview the grandchildren come in to demonstrate that we've beaten Hitler. Look how our family has grown. And the person embraces their grandchildren. And what woman can talk about rape or sexual violence when she's going to be holding her grandchildren at the end of the film? And this is going to be part of the family story.
So that was a topic that is very difficult to get at. But in the private interviews, women would talk to me about that one-on-one after 2000. So this was a topic that was not anywhere in the record until very late in life, when some of the women were able to broach the subject-- even with me as a man-- and did talk, particularly about one absolutely heinous incident when the commandant carries out a exhibitionist rape. He rapes a German woman on the desk of the camp office in front of the open window where all the men of the camp can see and are totally helpless to do anything. It is a ritual humiliation of the camp prisoners, as well as an act of rape over a very attractive young female who was a secretary in the office.
A second case of a something that was taboo until late was revenge killing. When the Starachowice prisoners are taken from Starachowice to Birkenau on the train, in fact, the privileged Jewish prisoners who had ran the camp on behalf of the Germans, and had, in effect, lived well at the expense of others, are killed in the train car before they get to Birkenau. And their bodies are taken out of the front train car. They're laying on the ramp.
Everybody walks by. Everybody in that group knew what had happened to the Prominente, to the privileged Jews. But nobody talked about it until 1989. And then in the 1990s it finally became a topic that people could broach.
So these were very sensitive issues. And once they say that, it became possible to put into the oral history, but only very late in life. It was taboo up until that point.
As I worked through these testimonies, I also saw there were several pitfalls that I had to navigate. One of these is the issue of collective memory. And another was the issue of what I call incorporated memory.
Now collective memory is a historic term historians use for the way in which people, decades later, will erase certain parts of what they remember from the past, emphasize other parts, because it's the most appropriate to how they want to be seen in, say, the 1980s; not necessarily what happened in the 1940s. And where this came out, to my surprise, was not so much about the 1940s, not so much about the Holocaust, but about the accounts of the pre-war period.
In the accounts of Jews who came to North America, Wierzbnik is described as a sleepy little shtetl, very traditional, very orthodox, Yiddish speaking. The men are artisans and shopkeepers. The women are at home homemaking, or else they're helping the husband at the market stall, or something of that sort. That it's very religiously observant. But it's kind of like a Fiddler on the Roof with the romance taken away.
If one goes to Israel, and gets the accounts of people living in Israel in the 1970s or '80s-- they did a community book in the 1970s; then we have some of their testimonies in the '80s-- suddenly, Wierzbnik becomes a hotbed of Zionist activism. There are Maccabee soccer groups, and there are youth groups, and discussion groups, and they are just engaged in this hotbed of Zionist activity. And that is their collective memory of this what other people described as a sleepy, traditional shtetl.
So each had basically remembered it in a way that kind of suited the new culture that they were in, and the other aspects. Doesn't mean one is false and one is [INAUDIBLE]. But what they emphasized and remembered was quite different in each of these groups. They had a different collective memory. And that's one case where they diverged. Other than that, they were pretty much the same.
Another thing I had to worry about was incorporated memory, the case in which after the war, and particularly more recently, there is documentaries on the Holocaust. Everybody's read Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi. We have Schindler's List. We have, of course, the NBC docudrama Holocaust. But people were exposed to all sorts of popular representations of the Holocaust that created very dominant Holocaust tropes, none of which, I think, was more powerful than the common story you get almost in every account of arrival in Auschwitz.
The train comes in in the middle of the night. People look out through the slats of the train cars. They see the fire at the top of the chimney, the belching smoke. Early in the morning they hear footsteps, and the dogs-- people banging on the cars-- raus, raus. They're brought out of the cars, forced to line up on the ramp as women and children in one column, men in the other. And then, of course, they march past the SS doctor who is always Mengele. The man never slept, apparently. I mean there's 24 doctors. SS doctors were rotated [INAUDIBLE]. But Mengele is the one name they know, and so it was always Mengele that is there.
This is the archetypal story of arrival in Auschwitz. And you see it in Sophie's Choice. You see it in Wiesel. You see it in Primo Levi. And so on.
