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Myth and Memory: Analysing the Holocaust

Posted by Islay Shelbourne, Thursday 27th April, 2017

opinion volunteer blog

Red Cross Telegram from Alice Redlich (in London) to her family in Berlin, dated May 1942.

Red Cross telegram from Alice Fink to her family, May 1946, WL11646

As part of the first semester of my undergraduate history degree at Queen Mary, University of London, a large amount of emphasis has been placed on the importance of recognising the impact of myth on historical truth. Within this, we drew upon the significance of memorial when based off personal accounts, with a generally negative focus on the variance of witness testimony and the reflection this has on historical understanding.

Myth and Memory: Analysing the Holocaust

Drawing historical understanding from personal memory is often considered a problematic issue with historians such as Dominick LaCapra citing subjective evidence and inaccuracies within the way we remember as potential drawbacks (LaCapra, 1). Whilst acknowledging the importance of such personal memory in conveying the experiences of Holocaust survivors, the traumatic recollection of historical events through autobiographies or publicised accounts were criticised both by LaCapra and also by Michael Bernard-Donals as being unable to grant historians access to the historical event itself (Bell, 196).

Within my undergraduate studies, this criticism has translated to an emphasised wariness when considering history gleaned from personal accounts; however, this cautionary idea was unanimously contradicted upon my visit to The Wiener Library. I was given a Library Tour (offered free to the public every Tuesday at 1pm), and was able to get a glimpse of the magnitude of its collections. On the tour, I was honoured to be able to view one of the many personal accounts of the Holocaust that the library holds in its archives containing approximately 400 collections of family papers. As well as being a humbling experience, seeing such personal recollections of the Holocaust and the impact it had on individuals formed a strong contradiction to the arguments impressed upon me by the above historians.

Criticising Memory

A key point stressed so far in my studies of myth and memory has been that of recognising the dangers of bias within personal accounts, and the inability of individual memory to be utilised by historians as an access point for complete historical understanding of an event. However in seeing the personal history of Alice Fink I found the concept of individual memory to have a far more prominent significance than the views of historians I have studied would indicate.

Alice Fink (née Redlich) was a Jewish trainee nurse living in England, and the personal history records that The Wiener Library holds detail the struggles she faced attempting to stay in contact with her family in Berlin once war broke out.The Red Cross telegrams held by the Library highlight the difficulty faced by those living abroad in attempting to communicate with their families whilst dealing with restrictive word counts, long delivery times and censors. This difficulty was further compounded when it was pointed out that none of the telegrams I was shown were dated during the later stages of the war. The last telegram in Alice’s collection is dated February 1943. After the war, Alice joined the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) and returned to Germany to assist survivors in the displaced persons camps. It was here that Alice learnt that she was the only member of her family who had survived the conflict.

To generalise the history of the Holocaust to that which has been accumulated by later scholars is to underplay the documented first-hand accounts of those like Alice who experienced it, and to ignore the millions more who died without their experiences being recorded. To speak on their behalf through modern historical analysis alone would be to claim authority over their experience, something which would, in this and any other case of memorialisation, be seen as “tantamount to erasure” (Bell, 198).

Individualising Memory

This idea of erasure is addressed by Amy Bell in her discussion of myth, but also elaborated on in the context of communal memory by fellow academic Barbie Zelizer. Zelizer’s argument advocates for the individual accounts of Holocaust survivors to be recognised as paramount within historical analysis in order to fully utilise the visual resources of photographs and films that resulted after the Second World War. She explains that without the use of first-hand accounts and individual memory, images showing the concentration camps upon liberation run the risk of becoming vehicles of a collective memory that lacks critical attention regarding the responses and reactions at the time of their capture. This view supports the revelation I felt upon seeing the personal account of Alice Fink, with the significance of personalised context becoming ever clearer.

While historians must of course consider potential bias or gaps within personal memory when forming a historical account, the individual stories and encounters preserved through diaries or autobiographical accounts must be considered just as viable as that of statistical fact. Indeed, I would argue that first-hand accounts are even more important in studying events such as the Holocaust, where personal accounts forms much of the basis of what we know in regards to life in the camps, especially in those such as Sobibór and Bełżec, which were destroyed before the war was over.

For personal accounts to be utilised to their full worth within historical analysis, too large of a comparison must not be drawn between them and statistical and verifiable fact. It must be accepted that individual memory cannot encompass all aspects of the event it seeks to memorialise, but that this omission of some information, as well as the detailed inclusion of other aspects of personal experiences, enriches the study of the Holocaust as a whole through individualising the struggle of millions.

In The Wiener Library exhibition space a plaque quoting Eugen Wolf, a witness of the November Pogrom of 1938 (‘Kristallnacht’), exemplifies this argument: “My story is only a small part of what actually happened. But it is the truth.”

Cited Works:

Bell, Amy. London Was Ours: Diaries and Memoirs of the London Blitz. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.

LaCapra, Dominick. History and Memory After Auschwitz. USA: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Zelizer, Barbie. Remembering to Forget - Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye. USA: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library also has many books on memory, the way in which the Holocaust has been conceptualised by academics and countless first-hand testimonies, some of which is listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: memory; interviews; identity; historiography; survivors; unpublished memoirs

In 2013, The Wiener Library began a project to translate and publish a collection of over 350 eyewitness accounts in English for the first time. The accounts, previously published in the original German, were gathered in the weeks and months following the November Pogrom in 1938, and have now been published in a book and companion website. For more information visit the Pogrom - November 1938 companion website. This project was made possible by the assistance of our volunteer translators. The Wiener Library are always recruiting new translators; currently we’re looking for people to assist with our Testifying to the Truth project.


Image credit: Wiener Library Photo Archive WL11646

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Friday 5th May, 2017

Very convincing arguments and a great read! Thanks.

Caroline Phillips

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