When Memory Speaks, How Should We Listen?

Kathryn Brackney

Hannah Polin-Galay. Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place and Holocaust Testimony. (Yale University Press, 2018), 352 pages, $50.00

In 1979, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project in New Haven, Connecticut inaugurated what Annette Wieviorka has called “the era of the witness.” 1 1 Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, translated by Jared Stark (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 2006). Since then, tens of thousands of survivors across the globe have recorded testimony about the genocide of Europe’s Jewish communities. Only a small percentage of these interviews has been viewed for research, and scholars are still struggling to determine what analytical frameworks and listening practices will enable us to interpret these voices. We have come a long way since testimony was treated as a raw source of unadorned memory, more authentic than literature and art about the Holocaust. Scholar Geoffrey Hartman asserted that testimony always emerges from its “frame conditions” 2 2 Geoffrey Hartman, “The Humanities of Testimony: An Introduction,” Poetics Today 27:2 (Summer 2006), 250. —and over the years, researchers across fields have studied how dialogue with the interviewer, the mediation of the camera, and finally the collection practices and epistemological agendas of archival institutions have shaped this genre of memorial storytelling. The most prominent line of this scholarship has focused on the impact of trauma on the narration of memory, and indeed the study of survivor testimony has had a significant impact on the formation of trauma studies. Among historians, the effect of personal point of view on the reliability of these sources has been a continual point of debate.

In her brilliant and rigorous new book on Holocaust memory among Lithuanian Jews, Hannah Pollin-Galay does not intervene in these debates so much as zoom out, in order to remind us that what qualifies as history and how we define personal trauma are culturally mediated. She compares testimonies from survivors who either remained in Lithuania or emigrated to North America or Israel, arguing that the “frame conditions” of language and place are fundamental to understanding how memory emerges in these testimonial dialogues. Whether survivors were interviewed in their mother tongue or another language, in a location close to where they grew up or in another country, has a profound impact on the stories they tell. While their memories do not contradict each other, witnesses do train their focus on different episodes and characters in the war, which shifts the Holocaust’s ultimate meaning.

When video testimony as a method of oral history migrated from the United States, the memorial “ecologies” of Israel and Lithuania produced distinctive dialogues between survivors and their interviewers. Pollin-Galay uses the term “ecology” to encompass many factors that shape memory, including not just language, ideology, and cultural sensibility but also “the spatial, aural and material spheres that support imagination” (2). Ecology, rather than nationality, is a particularly useful framework for approaching the experience of Yiddish-speaking Jews who remained in Lithuania, as “minorities in a minor country” (254). In addition to testimonies housed at the Fortunoff Archive, the Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem, Ecologies of Witnessing includes interviews that Pollin-Galay conducted herself in Yiddish with forty-six survivors in Lithuania in 2004–2005—an archival portrait of immeasurable value in this disappearing community.

Comparing these sources reveals that survivors and their interviewers tend to reproduce three distinct genres of testimonial storytelling. Holocaust Testimonies (1991), Lawrence Langer’s early, pioneering work on testimony from the Fortunoff Archive, emphasizes the lack of common ground between survivors and their intended audiences, claiming that the horrific episodes witnesses describe ultimately resist assimilation into morality tales for “our humanitarian ears”; 3 3 Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 25. by contrast, Pollin-Galay argues that testimony, particularly in the later years that it was collected, can be understood a genre governed by a set of implicit, shared expectations, which make the survivor’s story tellable. In North America, Pollin-Galay observes that memory of the Holocaust often takes a personal-allegorical form; in Israel, testimonies take on a more communal-monumental significance; and finally, among Yiddish-speaking Jews in Lithuania, testimony serves a collective-forensic function. These terminological pairings identify, first, the characters who occupy memory’s centerstage: Do testimonies focus on family? The nation? The community? The second term in the pairing refers to implicit expectations about what the story should accomplish. Should testimony provide a universalist framework for interpreting antisemitism or trauma writ large? A tribute to collective Jewish agency? Or an eyewitness reconstruction that can reliably identify victims and perpetrators?

