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The Unsaid, the Incommunicable, the Unbearable, and the Irretrievable

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Abstract

Drawing on forty years of interviewing Holocaust survivors—in most cases, multiple interviews with the same survivors over months, years, even decades—this article elucidates the range and complexity of different kinds of silence in survivors’ spoken accounts. Although most often invoked in connection with survivors’ silence, psychic trauma does not play a central role in this analysis. Indeed, discourse about trauma has tended to distract from a great many other processes that impact what survivors do and do not retell, especially survivors’ own reflections about recounting, their deliberate strategies and choices, and the impact of listeners—immediate, anticipated, and imagined.
The Unsaid, the Incommunicable, the
Unbearable, and the Irretrievable
Henry Greenspan
Abstract: Drawing on forty years of interviewing Holocaust survivors—in most
cases, multiple interviews with the same survivors over months, years, even
decades—this article elucidates the range and complexity of different kinds of si-
lence in survivors’ spoken accounts. Although most often invoked in connection
with survivors’ silence, psychic trauma does not play a central role in this analysis.
Indeed, discourse about trauma has tended to distract from a great many other
processes that impact what survivors do and do not retell, especially survivors’
own reflections about recounting, their deliberate strategies and choices, and the
impact of listeners—immediate, anticipated, and imagined.
Keywords: genocide, Holocaust, silence, survivors, testimony, trauma
Philosophic study means the habit of always seeking an
alternative, of not taking the usual for granted,
of making conventionalities fluid again.
William James
1
Coming to Terms
The great part of what happens to us in life is never articulated to anyone. That
is not usually because experience is painful, shameful, or difficult to describe. It
is simply because we do a lot more living than speaking. This is obvious enough.
But those of us who live in the world of talk—and, often enough, for the world
of talk—may be especially likely to forget how small that realm is. Silence, in
the sense of experience never discussed, is the rule. Talk is the exception.
Special thanks to Alexandra Garbarini, Anna Sheftel, Stacey Zembrzycki, Kenneth Waltzer, and the wonderful
OHR editor, Kathryn Nasstrom.
1
William James, “The Teaching of Philosophy in Our Colleges,Nation, XXIII (1876), 178.
doi:10.1093/ohr/ohu033
The Oral History Review 2014, Vol 41, No. 2, pp. 229–243
V
CThe Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oral History Association.
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Those of us who work in the more particular area of talk about horrific ex-
periences often become especially interested in what is and is not said, can and
cannot be retold. I write as someone who has spent most of the past forty years
interviewing Holocaust survivors. In contrast with most “testimony” projects—
almost always based on single interviews—I have pursued multiple interviews
with the same survivors over months, years, and, with a few people, even de-
cades.
2
One of the advantages of sustained conversation is that it facilitates dif-
ferentiating what may be conflated in more limited encounters. Indeed, oral
history in general may serve us in the same way James hoped for philosophy: to
work against “taking the usual for granted,” to help make “conventionalities
fluid again.” Challenging, or at least complicating, “the usual”—as entrenched
in power, habit, or both—has always been a large part of what we do.
This short piece aims toward a more differentiated, and complicating, analy-
sis of silence in survivors’ accounts: specifically, to distinguish between what I
term “the unsaid,” “the incommunicable,” “the unbearable,” and “the irretriev-
able.” Whatever the utility of these categories—there are undoubtedly others,
and these are not mutually exclusive—my goal is to enhance our appreciation of
the range and complexity of survivors’ silences.
3
Although it is most often in-
voked in connection with silence, psychic trauma does not play a central role in
my analysis.
4
I believe discourse about trauma is quintessentially one of those
“conventionalities” that could usefully be made “more fluid.”
The Unsaid
The unsaid is, by far, the largest category of silences. It encompasses the great
range of things survivors could (theoretically) talk about in an interview, but
choose not to. “Choose” is the key word. In general, we underestimate the ex-
tent to which survivors are deliberate about how and what they recount. The
2
The rationale and results of this approach are most fully discussed in Henry Greenspan, On Listening to
Holocaust Survivors: Beyond Testimony, 2
nd
and revised edition (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2010). The subti-
tle, “Beyond Testimony,” is important. I have argued that “testimony,” the term almost universally associated
with survivors’ accounts, is one genre of survivors’ retelling, best reserved for war crimes trials, microhistories, and
other focused documentary projects. Conversely, I use “retelling,” “recounting,” or simply “accounts” as the gen-
eral terms for survivors’ recollection and reflection (of which testimony is one form). The gerunds “retelling” and
“recounting” are particularly fitting in work based in sustained conversation. In contrast with testimony, they sug-
gest developing process rather than final outcome.