For the Starachowice Jews, who are evacuated from Starachowice to Birkenau, and arrive in Birkenau on July 31, 1944, the account of a large number of the survivors, this was treated in another way. This was treated as an internal transfer from one labor camp to another. They came into Auschwitz, and they got off the train, and they all went into the labor camp.
But in the memory of a significant minority, one gets the standard story. We got off the train. We were separated by sex and age. We were marched past Mengele. He said left, right, left, right. Some went into the gas chambers, and some went into the camp. So I have two absolutely different stories of the arrival in Auschwitz.
Now sometimes when I have different stories, it simply means I have some people who saw the same thing from such different perspectives. I can [INAUDIBLE] multiple perspectives. But you can't have a multiple perspective, did people go to the gas chamber or not? I mean, it's yes or no.
And here's a case where I had to say, some of these people are wrong and some are right. In the end, I quite emphatically decided that this was an atypical transfer, that there was no selection on the ramp, and people were not sent to the gas chamber-- for two reasons. First of all, how could I have gotten an utterly atypical story told by a significant plurality of the people all agreeing on that story if it had not happened? How could you concoct an atypical story that hadn't happened in which you all agreed?
More importantly, and more clinching, is the fact-- and we'll go into this later-- that Starachowice, though officially a labor camp, was in reality a de facto family camp. And the children who gave testimonies were quite emphatic. The greatest miracle of their life is that when they arrived at Birkenau there was no selection, and that's why they were alive. If there had been a selection, they would have been sent to the gas chamber.
So the evidence, I think, is very strong that there was no selection. This transport went into the camps as a transfer of labor. And the large number of people who give the normal account may certainly believe it. But it's something they've incorporated into their memories from all the post-war accounts. They have come to believe something that they themselves did not experience, but which they've seen so often that they think they must have experienced it. And this is one of those decisions where I have to simply say, I think they're wrong, and this is why I think they are wrong.
As I went through these testimonies, increasingly I realized that I was kind of excavating layers of memory, that the memory of an event and the event are not the same thing. And in fact, there were layers of memory, and that I was going to be digging, but basically staying pretty near the surface.
Certainly the deepest layer, and the one that none of us can access, is what I call repressed memory-- things that people experienced that they themselves no longer remember, cannot remember, because it's a psychological defense mechanism. They had to repress it if they were going to keep on functioning.
I became aware of this not from any of the survivors-- because they can't tell me what they don't remember. But I became aware of this because of an experience of my uncle. My uncle was a Methodist missionary in Singapore in February of 1942. That was when the Japanese captured the island. He had sent his wife and one-year-old child off on the last boat across the Indian Ocean, but had chosen to stay because he felt as a pastor he couldn't desert his flock. He couldn't come back later and administer to them if he had not experienced the Japanese occupation with them.
Since the vast bulk of his parishioners were, in fact, Chinese, and were considered native and had nothing happen to them, he was immediately arrested as an enemy alien and thrown into the infamous Changi prison. That's where many of the bridge on the River Kwai prisoners ended up after they built the bridge. And 3 and 1/2 years later came out at half his body weight. And basically barely alive.
At that point he had no memory of having chosen to stay-- that he couldn't have survived for 3 and 1/2 years if he had beaten himself up every day over the stupid mistake he had made when he could have gotten away. But he could go back to his garden on liberation, and dig up his diary, and there discover that he had weighed his things and made a purposeful decision to stay. And he had brought all this on himself. And the only way he survived was by actually repressing that memory, and he never would have recovered it if he didn't have his own written record.
So I think that this is, for anybody who was going through the traumatic experience of the Holocaust, there might actually be many things which they've had to repress and which they will never recover. They have secret memories, things they remember but they will tell to no other human being, because they are so searing, and still so difficult to deal with. Many of the memoirs, you will get to a point in which they will sort of reach a confessional point, and say, this is the first time I've told anyone. And then they will tell a horrific story about stealing bread from a bunkmate or something of that sort. So some of the secrets do come out over time, but many of them remain secret. And so these levels-- repressed memory, secret memory-- I cannot access.
A third level of memory I would say is communal memory. This are things that people who are in the same camp, or the same ghetto, all know happened, talk about it among themselves, but have a tacit understanding that this is actually an event that people who were not there, who were not informed of the background, won't understand, will misinterpret, and will see them in a critical light, in an unfair way.
