Echoes of the Holocaust
Shalom Robinson, M.D., Editor

Interviewers' Reactions to Holocaust Survivors' Testimony

Aviva Mazor, Yolanda Gampel, Gilit Horwitz*

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the reactions of interviewers who listened to and documented the traumatic biographies of Holocaust survivors.

This field of inquiry refers to the effort of understanding the Holocaust survivors' experience and the parallel effort of being exposed to traumatic reports.

This paper also expands on our understanding of a more general category: listeners' reactions to reports of traumatic experience. The importance of this inquiry is based on the fact that failure to bear witness, and failure to learn from the past, often stem from aversive responses and the listeners' unwillingness to pay attention to this kind of material (Lifton, 1979). The interviewers' reactions may shed some light on the expressions of members of our society who are now willing to audit survivors' revelations of traumatic memories and their consequences.

During certain periods of history, individual and collective experiences can be undermined, as though forgotten and suppressed, while at other times, these experiences can gradually 'reappear,' and constitute a source of knowledge within which both individuals and the collective can assimilate earlier experiences of estrangement (Herman, 1992; Langer, 1991, Lifton, 1979; Segev, 1991). In this context, during the past two decades there has been a growing tendency among certain Holocaust survivors to initiate documentation of their traumatic life experiences, so that their personal histories will remain as permanent testimony for their offspring and future generations.

With regard to the Holocaust, Primo Levi (1992) asks whether survivors can understand their experiences in World War II, let alone clarify them to others? He says that understanding involves simplifying the complexity of reality into historical concepts. However, one cannot simplify the Holocaust; it requires a unique approach, such as a "universe concentrationnaire" that cannot be understood or compared with any other human cruelty. Dasberg (1987) finds that the scope and efficiency of the Nazi system of concentration camps, and other methods of annihilation and extermination, were so extreme that 50 years later it remains beyond human comprehension.

Des Pres' definition of extremity (1976) explains certain aspects of Holocaust trauma:

The first condition of "extremity" is that there is no escape, no place to go except the grave ... the extreme situation is not an event, not a period of crisis with its proper beginning, middle and end. It is a state of existence which persists beyond the ability of men to alter or end it.... A sense of impotence prevails and dehumanization sets in.... In extremity, the form of time dissolves, the rhythms of change and motion are lost. Days pass, seasons, years, and ... [there is] no idea how long this ordeal will go on.... The death of time destroys the sense of growth and purpose, and thereby undermines faith in the possibility that any good can come from merely staying alive (pp. 7-12).

Despite the painful vicissitudes of survivors' traumatized memories, Primo Levi insists that the compulsion to testify has two purposes. One purpose is to try to describe what tranpired in the universe of concentration camps that can never again be deciphered or translated. And, in a world remaining filled with great horror, the second purpose is to ask what each of us can do to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities.

Levi's statement opens up the question as to whether and how the interviewer (usually not a Holocaust survivor, and therefore outside that traumatic universe) can be responsive to experiences which cannot be comprehended or translated by the survivors themselves. This study makes a partial attempt to illuminate certain meanings in the bearing of witness, which, paradoxically, cannot be absorbed by any of the interviewers' previous fields of knowledge.

Prior to the present trend of speaking more openly about the Holocaust, silence was the main mode of most survivors (Danieli, 1984; Felman and Laub, 1992; Kestenberg, 1992; Segev, 1991). But behind that collective silence there were always other forms of testimony: court transcripts, interviews conducted immediately after the war, national memorial ceremonies and, in certain survivors' families, the repeated, unchanging story of chronological events which concealed death, horror and suffering (Danieli, 1985; Fresco, 1984).

In that early time, survivors' psychic numbness triggered discordant collective attitudes in regular society (Lifton, 1979; Segev, 1991). In Israeli life, this lack of understanding between the majority of survivors and the rest of society was prominent and prolonged.

We can assume that the recent willingness of survivors to relate and document their traumatic biographies to an interviewer is a sign of change. Society begins to accept its own catastrophe by such hearing, listening and remembering, and by mourning its own disconnected and lost parts. This acceptance is not achieved in collective prescribed descriptions which partly conceal the insights and introspection of subjective testimony.

Our main focus concerns the interviewers' (i.e. listeners') responses after interviewing Holocaust survivors. Most of the literature describing listeners' responses to survivors' testimony emanates from a clinical body of knowledge regarding therapists' reactions during and after survivors' psychotherapy (Danieli, 1980; Herman, 1992; Krystal, 1968; Lindy, 1989). The main issues in our investigation are the interviewers' responses in a non-clinical setting. [Page 1 of 9]

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*Dr. A. Mazor is teaching at the Bob Shapell School of Social Work, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel. Dr. Y. Gampel is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychology, and a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the School of Psychotherapy, Tel Aviv University. Ms. G. Horwitz is a Clinical Psychologist.