3
I deliberately limit my discussion to those whom I have come to know in my own work: Holocaust survivors
and, to some extent, survivors of other genocides. It is best left to others to decide how the discussion here may
articulate with whatever, and whomever, they know best. The most reliable generalizations depend on conversa-
tions between different people’s immersion with their particular particulars. Otherwise, one risks facilitating pre-
cisely the kind of “conventionalities” that this piece stands against.
4
Work on “trauma and narrative” has become a burgeoning field. The seminal study in this area is Cathy
Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
2006). I turn to Caruth’s formulations further on.
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idea that indelible memories (almost literally) dictate a particular account is
mythological.
5
Interviews with Holocaust survivors involve the same contingencies that al-
ways impact what is and isn’t relayed: questions asked and not asked; “chemis-
try” between participants; format of the recording (e.g., audio or video); a range
of reasons participants protect themselves or others; what best fits the evolving
trajectory of an interview or interview series (which is its own context); and ev-
erything else that motivates revelation or reticence.
6
The very fact of inviting
someone “to speak ‘as a survivor’ inevitably foregrounds the Holocaust as cause
and the rest that one has to retell as effect.” Over the course of sustained con-
versation, what survivors initially attribute to the Holocaust often turns out
according to their own retelling—to have other life-historical roots, many having
nothing to do with the genocide.
7
Typically, how survivors explain their lives
thus changes over the course of multiple interviews and in ways impossible to
foresee in a first meeting.
Survivors’ perceptions of their listeners’ knowledge, attentiveness, and
emotional capacities also play a particularly important role in how they craft their
accounts. Abe Pasternak, a survivor whom I have known since the 1970s, dis-
cussed the evolving centrality of one story he tells, after discovering it was an
account his listeners could “relate to.”
8
The story turns on Abes guilt over feel-
ing that he had abandoned his “kid brother” when they arrived at Auschwitz.
Abe reflected about listener response:
They can’t understand, they can’t relate to, the terror, the smell, the
chaos, the dead bodies all around. How can they relate to that? But this
5
Much recent work in psychology questions whether even traumatic nightmares and flashbacks directly “re-
play” original experiences, let alone control the way memories are retold. In an excellent discussion of the issue,
Susan Brison, who herself survived violent assault, notes that “Traumatic memory, like narrative memory, is articu-
lated, selective, even malleable”—not simply “imprinted.” Susan Brison, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking
of a Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 31. I have also argued that traumatic memories are not
pure “engrams,” but mediated by wider life-historical and cultural meanings (Greenspan, On Listening, 20–21).
That does not mean a nightmare is less horrific than original experience. Indeed, in such recreations, horror may
increase, in part because it is more personal: the general terror conjoins with whatever constitutes the worst that
is imaginable for particular people.
6
Regarding the multiple roles of silence in oral history in general (not only with Holocaust survivors), there
are a number of important essays in Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrycki, eds. Oral History Off the Record:
Toward an Ethnography of Practice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). I would especially note the contribu-
tions from Erin Jessee, Alexander Freund, Luis van Isschot, Monica Patterson, and the chapters by Sheftel and
Zembrycki themselves.
7
Greenspan, On Listening, 153–59, 230–32. Quoted passage appears on page 230.
8
When I use only first names for survivors, they are pseudonyms. Early on, most survivors I interviewed pre-
ferred anonymity, and so I used pseudonymous first names for all. Since then, some in that group—including
Abe Pasternak—have become well known from other work and are comfortable being identified. So I use full
names for those people. See Greenspan, On Listening, xv–xvi.
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[the guilt story] they can relate to. . . .Yes, I noticed that. This they related
to.
9
Indeed, the “relating” accelerated. Abe’s story was eventually featured in a video
loop that plays continuously in a local Holocaust memorial center. Abe described
the consequences:
People react. They do. Yeah, people come up, they say, “This is the man
with the kid brother.” They know me that way . . . People, strange people,
when they saw me, they say, “This is the man with the kid brother.” And
they seem to be insisting that I should repeat that story. . . . So apparently,
I don’t know, it makes quite an impression.
10
Abe is not shy, but making this much of “an impression” was too much. Today,
he mostly avoids retelling the story about his brother, in part, he says, because
of his discomfort with others’ reactions. The wider point is that knowing the
ways an account changes over time and across circumstances—and hearing sur-
vivors’ reflections about the choices behind those changes—is always deeply in-
forming. In this case, listener response both encouraged Abe’s retelling a
particular story and, in the end, encouraged his avoiding it.