While a psychologically rich language of self and family characterizes the American testimonies, and Israeli testimonies highlight the redemptive strength of Jewish organizational life, testimonies in the Yiddish-Lithuanian ecology focus on another set of main characters. Pollin-Galay labels this collective framework, which bears a distinct understanding of agency, as “the eygene”—or “one’s own” (79).

Yiddish-Lithuanian testimonies display abundance in depicting a broad family-community matrix: Alongside mishpokhe (family), familie (family), kroyvim/kreyvim (relatives), and fraynt (relatives), witnesses refer frequently to people with a hazier kind of closeness: fraynd (friends), bakante (acquaintances), undzere (ours), and noente (close ones). They also refer to geographic origin as a way to define their relationship to someone, titling people by their places names (the city or shtetl name and the suffix “-er,” for example, Vilner, Kovner, Shavler). (78-79)

Who exactly constitutes the eygene can shift throughout a given testimony, as survivors describe the destruction of their communities and impromptu forms of kinship. In Yiddish testimonies, she notes that not just the characters but also the settings where pre- and postwar life play out are distinct. In the English-American ecology, the home is the transtemporal location of memory, while in testimonies from Israel, Jewish political and religious groups provide memory’s central stage. In the Yiddish-Lithuanian ecology, the collective but unofficial spaces of the street and the apartment courtyard frame noteworthy episodes in testimony. These different settings suggest how much the spatial organization of the witnesses’ present social lives determines where survivors locate the earlier events of their autobiographies.

The communal eygene framework of Yiddish testimony also conveys the horrific intimacy of Jewish victims to the Lithuanian collaborators who murdered them during the first months of the German invasion. By the end of 1941, over 70% of Lithuanian Jews, or roughly 150,000 victims, had already been killed in waves of shootings and mass violence perpetrated by Einsatzgruppen and local banditn. The bulk of Yiddish testimonies focuses on these earliest episodes in the war. In a testimony by Shmuel S., we hear about a Jewish boy who just before death addressed his killer in the man’s native Lithuanian language: “Dėde Juozai oder Jonai, už ką? [Uncle Juozas or Jonas, what for?]” (114) For Pollin-Galay, this intimate accusation is the opposite of what Dori Laub has described as the breakdown of the possibility of address in the more anonymous Nazi camp system. Historian Jan Gross’s “neighbors” reappear here as what Pollin-Galay terms “one’s own other” (113), and the war becomes a story of betrayal.

Pollin-Galay suggests that the practice of naming specific victims and local perpetrators in Yiddish testimony stems in part from war crime investigations adjudicated by the Soviets, which were ongoing from 1944 to 1989. In a legal framework, testimony is supposed to convey actionable truths about guilt and innocence, and even outside of the courtroom, when survivors told stories about wartime violence, they often focused on reconstructing who did what to whom.

Lithuanian Jews who survived the early waves of killing and the ghettos were eventually deported to Stutthof and Dachau. Survivors from all three ecologies remember the camps as disorienting “non-places.” What distinguishes survivors who emigrated after the war, explains Pollin-Galay, is that “Within or emerging from these non-places, they recall seeing the whole map differently” (246). For survivors who returned home, Lithuania and Europe writ large did not dissolve into the dream-like haze of the Old World, or constitute a diaspora defined in stark contrast to Zion. In her take on the recent “geographic turn” in Holocaust Studies, Pollin-Galay does not just connect facts with specific locations, but also analyzes what phenomenologies of place and symbolic topographies arise from distinct memorial cultures. She quotes an old song from the Vilna ghetto, “Di zelbe gasn und tramvayen” (The Same Streets, the Same Streetcars)” (242), which describes the transformation of one’s home into a prison under occupation. Similarly, for Jews who remained in Lithuania in the postwar period, these “same streets” maintained their distinct outlines as the settings of everyday life contaminated by violent memories.

