What is Testimony?

Testimony means to bear witness by telling what you saw or what you know.

Holocaust survivors testify to their experience in various ways. Their testimony comes in the form of oral history interviews, transcribed interviews, memoirs, diaries, and letters.

Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler shows the prisoner number tattoo on her arm to Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eddie D. Harrison Jr., San Diego, May 2011 (copyright: Alan Gragg)

Evidence testifying to Jewish experience of Nazi persecution was gathered at the time. In Warsaw, Emanuel Ringelblum organised the creation of an archive documenting the wartime fate of Polish Jews. This included diaries. The archive was hidden in milk cans and metal boxes, and most of it survived the war.

One of the three milk cans used by Warsaw ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum to store and preserve the secret Oneg Shabbat ghetto archives (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Zydowski Instytut Historyczny)

Holocaust survivors gave testimony at the trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann, a leading figure in the organisation of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem in 1961. They also gave testimony at the trials of Auschwitz SS guards in Frankfurt (1963-1965).

Abba Kovner testifying at Eichmann's trial, Jerusalem 1961. During the war, Kovner formed a Jewish partisan militia to fight the Nazis. He released a manifesto in Vilnius ghetto declaring “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” (copyright: Israel Government Press Office)

The Impact of Cinema

The testimony of Holocaust survivors started to move more into the foreground after the American television series Holocaust of 1978 and Claude Lanzmann’s testimonial film Shoah in 1985. Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List had a huge impact in the USA and Europe. This impact helped to promote a number of projects designed to gather Holocaust testimony.

Claude Lanzmann's Shoah
Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List

Testimony Projects

In 1979, the Holocaust Survivors’ Film Project – a grassroots organisation – began filming Holocaust survivors and witnesses. 183 of these testimonies were deposited at Yale University. This was the beginning of The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, created in 1981. In 1980, the US Congress voted to establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which holds a large collection of oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors.

Tower of Faces at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington (copyright: Dsdugan. CC0)

Steven Spielberg, director of Schindler’s List, went on to found the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education in 1994. It is dedicated to making and collecting interviews with survivors, which can be accessed online. The archive has now amassed more than 50,000 survivor accounts of the Holocaust.

Why had it taken so long?

Survivors needed time before they were ready to talk about their painful experiences. They were busy making a new life for themselves in a new country and under new circumstances.

In the post-war era, the world had only wanted to look to the future. Only gradually did Israel and Jewish communities in America begin to understand the experience of the Holocaust as a fundamental part of their identity.

For long after the war, the Nazi genocide of Jews was not really understood as an atrocity that was unique. Continuing fear of anti-Semitism had held some survivors back from speaking of their experience.

Only from the late 1970s did cinema films and TV series generate wide interest in the Holocaust; interest in testimony then grew.

Understanding Testimony?

Function of Testimony:

  • Allows insight into the history of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at the level of personal experience.
  • Enables us to understand how individual Jews and Jewish families reacted, and how their lives were affected.
  • Provides survivors with the chance to share their experience and, ideally, lessen the terrible burden of carrying it.
  • Provides us with the perspective of the victims; surviving Nazi documents cannot do this, as they represent the perpetrator view.
  • By listening to testimony, we can empathize in a very direct way with survivors. Empathy promotes understanding. 
Abram Piasek, a Holocaust survivor shares his story of prison camps and of surviving through cruel and harsh conditions (talk given at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 14 April 2016) (copyright: Sean Berry) 

History-Writing and Testimony

AJP Taylor, one of Europe’s leading historians, was well known to be sceptical of the value of oral history. Historians – and this is true of some Holocaust historians, too – long regarded oral history as too subjective to be very reliable. They preferred archival documentation from the historical period itself.

But there was a surge of interest in oral history of all kinds in the 1970s and 1980s. Holocaust historiography benefited from this. Holocaust historians such as Martin Gilbert and Christopher Browning made extensive use of Holocaust testimony. 

Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust

In 2011, the historian Christopher Browning published a book about a Nazi slave-labour camp in Starachowice, Poland (Remembering Survival). He wrote the book on the basis of the testimony of almost 300 Jewish survivors. Without them, his book would not have been possible, because otherwise little is known about this camp.

Is Testimony Always Reliable?

Memory can fade as years pass, so that testimony may lose in sharpness. It can sometimes be hard for survivors, as time passes, to distinguish what they experienced at the time from what they have read or seen since. Interviewers can negatively impact on testimony by trying to “steer” interviewees, interrupting or redirecting them.

But if memory evolves, this may be because particular events or thoughts seem more important later than they did at the time. Also, testimony adapts to meet the requirements of audiences today. It can develop, too, in response to what else is being said or shown about the Holocaust. Testimony is in flux because we, as human beings, develop. Its authenticity remains even as it changes.