11
Sometimes, the “story behind the story” concerns the immediate circum-
stances of an accounts construction. Leon, also a survivor I have known for
many years, retold the same story in each of our first three interviews in 1979,
the only episode he repeated in this way. Struck by the repetition, I wondered if
there was more to understand about this story’s significance. The episode con-
cerned the shooting of Paul Lieberman, a well-liked prisoner who had been fa-
vored even by the guards. When I asked Leon about his returns to this memory,
he was glad to elucidate: “You pose the question. I owe you an explanation.
There are a few elements you couldn’t have known.”
12
The key such element
was that Lieberman’s execution signified that no one would survive—an implica-
tion nowhere apparent in Leon’s earlier retelling. He explained:
This was the moment of truth. Lieberman was a favorite. Even to them,
to the Germans, he was a favorite. . . . And all of a sudden we see that no
one’s life is worth a damn. . . . They would kill you with as much thought
9
Greenspan, On Listening, 244. A full discussion of the evolution of Abe’s story is in On Listening, 238–48.
10
Greenspan, On Listening, 240–4 1.
11
I have discussed the popular interest in “survivor guilt” stories in On Listening, 43–46. My conclusions are
similar to Abe’s: relative to the atrocities of the Holocaust itself, stories about the psychological impact of the de-
struction are easier for us to “relate to” and, up to a point, easier for survivors to retell.
12
Greenspan, On Listening,199.
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as it takes to step on a cockroach. And so our pipe-dream [of surviving]
was shattered right there. It was suddenly and dramatically shattered, to-
gether with Lieberman’s skull.
13
Caught up in the memory and the doom it recalled—“with this execution the
whole thing came to a standstill,” Leon remembered, “the only reality left over
here is death”—Leon was drawn to say more. In direct response to my half-
question—“So this story?”—Leon insisted about all his Holocaust retelling: “It
is not a story. It has to be made a story. In order to convey it. And with all the
frustration that implies. Because, at best, you compromise. You compromise.”
14
I will return to Leon’s striking formulation. Here, I emphasize the immediate im-
pacts of intent and accident in these interview exchanges. Had Leon and I not
met multiple times, the Lieberman story would not have been repeated, and I
would almost certainly not have asked more about it. Without the kind of collab-
oration that he and I developed over the course of our meetings, it is unlikely
that Leon would have explained all he did. If I had not phrased my question,
“So this story?”—I could easily have said “this episode” or “this memory”—it is
a virtual certainty that Leon would not have made his general comment about
stories as compromises. Iintroduced the word “story” that directly prompted his
assertion. Finally, by definition, any “compromise” can change—as the
Lieberman story clearly did change as Leon and I discussed it. “Co-construction,”
a term so often used to describe interview process, is another conventionality
that subsumes a great many different things—perhaps too many. And so the
utility of more detailed analyses of interview transactions that determine what is,
and is not, said.
15
Listeners include not only those immediately present—interviewers or other
interlocutors—but also whatever general expectations of survivors, and historical
knowledge of the Holocaust, survivors perceive as being “out there.” Another
fruit of multiple interviews is that survivors talk more and more about these fac-
tors. For example, Leon described the role of conventional Holocaust imagery, in
which there were simply no representations of the kind of slave labor camp
where he had endured two years of the war (and where Lieberman was killed).
13
Greenspan, On Listening, 199–2 00.
14
Greenspan, On Listening, 199. I discuss Leon’s repeated story and his wider reflections about story making
in detail in On Listening, 2–3, 194–202 and in “Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Interpreting a Repeated Story”
in Up Close and Personal: The Teaching and Learning of Narrative Research, ed. Ruthellen Josselson, Amia
Lieblich, and Dan P. McAdams (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003), 101–11.
15
I write in the spirit of Sheftel’s and Zembrzycki’s Oral History Off the Record. I am also mindful of the ex-
tent to which “Holocaust survivor testimony”—and perhaps the word “testimony” itself—connotes accounts
that somehow transcend contingency. I would suggest this may be one way we “make a story” about survivors’
stories.
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As a result, his experience in that camp became what he called a “private”
nightmare:
Some things people know about, or think they know about. There are the
same scenes in every movie, and they are more or less in the public do-
main—the liquidation of a ghetto, a shooting, the arrival at Auschwitz,
“Arbeit Macht Frei [‘Work makes you free’].”
But there are also private nightmares, which require a completely different
scenario. Some individual horror stories—it becomes almost—I remember
reading somewhere about somebody having a nightmare, and he feels like
screaming, and no words come out. You know, this horrible feeling—if
only I could scream and call for help! I’d be all right! But no words come
out. And somehow you feel the same way.