This continuity of space corresponds to a continuity of memorial vernacular. The survivors she interviewed in Lithuania in the mid-2000s were still able to quote songs first printed in Fun letsn khurbn, a journal for displaced persons published out of Munich in the late 1940s. Pollin-Galay reconstructs a lexicon of “Khurbn Yiddish,” or terms used primarily during the war that reappear decades later in Yiddish testimony (189): Examples include “vitamintshik,” a person with connections who was more likely to survive, or “malekh,” Hebrew for angel, which refers to an adolescent who went in someone else’s place for hard labor duty in exchange for food. This vocabulary, sometimes deliberately comic, speaks to intra-Jewish social differences, which have not been entirely flattened out in Yiddish-Lithuanian memory by a common story of victimhood or redemption.

Another fascinating, distinctive element of these sources is the vocabulary that survivors use to describe Jewish endurance. In contrast to Israeli testimony, where organized resistance efforts are central to a story of recovered empowerment, Jews who remained in Lithuania explain that surviving the war meant finding hidden corners and pockets in the ghetto and camp systems in order to “wriggle” one’s way through (dreyen zikh). “Witnesses in the Yiddish-Lithuanian corpus show themselves integrating into camps physically, rather than rising above them or looking inward” (251), Pollin-Galay explains. She connects this language of wriggliness to the Soviet lexicon of krutit’sia, a Russian equivalent to dreyen zikh, which refers to navigating through “the System,” (253) 4 4 She cites anthropologist Dale Pesman, Russia and Soul (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000). and which Pollin-Galay describes as “making dignity from a place under the radar” (254).

Pollin-Galay’s analysis of this collective-forensic genre of testimony is lucid and pathbreaking, and her Yiddish-Lithuanian sources provide a unique vantage point from which to reconsider memory of the Holocaust in North America and Israel. Scholars may not be surprised to hear that American testimonies center on personal trauma and the fragility of universal morals while Israeli testimonies uphold collective historical knowledge and Jewish self-help; that said, Pollin-Galay makes keen observations about how these themes are emplotted. What survivors who emigrated to North America and Israel both share, she points out, is the refugee experience of double displacement from both home country and language. As such, in each of these ecologies, the Holocaust is remembered as a biographical rupture that results in a metamorphosis: In English, survivors often describe this process in psychological terms from woundedness to healing, or more ambivalently, as the adoption of a mask. In Hebrew, survivors tend to narrate this transformation through a collective framework of historical progress.

In comparing the more stable Yiddish vocabulary of remembrance to the metamorphic and redemptive emphasis of American and Israeli testimonies, Pollin-Galay moves beyond long-running debates about whether or not the Holocaust constituted a catastrophic break in systems of representation and meaning for survivors. The answer, she argues, depends largely on their degree of displacement after the war. This is most poetically evident in the different function that Yiddish serves in each of the testimonial ecologies. While most Lithuanian Jews spoke multiple languages over the course of their lives, among those who immigrated to North America and Israel, transitioning from Yiddish to a new language was a biographical turning point; Yiddish became largely the language of the past. At moments in American testimonies, Yiddish phrases erupt into the recordings as a haunting index of memory, or in Israeli testimonies, as the ritual language of goodbye. In Lithuania, however, Yiddish serves as the continuous language of past and present, not an “accent” that shadows the primary language of narration or evidence of a doubled self. For Yiddish speakers, the war was a period of communal devastation, which they’ve commemorated together for decades and which still imprints the everyday landscape; it was not, however, a rift in meaning that finally defies witnessing. The term “trauma” rarely appears in Ecologies of Witnessing—but the book does provide a counterpoint to literary scholars informed by psychoanalysis and deconstruction, who define trauma as an experience so originally unassimilable that it shatters the possibility of coherent narration. Pollin-Galay’s work suggests that testimony does not take on this traumatic pattern among Jews who remained in Lithuania.