Case Study: Kristallnacht

On 9 November 1938, the Nazis unleashed what has become known as Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) or Pogromnacht. It was the most significant act of violence against Jews since the Nazis had come to power.

A man surveys the damage to the Lichtenstein leather goods store in Berlin after the Kristallnacht pogrom (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

267 synagogues were burned down or damaged.

7,500 Jewish-owned shops were destroyed.

30,000 Jewish males were arrested.

91 Jews were killed.

We have Nazi documents about Kristallnacht, but these are shaped by anti-Semitic propaganda. They represent the view of the perpetrators. Foreign newspaper reports in, for instance, Britain and the USA provide a more reliable view. But it is an outsider view. Statistics tell us about the effect on emigration.

Jewish emigration from Germany:

  • 1933: 37,000
  • 1934: 23,000
  • 1935: 21,000
  • 1936: 25,000
  • 1937: 23,000
  • 1938: 40,000.

But only testimony can tell us about the impact of Kristallnacht on the feelings, thoughts and lives of individual Jews and Jewish families.

The Voice of the Victims

Testimony opens a window on to the experiences of those personally affected by acts of Nazi violence such as Kristallnacht.

Holocaust survivor Ellen Rawson later recalled:

“When Kristallnacht, the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, happened in 1938. I was away from home in Mannheim, learning sewing. I’ll never forget the noise that night in Mannheim - the rabble going down the road, smashing things wherever they found Jewish flats. But my mother had a lot of foresight and had told me, ‘If anything happens, take some money and take the tram to Heidelberg to my cousin’... I had to stay in the flat all day and night because it wasn’t safe for Jews to be out.” (Ellen Rawson, testimony provided by National Holocaust Centre and Museum).

After Kristallnacht local residents watch as the Ober-Ramstadt synagogue is destroyed by fire (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Trudy Isenberg)

Destruction of Heritage and Communities

The Nazis destroyed Jewish buildings, holy relics, and traditions.

A pile of Hebrew prayer books and other Jewish religious texts damaged by fire at the synagogue in Bobenhausen II, District Vogelsberg, during Kristallnacht (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jewish Community of Giessen)

Large, thriving Jewish communities were wiped out. Extended families were broken up and many, sometimes all family members murdered. Photographs and testimony are ways in which Jewish life as it was before the destructive impact of Nazism can be remembered.

The Glaser Family in 1938, Fürth (Germany/Bavaria). The only survivor of the Holocaust was Willy (top left). Willy gave permission for this photo to be published in 2008 (copyright: Alexander Mayer/Willie Glaser. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The Future of Testimony

Holocaust survivors pass on their memories to their daughters and sons, who often pass it on to their children. Memory is transmitted through the generations. Family history plays a part in creating a sense of identity after the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivors also pass on their memories to schoolchildren around the world who have no family links to the Holocaust. They talk about their experiences to schools, universities, as well as army, navy and police recruits, and to many other professional groups. They give regular talks to schoolchildren at Holocaust centres. The Holocaust becomes a shared memory.

 A Holocaust survivor talks to a school group at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (copyright: The National Holocaust Centre and Museum)

Testimony by – and face-to-face encounters with – survivors helps to overcome boundaries of:

  • race
  • religion
  • culture
  • gender and sexuality

But as time goes by, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors to tell their story. Most of today’s survivors were children at the time of the Holocaust. We face the question: who can we turn to when the survivors are no longer with us? Should we turn to second-generation or even third-generation Holocaust survivors?

Technology was always central to the recording and transmission of Holocaust testimony. But the era of digital technology allows us to record testimony in ways which make it seem as if the survivor is in the room with us. This is something quite new.

Survivor Steven Frank being recorded for the National Holocaust Centre and Museum’s 'Forever Project' (copyright: The National Holocaust Centre and Museum)

The National Holocaust Centre and Museum has embarked on ‘The Forever Project’, an ambitious 3D interactive programme that will preserve the voice of Holocaust survivors for generations to come. 'The Forever Project' uses advanced digital technologies that enable children and adults not only to hear and see a survivor sharing his or her story, but also allow them to ask that survivor questions and hear them giving answers to hundreds of frequently asked questions.

Steven Frank gives testimony as part of 'The Forever Project' (copyright: The National Holocaust Centre and Museum)

Testimony Archives

Wiener Library – German contemporary sources collection. Recently translated and published some collections in English.

Fortunoff Archive at Yale University – collection of 4400 testimonies of Holocaust Survivors

Shoah Visual History Archive – 52,000 oral history testimony of survivors of genocide including the Holocaust and Rwanda.

United States Holocaust and Memorial Museum – collection of 9,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies, some of which will be available online as of 2016.

British Library – various special collections and testimony related to many areas of British and world history, including the Holocaust. 

Further Reading

Christopher Browning, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp (W.W. Norton: New York, 2011)

Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1993)

Noah Shenker, Reframing Holocaust Testimony (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, IN, 2015)