16
A muted scream is iconic of traumatic silencing. Here, however, Leon’s “private
nightmares” reflect less the terror he knows than the history we do not. Or,
probably most accurately, they reflect both.
Many survivors describe having to contend with the Holocaust as repre-
sented in the “public domain.”
17
Memoirist Ruth Kluger warns her readers that,
to usefully engage her own account, they will have to “rearrange their inner mu-
seum of the Holocaust.”
18
For decades, those who survived the destruction as
children in hiding rarely spoke publicly, because the “hidden child” experience
was simply outside popular Holocaust representation (Anne Frank notwithstand-
ing). Many survivors choose not to speak about unexpectedly positive, even eu-
phoric, experiences during the destruction because they know such episodes do
not fit the Holocaust as generally imagined. Still others leave out moments of
agency, even heroism, for fear that such accounts would impugn those incapable
of such initiative. Meanwhile, because they also know we look for survivor-
heroes, they fear such accounts would end up obscuring the extent to which
luck was always at the core.
19
What has become the conventional mode of gathering survivors’
accounts—a few hours in front of a video camera—both selects in and selects
out (as does every way of engaging survivors). For some survivors, the very for-
mality and specialness of the testimonial occasion is assuring: two focused hours
16
Greenspan, On Listening,73.
17
Contending with public narratives, and the silences they engender, is also central in the large literature on
highly politicized “post-conflict” situations. Most of the articles in a recent special issue of Oral History Forum
were devoted to discussion of this topic in the contexts of Indonesia, Rwanda, and Congo. See “Confronting
Mass Atrocities,” Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, ed. Erin Jessee and Annie Pohlman (33) 2013.
18
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (New York: Feminist Press, 2001), 76.
19
Greenspan, On Listening, 93–94, 102–03, 191–92.
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for the sake of posterity, and then they can (at least publicly) let it be. For
others, the same formality provokes frustration. Thus Agi Rubin—responding
to what she called “a form” in one of the large video-testimony projects—
responded with “a form” of her own. She provided what she called “the usual
spiel”—the “default” version of her experience that she had honed in numerous
public talks.
20
Stacey Zembrycki has discussed the differences between what
some survivors retell in public settings and what they may confide within per-
sonal friendships.
21
Historian Kenneth Waltzer has provided another example of
the impact of format: a survivor who refused a direct interview but who initiated
a series of e-mails, of which there are now scores, in which he retold Holocaust
memories in limited, controllable, bits. This survivor, in effect, created his own
format for retelling—and for not retelling.
22
Many survivors carry memories that are never articulated simply because
they are discrete fragments without apparent significance. Waltzer has described
how sharing immediately relevant historical information in an interview provoked
otherwise unspoken memories because they now had context. Beyond whatever
account a survivor has learned generally “works”—like Agi’s “usual spiel”—what
survivors say, and what they do not, is thus rarely predictable. Often, it has as
much to do with the accident of meeting certain others as with the accident of
being a certain self—no less for Holocaust survivors than for the rest of us.
The Incommunicable
By “the incommunicable,” I mean phenomena that survivors realize are inher-
ently difficult to convey: most obviously, sensory memories, such as smells or
tastes, and psychological states for which listeners rarely have analogies. We
have heard Abe’s list of what listeners are unlikely to “relate to”: “the terror, the
smell, the chaos, the dead bodies all around.” Smell plays a particularly central
role in survivors’ memories: the stench of unwashed bodies, burning flesh, rot
and decay. Olfactory memories are literally part of the broader atmosphere of
the destruction—the horrific totality—which is my focus in this section.
Here again, it is important to emphasize that survivors may judge certain
experiences to be incommunicable—not because they are emotionally over-
whelming (although they may be)—but simply because they are so alien. Agi
once reflected, “It’s like a child watching the horror movies. Just simply, there it
20
Henry Greenspan and Sidney Bolkosky, “When is an Interview an ‘Interview’?: Notes from Listening to
Survivors,” Poetics Today 27, no. 2 (2006), 444.
21
Stacey Zembrycki, “Not Just Another Interviewee: Befriending a Holocaust Survivor,” in Sheftel and
Zembrycki, Oral History Off the Record, 129–44.
22
Kenneth Waltzer, personal communications with author, initially in October 2010 and many times since.
Waltzer is in the process of writing up such examples as part of a microhistory reflecting many years of work with
a group of Buchenwald survivors.
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is. This is the same thing.” Retelling the events of a horror movie is rarely chal-
lenging, especially for young people. But Agi was also keenly aware that we
rely—in “so-called normal life,” as some survivors put it—on a presumed differ-
ence between horror movies and reality. Echoing many other survivors, Agi con-
tinued, “Even to us, our mind couldn’t grasp it. So how could I make you
understand something that my own mind doesn’t grasp?”