So it becomes a taboo subject. You don't talk to the outside about it. You can talk about it among yourselves. This would include, of course, the revenge killing, and discussion of rape. This was a communal memory that the people had, but they wouldn't talk about beyond their own circle until very late.
And then there are finally the public memories. This is the accounts they give to people. They write their memoirs. They give their interviews. There are taped sessions, and so forth, which is obviously what I have to work with.
Now fortunately over time, things that were secret memory move in, and communal memory, move into the public sphere. Gradually, some of this is turned into public memory, and we can access it. And it becomes part of what I can work with.
But we must remember then that there's still a lot of area in which I don't know. I've heard the stories. I've heard what they've chosen to say. I don't know what they have chosen not to say, or what they themselves don't even remember or know. So that, I think, one must keep in mind as well.
Well, those are all the problems, in a sense, that I had to work through. In the end, I basically said one has to use the evidence anyway. Just because it's problematic does not mean we don't use it. If historians use nothing but unproblematic evidence, there's no history we could write. All of our evidence is problematic in one way or another. We simply have to be conscious of what the problematics of that kind of evidence are, deal with that, be cautious about it, be scrupulous about it, and then use it as best we can.
Certainly, I argued to myself, if I could use the testimonies of 210 German policemen post-war testimonies of 210 German policemen to write Ordinary Men, when most of them are lying to cover their tails, I ought to be able to use the testimony of survivors who, to the best of their ability, are trying to tell the truth. And that this has to be a body that we can access and use.
Question then is, what did I find out? What can we say about the prisoner community, about its strategies of survival? And what can we say about the Germans whom they dealt with?
One thing when I had written Ordinary Men I had been criticized for-- and a number of my Israeli colleagues, as well as-- I guess I shouldn't use the word colleague-- but Daniel Goldhagen suggested that my account was not valid because it didn't use survivor testimony. Well, it did use survivor testimony to construct the chronology, because the German policeman couldn't remember one massacre from another, and one deportation from another. All blurred. But Jewish survivors knew exactly the day the Germans came and destroyed their village and killed their family. So they could give me the chronology, whereby I could put together and pierce, figure out what the Germans were saying, where in fact it fit in, because they, the Germans themselves, couldn't place it geographically or chronologically very well.
But what the survivors couldn't tell me is anything about the internal dynamics of the unit. They survived because they hid and never saw these people. That there's no way they could tell me about the dynamics within the unit, the motivations of the men, the change over time, the impact on them, and what they were doing. They simply didn't have the vantage point to do that.
In Starachowice, in the labor camps, Jews and Germans are working side by side from, well, basically from the formation of the German conquest and formation of the ghetto until the evacuation of July '44. And one of the key aspects of survival was the ability of survivors to make distinctions between Germans. And you had to know about the Germans if you were going to survive.
And what emerged over reading through these various accounts, the language, they didn't do this consciously. But the language categorized the Germans into three rough groups.
One group of Germans were referred to as the dangerous Germans. When these people came to camp, they killed Jews, left dead bodies behind. So when they were there, you disappeared. You hid. Because they were going to kill somebody. And they were notorious. And people had to avoid them if you were going to survive.
A second group were the corruptible Germans-- the people whom you could bribe or make deals with. Now the asymmetry of power between the Germans and the Jews was, of course, immense. But the one hook, the one little bit of leverage that Jewish prisoners had was the insatiable greed of the Germans, and their willingness to take bribes to enrich themselves. And therefore, in fact, they began to learn which Germans were corruptible, who would take bribes for various things. And ultimately they set up a very sophisticated system of bribery that basically had some of the Germans on retainer, getting regular payments.
In return they would warn when an inspection was coming from the camp, so they could hide the children. They could get permission to go outside and bring in medicines for epidemics. And they could do various things. The Germans had to be bought to agree to this, but there were Germans who willingly took bribes, and were filling their pockets.
And their apartments were loaded with loot. And when [INAUDIBLE] at the end of the evacuation of German cars driving back to Germany just loaded with loot. And in some cases, it's bribes that they had been systematically collecting as the occupying power. Knowing whom to bribe was crucial. Who did you approach, and who could be bribed was a part of survival.