Pollin-Galay is evenhanded about the different resources these memorial ecologies present to survivors. She points out that there is more room in American testimonies for witnesses to admit vulnerability, which is privileged as an expression of authenticity. In the Israeli setting, emphasis on communal history allows the dialogue between survivor and interviewer to be a ritual exercise in community building. The forensic specificity of the Yiddish-Lithuanian ecology grounds the Holocaust in names and places, and highlights the enduring importance of accountability. In her triangulation of these sources, the stakes become clear when she warns against cultural mistranslation and undue judgment. For instance, the threshold of acceptable friction in Israeli-Hebrew testimonies can surprise some American viewers, who may be too quick to criticize an interviewer’s willingness to interrupt and correct the survivor’s testimony. While Pollin-Galay does acknowledge occasional moments of friction in all three groups of testimony, in the Israeli case, she writes, “Tension between interviewer and witness is nothing to be ashamed of in this setting: It is a sign of shared investment and equality of strength among all those participating in the process” (263).

This is both a crucial point and perhaps a shade optimistic. In the major testimony archives, particularly in testimonies recorded by the Shoah Foundation, American and Israeli interviewers sometimes engage not just in conflict with survivors but censorship around topics deemed taboo or irrelevant. 5 5 See for instance the testimony of Yehuda Bacon, which took place in Israel but was recorded in English. Bacon, who testified for the Shoah Foundation, talked about how painful it was for witnesses to encounter doubt among a famous historian of the Holocaust in Israel; his interviewer tells him not to criticize the historian in his absence and, when Bacon persists, she redirects the conversation. In the argumentative balance of Pollin-Galay’s work, the impact of institutional storytelling practices below the level of nationality could be given more weight. Moreover, Pollin-Galay is sometimes too ready to subsume exceptions or hybridity under the broader national paradigms she has devised. Take for instance her analysis of Betty Goodfriend, who gave testimony in the United States for the Shoah Foundation: Betty remembers a “support base” of friends and family who prioritized being “tsuzamen” during the Holocaust, even above their own personal safety (76-77). After the war, she highlights her continued commitment to Jewish religious life. While Pollin-Galay admits this seems not far from the Yiddish eygene framework, she still determines that Betty’s American, self-analytic vocabulary gives her testimony its primary shape, more so than the survivor’s emphasis on the enduring value of Jewish collectivity.

Finally, Pollin-Galay’s conclusion that the refugee experience shaped the Holocaust into a representational rupture is deeply convincing; however, it still strains the imagination to think that survivors who returned to Lithuania, which had the highest death rate of the Holocaust, did not experience the Jewish world there in fundamentally different terms after over 95% of it disappeared. Pollin-Galay admits that sometimes Yiddish testimonies speak around instead of to this enormous loss. Does its magnitude register in the fixed memorial vocabulary she describes—a vocabulary that emphasizes both sorrow and resourcefulness? If not, then where does this loss reverberate? Sometimes, it is hard not to wonder whether in her brilliant investigation of all that has remained intact in this discursive world, she does not finally overstress continuity.

That may just be the academic bias of my American ear, though—trained as I am to listen first for personal trauma, to be suspicious of redemption, and to be deaf altogether to Yiddish as a language of the present and not just the past. From now on, this decentering doubt should accompany any researcher approaching testimony archives—and that is the profound and unsurpassed achievement of this book. As an inventory of “untranslatables,” Ecologies of Witnessing pushes scholars to step beyond the frames of our own expectations to understand how survivors articulate memory in their own terms. Pollin-Galay has provided a landmark guide to the slow work of listening, which both challenges and equips us to take responsibility for what Hartman has called the global “ingathering” of memory.
Kathryn Brackney. “When Memory Speaks, How Should We Listen?.” In geveb, July 2019:
Kathryn Brackney. “When Memory Speaks, How Should We Listen?.” In geveb (July 2019): Accessed Jul 18, 2019.


Kathryn Brackney

Kathryn Brackney is a lecturer for Harvard’s program in History & Literature.