23
I have sometimes explored the ways we try to “grasp it” by asking my stu-
dents, midway through a semester, to describe what they see when they imagine
themselves in a camp. They have read and heard accounts that refer to “moun-
tains of dead bodies” and “corpses lying around like garbage.”
24
Nevertheless,
when my students imagine being in a death camp, the visions they share are al-
most always devoid of dead people. Any simple invocation of psychological “dis-
tancing” as a way to explain this phenomenon does not engage the more
fundamental challenge of imagining a world in which the distinction between
actuality and worst possible fantasy has been obliterated. Indeed, gaining a per-
spective on experience—having enough distance to “stand back” and respond
(emotionally and otherwise)—depends on that distinction. Rather than fleeing
emotional response, I believe my students are attempting to preserve it.
Survivors emphasize a related challenge. Primo Levi insisted that the
hardest thing to convey was not specific horrors but the all-pervasive “lack
of events . . . because memory works in precisely the opposite way: the single,
clamorous terrifying episodes, or conversely the happy moments, prevail and in-
vade the canvas, whereas as one lives them they are part of a totally disinte-
grated reality.”
25
Over the course of our interviews, Leon returned several times
to the same difference between retelling single episodes, however horrific, and
conveying a sense of the encompassing totality. A painting, he said, was “either
representative or abstract. But here, in effect, you try to do both.” The destruc-
tion had to be retold in “human terms” and through “the experiences of individ-
uals.” But none of that conveyed what Leon called the “surrealistic landscape,
a “pure landscape of death,” that he remembered. And that landscape, both en-
compassing and unbounded, was the essential thing.
26
Canvases, paintings, landscapes—these metaphors from visual media hint
at the not-story that Leon’s made-stories point toward but do not themselves
convey. Literary scholar Sidra Ezrahi notes that “the visual arts appear to be
23
Greenspan, On Listening, 162. In what follows it is again important to emphasize that the “incommunica-
ble” is relative to different recounters and contexts of retelling. In sustained conversation, for example, many sur-
vivors discover (to their own surprise) a way of explaining experiences that they initially believed to be beyond
description. The extent to which a listener is determined and attentive obviously also makes a difference. What
matters is the utility of “the incommunicable” as one overall category of survivors’ silence.
24
The horrific images come from memories of Leon and Abe, respectively. See Greenspan, On Listening, 82, 23.
25
Marco Belpotti and Robert Gordon, Primo Levi: The Voice of Memory, Interviews, 1961–1987 (New York:
New Press, 2001), 251.
26
Greenspan, On Listening, 200, 203.
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more amenable than the literary medium” to representing mass atrocity, largely
because “literature like music is a sequence, not a simultaneity, of events.”
27
In
their efforts to retell, survivors work hard to emphasize simultaneity rather than
unfolding (often by repeating the conjunction “and”); immersion rather than
perspective; “lack of events” as the rule and episodes with duration (stories) as
the exception. In effect, survivors struggle to convey a world in which nothing
(no one thing) happens and everything happens at the same time. Likewise, as
Levi suggested, they retell in bits what they remember as “totally disintegrated”
wholes. That is why I have argued that the concept of “integrating narratives”
in such contexts is chimeric. Leon’s notion of stories standing for not-stories—
painfully known as compromises and, in essential respects, mis-representations—
takes us further.
28
The Unbearable
Invoking the unbearable is the way survivors’ silence is most often inter-
preted: survivors’ fear of experiencing, or re-experiencing, agonies that are psy-
chologically overwhelming. In contrast to silence associated with what is least
communicable—I have emphasized the alien and surreal totality—the silence as-
sociated with the unbearable reflects anguish that is immediate and visceral.
Lydia literally lost her voice during the war after seeing a group of murdered
children—“all in pools of blood,” she recalls—in the L’vov ghetto (she was her-
self a child at the time). Like other survivors, she contends with the possibility of
being muted again. Agi notes that “you don’t want to get into it to a deepness
that you feel you cannot get out,” and she is generally capable of avoiding—
through active monitoring how and what she retells—falling into that deepness.
Leon similarly describes the limits he observes, even with the most responsive
listeners:
You only go into it, you only talk about it, when you feel somebody really
wants to know. Somebody cares. That will prompt you to open up.
Although still to a limited extent. You won’t open up the floodgates. And
dare to let it completely take you over. You only do it to a limited
extent.
29
27
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1980), 4.