And then there was a small group of people they referred to as the decent Germans. These were Germans whom they didn't fear, and to whom they could even turn for help in certain points of urgency. You had elderly people-- particularly Orthodox Jews-- that so often were the subject to the rituals of humiliation and the scorn of Nazis and anti-Semites. What foreman could you send these people to where they would not be tormented, where they would be left alone, and not overworked as older and frail? You had to know.
If you needed something done-- if you got hurt on the job, where could you be sent where you could sort of lean on your broom until your injury recovered, and you could be back doing productive work? So it was very important to know who the decent Germans were. And of course that [INAUDIBLE] spread. And in some cases, you needed to know who was the Jewish intermediary who was in good favor with that German, because that's how you approached him.
Once I started the project, and people knew I was giving interviews, of course, word spreads among the survivor community very quickly. And so I would get phone calls, and people wanting to be interviewed. And I got a phone call from New York with this deep accent. I heard you are doing a history of the Starachowice labor camps. And I said, well, yes I am. He says, well, you have to interview me. And I said I'd love to.
And I went up to New York and talked to him. And what he really wanted to make sure was that his decent German got into the story. He was the intermediary to Bruno Papa, who was one of the foremen that actually treated Jews well. And everything funneled through him. It was almost a Europa, Europa relationship of Bruno Papa and his favorite Jewish boy. And so he was the intermediary for others to take advantage of, and to utilize this decent German for the rest of the camp.
So when we, in fact, see Germans and Jews in contact over a period of time we find one of the survival necessities is being able to distinguish between Germans. All the Germans are not the same. And that they do divide in-- at least in the memories of the Starachowice Jews, into the dangerous, the corruptible, and to the decent Germans.
What do we learn about the Jewish community? First we learn-- and this was particularly intense in Starachowice-- is that it is fragmented. There's no solidarity. [INAUDIBLE] not actually say "no," but there is little solidarity.
Many of the people and survivors would note, in fact, that among all the camps they went through over the period of the war, Starachowice was the most inegalitarian camp culture, had the greatest inequalities between the camp leadership and people at the bottom. It was very hierarchical, kind of like the restaurant between the grand chef at the top and the busboy at the bottom. And that people had a place in that hierarchy.
Part of this was due to the fact that you had four layers of seniority. You had the original Wierzbnik residents who were there in '39. In 1940, '41 you had expulsions of Jews from western Poland; two transports from Lodz, one transport from [INAUDIBLE]. These were more urbanized, more assimilated, more westernized Jews that came into this sleepy shtetl. So it gave a different flavor to the community.
And then in '42, as the rumor spread, the towns are being liquidated one after another, Jews from the surrounding area tried to get into the ghetto at Wierzbnik, and get a work position in the factory, because they know this is ammunitions factory, steelworks. If any jobs are going to be left, if there's any chance of survival through labor, it will be here.
And the Germans immediately played upon this. And they sold work permits. They sold transport in trucks from the surrounding areas to Wierzbnik. So you have the '42 entries who are coming as part of a survival through labor strategy.
To get jobs in the factories you had to have a work permit. And to get a work permit, you basically had to buy one. We will see this creates, in history, a very unusual phenomenon of people buying themselves into slavery in order to survive.
Wealthier families could buy for the entire family-- the father, the mother of the teenage kids, the child would be placed in a Polish family. They would go into the camp as a unit, because they bought four or five work permits to cover everybody. Poorer Jews, of course, couldn't do this. So part of survival was a matter of wealth, of those who had the means to do this, and those that did not.
Then, after people were sent into the labor camp, you have a few contingents that are sent into the camps from other labor camps once they're closed down-- a labor camp that's, say, working on creating an airfield for the Germans. The airfield is complete. What do you do with those laborer? You send them to Starachowice. So you had a fourth group that comes in to the camps without going first through the Wierzbnik ghetto.
Now that meant, in effect, that there was a kind of a scene of those who were there first had the advantages over those that came later in terms of what jobs they had, what influence had, what networking they had, and so forth.