28
The limit of stories obviously does not minimize their importance.What I have suggested elsewhere, and al-
lude to here, is that “integration”—like other kinds of individual meaning-making—is less important than the re-
lationship between survivors and others: “[S]urvivors do not search for form and meaning for the sake of form
and meaning. They do so in the hope of being heard.” (Greenspan, On Listening, 42, 274). What is often key,
then, is that we “get” what we do not get (what is beyond individual stories), and that survivors “get” that we
get that.To that extent, the lack of integration is itself partly integrated—not in a narrative, but in a relationship.
29
Greenspan, On Listening, 96, 23, 195.
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Typically, survivors learn how far to “open up” over years of retelling, and they
often reflect upon that history. Describing being taken from the Warsaw ghetto
to a building in which people were continuously brutalized, Pinchas Gutter
recalls:
And, uh, I was there with my father, mother, and my sister. For three
nights. And I will just tell you two things that happened. I will not tell
you all the things that happened, those three nights, because . . . [long
pause].
A few minutes later, having described witnessing the aftermath of multiple
rapes, Gutter continues:
And the emotions inside me were just horrendous. Because I wasn’t just
seeing it, I was feeling it. And, in the previous tape that I made, I think
I conveyed some of the emotional feelings also. And for several months
after that, I had nightmares again. And I think that my subconscious
does not allow me to actually continue, and actually tell you those
feelings.
30
Many survivors refer not only to how much they retell but also to the difference
between retelling with or without “feeling it.” However horrific a memory, it is
obviously emotion, and how much can be tolerated, that determines whether it
is bearable—and whether survivors will choose to bear retelling it.
Once again, these are choices. Gutter constructs his account between delib-
erate self-editing and monitoring by what he calls his “subconscious,” and he is
typical in that respect. Agi often told me that she had anxiety and headaches
before and after our interviews, but neither deterred her from wanting to con-
tinue.
31
What is bearable is relative to what any survivor chooses to bear, and
that, in turn, varies for different people, in different circumstances, different re-
lationships, and different moments within a relationship.
I emphasize the point because so much of conventional discussion of these
issues reduces to some version of “trauma” making retelling either impossible or
allowing it only in emotionless, “depersonalized” ways. The actuality is enormously
more complex. I have already noted the range of contingencies that impact survi-
vors’ silence that have nothing to do with trauma or other unbearable emotion.
30
Video-testimony of Pinchas Gutter, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, January, 12, 1995, last accessed on
April 20, 2014, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1mfybmZxgI.
31
Agi Rubin and Henry Greenspan, Reflections: Auschwitz, Memory, and a Life Recreated (St. Paul, MN:
Paragon House, 2006), 173–76. Agi notes, “I wanted to open up as much as I could. Even with the anxiety and
headaches. I wanted to remember” (175).
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But even within survivors’ anguish, there is a great range of different agonies that
may or may not be bearable to recall and thus retell, for different survivors, at dif-
ferent times. Besides trauma—understood here as paralyzing terror in the face of
imminent annihilation (identical to what we call “shock” in other contexts)
32
there is, for example, shame associated with sustained humiliation and brutaliza-
tion; memories of profound betrayal or abandonment; the anguish of being
helpless to help others (too often reduced to some version of “survivor guilt”);
and, above all, bottomless loss and grief, which is what being a “survivor” most
essentially entails—still being here while so many others, and a world once
shared, are gone. While all of these different agonies may, on some level, be asso-
ciated with each other, the various ways they are associated cannot be coherently
discussed unless they are differentiated first.
Within contemporary trauma theory, it is also often asserted that survivors
cannot access (and thus retell) traumatic experiences because their shock cre-
ated an inherent “belatedness.”
33
In Cathy Caruths seminal formulation, trauma
is “not simply . . . the literal threatening of bodily life, but the fact that the
threat is recognized by the mind one moment too late . . . not the direct experi-
ence of the threat, but precisely the missing of this experience.”
34
From a some-
what different perspective, Dori Laub suggests that survivors’ horrific
experiences are “events without a witness” that require an engaged and sympa-
thetic listener to help survivors retrieve, and ultimately know, what they
endured.
35
Here again, the issues are complex. I have cited Levi’s assertion that “single,
clamorous terrifying episodes” are not what is hardest to retell; indeed, Levi re-
calls spending the first months after liberation retelling constantly, compulsively,
unable to speak about anything else.
36
Recalling his waking from torture, Jean
Amery wrote, “The bundle of limbs that is slowly recovering human semblance
32
This formulation of trauma is founded in the path-breaking work of psychiatrist and survivor Henry Krystal
and more recently elucidated by psychologist Ghislaine Boulanger. See especially Henry Krystal, Massive Psychic
Trauma (New York: International Universities Press, 1968); Henry Krystal, “Trauma and Affects,” The
Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 33 (1978): 81–116; Ghislaine Boulanger, Wounded by Reality: Understanding
and Treating Adult Onset Trauma (New York: Routledge, 2007). Leon’s Lieberman story, as elucidated with me,
retells trauma in this sense, as I have described in “Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Interpreting a Repeated
Story,” 107. Caruth also emphasizes immediate threat of annihilation in her construction of trauma.The key point
is that making “trauma” the foundational term for all survivors’ agonies both distracts from trauma’s specific hor-
ror (even lethality), even while it subsumes too many other, and different, species of anguish.
33
“Belatedness” is Caruth’s term, originally explained in her introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory,
ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 6.
34
Caruth, Unclaimed Experience,62.
35
Dori Laub, “An Event Without a Witness: Truth, Testimony, and Survival” in Shoshana Felman and Dori
Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992),
75–92.
36
Marco Belpotti, Primo Levi: The Black Hole of Auschwitz (New York: Polity Press, 2005), 24.
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feels the urge to articulate the experience intellectually, right away, on the spot,
without losing the least bit of time.”
37
In a diary that she began forty-eight
hours after being liberated from a death march—and which she retrieved during
our third interview—Agi wrote in April, 1945:
Up until the last moment, the crematorium is our nightmare. We are tell-
ing everybody about it, whether we want to or not. Our stories are only
about the crematorium, whether we want to or not.
38
It would certainly be possible to understand the urgency, sometimes compulsion,
to retell as a drive to catch up with Caruth’s “missing” moment. Clearly, however,
Holocaust memory itself is not “missing” for these survivors. What survivors
themselves describe more often concerns modulating emotional response—both
during and after—than not registering, and later remembering, what they wit-
nessed and endured.
The urgency, sometimes compulsion, to retell, could equally be understood
as survivors’ search for listeners. Amery asserted that “the experience of persecu-
tion was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness.”
39
During the
destruction, Levi famously dreamed of listeners who were always out of reach—
resulting in a desolation so agonized (“pain in its pure state,” Levi wrote) that it
was better to awaken in the Auschwitz night than endure that pain in a
dream.
40
Years after liberation, Agi said she maintained silence because that iso-
lation, and the hope it guarded, was preferable to having to face the “refusal.”
Agi explained:
Not without encouragement, I would not have gone out and talked about
the Holocaust. I didn’t go out and volunteer, ‘OK, people, now I’m going
to tell you stories!’ . . . You see what it is: I don’t want to accept defeat.
This way, in my mind, I can say, ‘Well, if they had known.’ But what if they
refuse? ...Idon’t want to get to the point of the refusal. I’d rather face
it alone, than the defeat.
41
For Agi and many other survivors, missing listeners may be closer to the heart of
the matter than missing memories. If so, we are left with witnessing that is more
paradoxical than absent or belated. Along with crafting accounts against the an-
ticipated incommunicable and potentially unbearable, survivors must also posit a
37
Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realties
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 39.
38
Rubin and Greenspan, Reflections,73.
39
Amery, At the Mind’s Limits, 70. Italics in original.
40
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Summit, 1986), 59.
41
Greenspan, On Listening,109.
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listener in whom they do not entirely believe. I will return to this point in the
next section.
The Irretrievable
By “the irretrievable,” I refer to the dead, the communities of talk (including talk
during the Holocaust) now vanished, and the present and absent sense of
“home” that is always part of survivors’ accounts.
Most of us envision the dead through general images of victims rather than
as particular people. If we know more—Anne Frank again comes to mind—it is
usually incidental, with minimal context, and, of course, no personal memory.
For survivors, the dead are loved ones, neighbors, cherished characters and com-
munities, and virtually all survivors understand that part of their task is to try to
speak for, and about, the lost. Reuben, one of the first survivors I interviewed in
the 1970s, told me he used to sit in his store—a small electric parts business—
and “dream back” to the world that was. He even imagined “writing a novel,”
which, he emphasized, would be “not about the Holocaust, just about the
whole, the whole life, before the Holocaust, with the Holocaust included.” He
then described the complexity of that “whole life,” every detail a locus of care
and of grief:
R: How it was. The whole variety of the Jewish people. You know we had,
within the Orthodox, we had Hasidic Jews. And we also had the
Misnagadim, who didn’t believe in the Hasidic rabbis. . . .
Then you had other Jews. They were not Orthodox. You had the Zionists,
and the Bund—the were socialists, you know—and then you had the
Communists—all Jews, one hundred percent Jewish. They spoke Yiddish.