This is aggravated by two other factors. One is the German policy of divide and rule. In 1933 in Dachau, they invent the kapo system. They bring in hardened criminals from the German prisons to dominate the political prisoners, and the hardened criminals get privileges to the degree that they save the SS doing any work. The SS sits on the outside, and the kapos run the inside of the camp, terrorize the political prisoners. And for that, they get privileges.
That principle is then, of course, extended wherever camps are built, extended to the ghettos with the Jewish councils and Jewish police. It's extended even to the factory slave labor camps. In Starachowice they disbanded, for the most part, the Jewish Council of Wierzbnik, and handpicked their own toadies to be the Lagerrat-- the camp council, the camp police. They, in turn, control the kitchen. So they control who had food. And they control the work assignments-- who gets the cushy jobs and who gets the backbreaking jobs.
So they had immense power in the camp. And the head of this was a man named Jeremiah Wilczek, who is despised by the other prisoners, because he is totally corrupt. And as they put it, everything in the camp was for sale. Anything you wanted, you had to pay for.
You needed medicine because your father had fallen ill, you had to buy it. You needed a change, any work assignment, because your wife was not physically up to hauling wheelbarrows of scrap iron, and needed to sit and put shells into crates, you had to pay for that. If you had a part of your family in one camp, and you had been in the second camp, because at the period of the assembly you had gotten split up, you wanted to unify your family, you paid to get someone transferred. Everything was for sale. And so Wilczek runs a very corrupt regime from the top. And that, of course, meant an immense inequality of power.
A third factor of inequality was economic. Many of the prisoners, of course, came from Wierzbnik. And because they had lived there prior to the war, they had Polish friends. They had Polish business associates. They had people with whom they could leave property. Other people coming in, if they're coming in in '41, they're carrying a few suitcases; or '42, if they're coming in, and after that, they're coming in with the shirt on their back. And that having access to money is part of how I am able to live and prosper in this hierarchy in which everything is for sale.
So people from the town who could access property, they could go to the factory. They would work side by side with Polish workers. They could recover some of their wealth. They could bribe guards and leave the camp at night and access their wealth.
This was not a rigorously guarded camp. The guards were there primarily to keep illegals out, not to keep people in. This is scarce commodity. They have bought the work permits. This is their haven. In central Poland, you have a much better chance of survival in the camp than if you try to escape. People who escaped came back in, because it was much harder to survive on the outside.
So people could leave the camp if they paid bribes to the guards. Sometimes the bribes went with them, and took a slice of what they got. But they could access property. And that, of course, gave them an immense advantage.
One of the great discoveries that I had in this was that the camp developed an extraordinary, sophisticated, underground economy. And, of course, the people that had money had capital, and basically could set up businesses. They could hire other people. And so those with money could set up production if they worked for the Germans. And then they'd come home and they'd work for themselves. And then they would peddle goods through the fence, or at the factories to the Poles.
And that, of course, those who, as I said, had the capital were going to get more, and those that they hired, at least, could begin to move up. People who came in from the outside with no money could usually get the more risky jobs. They could be the couriers, to steal stuff at the factory and have the risk of smuggling it past the guards into the camp. You didn't need capital for that. You needed guts.
And so there were ways that people worked in the economy, even if they didn't bring, initially, capital investment to it. But any economic inequality, political inequality, seniority, hierarchy, all of this, created a camp culture of great inequality.
Countering that, giving some cohesion to the community, in a sense what balanced that so this was not, in fact, what Primo Levi called "the law of the Lager"-- every individual on his own against everybody else-- were two things. One is the fact that it's turned out to be a family camp. Privileged Jews had been allowed to bring their families into camp, their children into camp the night before the ghetto clearing. That meant the presence of children in the camp didn't cause immediate notice to Germans, and it enabled other people to smuggle their children into camp.
In the first months of the camp there was a tremendous typhus epidemic. And the way in which camp management dealt with that, the factory owners dealt with that, was to kill anybody who had typhus. And the rationale was simple-- that if you had typhus, you went down with extraordinarily high fever for three weeks. If you survived, you were absolutely debilitated for another three weeks. You were out of the workforce, unproductive, for at least six weeks.