They defend Jewish culture.The whole thing. . . .
See, I’m just saying, you had a complete life. The whole thing. So many
different characters. The good and the bad. The whole range. You don’t
see it anymore. It’s all disappeared.
HG: And your novel would have been to—?
R: To show the variety. All the different people . . . The way they worked,
and the way they lived, and the way they dealt with people. How it was—
how happy they were, how sad they were, at different times. . . . It’s never
going to be again. The way they lived, for generations.
Reuben concluded, “Its hard for anybody, actually, to imagine. To imagine what
it was like.”
42
He was not talking about the Holocaust.
42
Greenspan, On Listening, 203–0 4.
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Agi once reflected, “The life I was made to live is gone. I am alive, in an-
other life.”
43
Agi engaged fully in the life she found and made after the
destruction. But a foundational homelessness also lived on. She reflected:
It is not that our joys are not real.They are entirely real. It is just that they
never exist simply by themselves. They are always in reference to some-
thing else, something that can consume them in an instant. And then
there are simply the blank spaces. The spaces where things were that are
not anymore.
44
It is not news that masses of people can be erased from the planet as though
they never were. But there is a difference between knowing that intellectually,
as most of us do, and knowing it in one’s bones, as survivors do. Between that
knowledge and survivors ongoing lives there is a gap in which another kind of
silence resides. Sometimes it is expressed in a shrug, a sigh, a distracted glance,
an expression of uncertainty that follows even the most insistent assertion.
Whatever is said, there is also “something else,” and the potential that ongoing
life and talk are only a reprieve, even a kind of pretending.
45
Our conversations with survivors, from incidental sharing to formal testi-
mony, are thus premised on a faith in permanence, meaning, and human solidar-
ity in which no survivor of genocide entirely believes. That is what makes such
communication both precious and precarious. The usually unquestioned faith
upon which everyday talk depends remains, for most survivors, irretrievable.
Talking with People
The different kinds of silence I have discussed are neither mutually exclusive nor
all-inclusive. Rather, as I have emphasized, they are intended to sensitize us to
distinctions that are easily overlooked. In survivors’ actual recounting, some or
all of them operate at once. Thus, as we engage survivors in conversation, these
categories ought themselves be put in conversation, allowing us to draw on
each and all as richly and usefully as we are able.
While this article focuses on Holocaust survivors, it is no less about us. In
the 1970s, when I began interviewing survivors, the would-be members of my
graduate committee were cordial, but they were not supportive. The first three
professors with whom I spoke said the same essential two things: “Hank, all
the work on survivors has already been done. And anyway, the survivors are
43
Agi Rubin, interview by Henry Greenspan, April 21, 1981, Southfield, Michigan.
44
Rubin and Greenspan, Reflections,106.
45
Many survivors’ nightmares are not literal returns to the destruction but rather visions of the disintegration
of their lives after. Such was Levi’s recurring postliberation nightmare. Primo Levi, The Reawakening (New York:
Touchstone, 1986), 193.
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all dying.” This in 1975! The truth is that it has never been easy or usual to en-
gage survivors and their accounts in significant depth. Even today—when there
are five times as many known survivor accounts as in the 70s and a great deal
more interpretive work—we are still barely scratching the surface.
46
As we move
toward the time when we will actually have to rely on archived recordings rather
than direct conversation, there will be that much more need for the virtues of
interpretive modesty and tolerance for complexity. I hope we will find them.
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan, Ann
Arbor. He has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about Holocaust survivors since the
1970s. E-mail: hgreensp@umich.edu.
46
Henry Greenspan, “Survivors’ Accounts” in The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies,ed.PeterHayes
and John Roth (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2011), 414.
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The Black Hole of Auschwitz
  • Marco Belpotti
  • Primo Levi
Marco Belpotti, Primo Levi: The Black Hole of Auschwitz (New York: Polity Press, 2005), 24. The Unsaid, the Incommunicable, the Unbearable, and the Irretrievable | 239
At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realties 38 Rubin and Greenspan, Reflections, 73. 39 Amery, At the Mind's Limits, 70. Italics in original. 40 Primo Levi
  • Jean Amery
Jean Amery, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 39. 38 Rubin and Greenspan, Reflections, 73. 39 Amery, At the Mind's Limits, 70. Italics in original. 40 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Summit, 1986), 59. 41 Greenspan, On Listening, 109.
It's hard for anybody, actually, to imagine. To imagine what it was like
  • Reuben Concluded
Reuben concluded, " It's hard for anybody, actually, to imagine. To imagine what it was like. " 42 He was not talking about the Holocaust. 42 Greenspan, On Listening, 203–04.