But during that period, the factory owner still had to pay the SS on a per head per day basis for every worker in the camp. So he's hemorrhaging profits when he has sick Jews who don't work. How do you end the hemorrhage? You kill the sick Jews who can't work. So there's a reign of terror in the camp, as well as an epidemic in the first months.
By the spring of 1943, the corporate people learn that they can't replace dead Jews anymore, that basically the ghettos had been cleared. There are no more, or very few more Jews, to replace those that are gone. Dead Jews cannot ever work again. Sick Jews can recover and be put back in the workforce.
And in a case of non-replaceable Jews, suddenly keeping sick Jews for six weeks becomes economically makes sense. And the killing of sick Jews ends. The standard of living in the camp goes up, and the death rate goes way down.
At that point, families who had children hidden on the outside smuggled them back into camp. So the children population in the camp grows. It's safer to be in the camp than to be hiding with a Polish family.
And thus the existence of family structures in the camp-- large numbers of intact families-- created a cohesion, created support networks that prevented this camp from becoming an all against all. Because not only did you have the family network, but the families had neighbors and friends. And they had their own circles. So that there was a counterforce to the systemic inequalities that were in there. They are countered to a large degree by the fact that this was a family camp, and family ties balance much of that.
Business ties as well. As people build up this underground economy, they had ties between themselves working as partners and employer, and employee, and whatever. And that, too, mitigated, in a sense, any one against all kind of breakdown.
So in the end, the camp did have a cohesion. The prisoner's community did have structure. It did not turn into a one against all Darwinian struggle for survival that we see, as Primo Levi describes, for instance, the law of the Lager when he describes Birkenau, where people come in from everywhere, and they're all their own. So in that sense, the camp did have a very distinct kind of identity from other camps that these prisoners would later cycle through.
Several other things I would just end with. And one of these is the way in which we talk about the Jewish response. At least when I was earlier in my career, this was generally posed in the terms of a dichotomy. Either it was resistance or it was passivity You resisted, or you were passive. And indeed, those arguing for resistance would chide the others as being passive.
So part of this rhetoric came from Jewish prisoners, ghettoized Jews themselves. If you read Abba Kovner's call for resistance. He says, do not go to the slaughter like sheep. And so this dichotomy was set up. Either you're passive, or you're in resistance.
Those two poles, this kind of false dichotomy, does not reflect the lived experience of the prisoners in the Starachowice labor camps. Those were two options that simply aren't there, that they have nothing to do with what these people actually faced. There was no option, realistically, of resistance. They are not only in a place where, of course, there's a heavy German security guard for the factory.
But outside the camp, in terms of breakout, or even going into hiding, this is an area that was very strong for the very right-wing factions of the Polish home army, very anti-Semitic. It was more dangerous on the outside than on the inside. And that the notion that you could break out, or that you would find help, or that you could somehow overpower the guards-- and what would you do if you did-- that simply was never entertained, because it just was not within the realm of practicality.
But on the other hand, these people are not passive. There's an extraordinary amount of energy going into planning how you are going to survive, from the purchase of work permits to the creation of an underground economy. This is extraordinarily inventive-- anything but passive.
Now you can't call that resistance. Putting money in German pockets, and bullets in German guns is not resistance. But it certainly is not passivity, in terms of an underground economy, in terms of the use of the strategy of survival for labor, which in the end, in fact, enabled some 600 to 700 Jews to survive that otherwise would not have survived.
So I would argue we need a new vocabulary. We need to talk about ingenuity, about endurance, about perseverance, about accommodation. But resistance or passivity is just an utterly misleading, inapplicable way to phrase the option. What we're talking about is survival strategies, and what people have as available, realistic options, and the options that they took.
And finally, I think, we have to guard against, when we're listening to survivor testimonies, our desire for stories that end up with edification and redemption. We want the happy ending. We want something that says, in the end the indomitable human spirit has triumphed, and so on and so forth.
The Holocaust is not an edifying or redemptive event. And certainly if you take people, and you deprive them of their rights, you crowd them into a ghetto, and you take away their property, you kill part of their family, you subject them to unbearable hard labor under terrible conditions, you do not turn normal people into saints. And how people opted for survival strategies is not going to be sainthood. And we can't expect that we're going to get feel-good stories out of this, because it isn't.
You get very difficult stories-- revenge killings, women making contractual-- I mean, there was rape on the one hand. On the other hand, there was all sorts of bartered sex. Everything is for sale in Starachowice. What do women have to barter? They take on protectors. They take on partners to help them get through.
So it's a story that doesn't have a lot of edification. But it is a story that I think, when you listen to these 292 people, that's important to hear. We can't expect this to be a feel-good story, but we have to be grateful that they told the stories anyway. Thank you very much.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: Why don't we stay in the room for a few more minutes, and a couple of questions? And then we'll be able to go and be a little more relaxed in the reception, and continue the conversation there.
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: OK.
AUDIENCE: Was [INAUDIBLE] somewhat unique in industry? Because when you said Haifa, I actually spent 18 months there. And it's uniquely industrialized, highly-concentrated industry. And [INAUDIBLE] survived those slave camps, were they part of the industry that built up around Haifa?
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: That I don't know. They certainly don't go into industry in Toronto, or North America. I mean, they're basically going-- yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE: Israel is very [INAUDIBLE].
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: Yeah. No, I simply don't know the answer to that question.
AUDIENCE: Where is the corporate person in this, since it's an actual factory?
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: The overlord of this was the so-called Hermann Goring Werke, which was, if you think of Nazi Germany, and Hermann Goring is in charge of the war economy. And so he sets up his own kind of holding company so he can take a lot of the spoils for himself.
Among them, then he set up a Braunschweig steelworks. Braunschweig steelworks is the one that's given the factories in Starachowice. Some other companies are given next door [INAUDIBLE], or [INAUDIBLE], or [INAUDIBLE]. So they don't exactly divvy up stuff.
So the technical corporation that owns these factories is the Braunschweig Stahlwerke. They have some corporate bosses that are there. They are interrogated after the war in preparation for the trial. They lie through their teeth. Oh, we didn't know there were slave laborers working in our factory. They just did the usual preposterous lying for each other.
And of course, the killer commandant who was there initially, oh, yeah, we heard stories he was a pretty unsavory fellow. But then he got sent away. When they stop killing, they send him away and bring in someone else. So they can kind of pat themselves on the back. Oh yeah, we heard he wasn't very nice. So we got rid of him.
And of course, the people who are doing the prosecution have no interest whatsoever in looking into corporate crime. So they're interested in the guards and the commandants. They aren't the slightest bit interested in looking at the corporate people. And so they let them lie transparently, and never looked further.
But, of course, under German law, there was nothing they could have found that would have satisfied German law for murder. Whether these people committed crimes against humanity in terms of an Allied prosecution strategy is one thing. But that's not the tools they had to work with legally.
AUDIENCE: I have a question about your comments on the Spielberg project. It sounds like, from your standpoint, it was too vague to be really useful as a historian. What do you see as the redeeming value of that project in terms of the content? I mean, it is being distributed widely in humanist, serious historic angle on the Holocaust. Yet, what you described, actually from my experience, is true, that there's a lot of variety in those testimonies.
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: Yeah. I mean, of course, the important thing is the volume. I had 225 German judicial testimonies, 122 Spielberg tapes, or Shoah Foundation tapes. So it is one of the two big collections that I had to work with.
But despite my frustrations, there are a number of things that were important. One, a number of survivors ignore the interviewer and told their story how they wanted it. And you can just see them-- just shut up, I'm telling my story. You be quiet. They don't say that, but they basically brush off the interviewer and override him. And you get their account anyway.
There was one case where I had a man telling an absolutely riveting story about his escape from the Warsaw ghetto. And he escapes to Starachowice, slips into the camp as an illegal. And then he immediately jumps to the next peak experience-- the deportation to Birkenau. In this case, the interviewer says, well, what about Starachowice?
Oh, yeah. And then for 40 minutes he talks about the camp. If I had not had a interventionist interviewer, I would never have had the story of Starachowice. Because he considered that rather low-key and boring between the escape from Warsaw and going to Auschwitz. So sometimes it worked to my advantage.
There were some survivors that could not tell a story if they did not have a series of questions posed to them. And they would drag out of a survivor a story that they couldn't tell themselves. So those were the positive sides of it.
On the negative side there were a number of cases where a survivor clearly was trying to angle around to a difficult topic that they couldn't approach frontally. And I could see where they were going. And I wanted to get to that end, because they were going to broach a topic that I wanted to know more about. And just as they were about to get there, the interviewer would haul them back and say, don't digress. Let's get back to the chronology. And I would feel like reaching through the screen, and putting my hands around their neck, and strangling them, and say, leave that person alone to tell their story.
So I was frustrated at times. But on the other hand, this was such an immense amount of information, and on such a number of survivors, that it's invaluable, whatever the flaws, it is still an absolutely invaluable collection, just by the sheer number that we've heard from, and the volume they collected, at in a sense, close to the last point at which we could do it. I found that interviewing people up into their late '70s. worked pretty well. After that it gets very difficult. And so this was a rescue operation in many ways. And I'm tremendously grateful they did it, even if they didn't do it perfectly.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: I'm going to interject here, just that our last speaker in this series on December 1 will be Noah Shenker, who literally wrote the book the critique of the whole genre of Holocaust survivor video testimony.
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: Yes, in the back.
AUDIENCE: I had gone to a lecture at Ithaca College with a person who had covered the Demjanjuk trial.
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: Lawrence Douglas?
AUDIENCE: I can't remember [INAUDIBLE]. He had said that because the Israelis, the testimony that was given to attempt to convict Demjanjuk had been distorted, and he gave the example of Colonel Klink, of them thinking, using that comparison with Hogan's Heroes, that people had begun to confuse, so that when he came back to the US, and then was deported to Germany, they only used historians. There was no survivor testimony whatsoever, because of the fear that it would not convict him on what he was responsible for. So I found that was a very different--
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: Yeah. As trials have gotten further and further away from the time, historical expert witnesses have become more crucial. In this particular case, there were several survivor testimony. It was Thomas Blatt and one other. But what they would testify to was what was the routine of the camp and the role of the guards. Because none of them, as Thomas Blatt said, I can barely remember the face of my father. How am I supposed to remember a guard? I mean, there was no attempt to identify any longer in that way.
But they did have to talk about the routine of the camp, and the way that the guards rotated and did different jobs. If you were there, you were involved in all sorts of different things. Because the gist of the prosecution was the very act of being a guard at Sobibor meant that you're inherently involved in only one thing, for one purpose, and that was to kill Jews that arrived. And that you contributed to that in many different ways. But there was no nonlethal function there.
If Demjanjuk was there, he was a killer, or an accessory to murder. And so that was the crux of the historical expert witness, Dieter Pohl. And even the use of survivor testimony was basically to talk about how the camp functioned, not to point out and identify Demjanjuk.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. For a lot of believing Christians and believing Jews, the hardest part of Night is indeed the end, when he loses his faith in a benevolent God. And I wondered if the topic of that experience, and the sort of [INAUDIBLE] anything important in the accounts that you felt you had to deal with?
CHRISTOPHER R BROWNING: It emerged, but it's a two-way street. Some of the traditional Orthodox-believing, practicing Jews ceased to be religious after the war, because they could not see how that functioned after what they had experienced. But on the other hand, one of the most outspoken, sort of very secular, "naughty girl" Jews who had been coming from [INAUDIBLE], more Western region, came in in the transports in '41, who had been in trouble always with her rabbi because she wanted to read forbidden books and all of this, after the war she becomes religious because she says, I'm not going to give Hitler a victory. And he's trying to get rid of Jews. I'll become Jewish. And so she becomes much more religious, when she had been a secular Jew earlier.
So you can't predict. But some people, the people reacted in both directions of either rejecting religion after the war, or becoming more religious after the war. So all I can say is it happened both ways.
JONATHAN BOYARIN: I want to thank you for Professor Browning. It was [INAUDIBLE].
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Christopher R. Browning of UNC-Chapel Hill examines the role of the factory slave labor camp in the Nazi war economy, the dynamics and survival strategies of a Jewish slave labor community, and the use of post-war survivor testimony to recreate otherwise undocumented aspects of Holocaust history. Hosted by the Jewish Studies Program.