Philosophy of the Arts


Historical Sensations in Shoah

One of the assets of Claude lanzmann’s film Shoah is this that it presents moral witnesses in places that are sure to stir their memories. Lanzmann did not invite them over to the studio for an interview, nor did he visit them in their own homes.
The relevant places are either historical sites (the camps; a transition train station; the woods outside the camps; or one’s original home town, such as in the scene with Simon Srebnik) or they are similar to ones so as to make available to the witnesses certain gestures and actions he would have have made in the original situation (Abraham Bomba is interviewed in a barber shop, cutting someone’s hair).
One reason for Johan Huizinga to have suggested the relevance of the historical sensation, is that without any such anchorage in real events, and in what it was like to experience them, historical narratives might not be about the real events, however coherent they are.
Holocaust deniers compete with historical narratives which set out to tell the truth about the facts—they do not compete with the testimonials of a moral witness. The latter’s relevance is not in their establishing the facts. Would Srebnik recollect exactly how many times he was rowed along the river, by how many Nazis, and by whom exactly? Asking this of his testimonial would be overasking.

Srebnik’s Hopes Shattered

Moral witnesses have no smaller task than to prove that the atrocities were real, and to show the extent to which they were real. Srebnik standing in front of the church amongst fellow villageans, doesn’t say a word, and yet his mere presence, and the historical sensation this cuases in the others, proves the ease with which in earlier days the nazi-atrocities could have taken place—under the eyes of these or other people in their everyday surroundings.
The mere effort of guessing what Srebnik is going through exactly within this scene, can be interpreted in two ways. We may speculate as to how he relives the historical events that left him as the sole surviving Jew of the whole village. But such speculations are not even called for. The scene itself demonstrates the risks Margalit ascribes to moral witnessing: the risk of not finding that moral community one hopes for. The chruch scene unmistably brings home to Srebnik the realisation that these fellow villageans are not part of that hoped for community—Srebnik can be seen to resist judging them.
The audience of the film hopes to form part of that community when they don’t, but one cannot be sure, can one? What with the villageans–simple plain people–failing so bluntly.

In Defence of Lanzmann’s approach

In all, I think Lanzmann did a good thing confronting “his” interviewees with historical, or historically relevant sites. He did not trust the studios to be capable of stirring the memories sufficiently—both quantitatively, qua force, and qualitatively, qua detail. Of course, in any other situation, such as a studio, or a shopping mall, relevant narratives might come up. But the risk of these narratives to not surpass the stories told by the moral witnesses to themselves to try and control the historical events or to simply inform others of the necessary details, would be real. These narratives too would be vulnerable to attacks from holocaust deniers objecting to any particular claim made in these narratives as being objectively correct.
Next to this, Lanzmann provided the calmth necessary for the audience on the one hand, to fully recognise the historical site, and, on the other, the moral witnesses to show their own (psychological) reality before the camera. The camera movement generally is slow, the editing sparse and as non-intruding as possible.

Lanzman might have visited the witnesses in their homes, providing them with the secureness they might really need psychologically, but he didn’t. Had he done it, this would have contaminated what normal lives these people have been capable of mustering in the years since their humiliation in the camps, for themselves, and their next of kin. That would have repeated the Nazi genocide more than the approach that was eventually chosen.


In response to Lanzmann’s film, Spielberg did two things. He made Schindler’s List (you may want to read Lanzmann’s critique of that film), and …

[..] established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 to gather video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. [..] Within several years, the Foundation’s Visual History Archive held nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages, representing 56 countries; it is the largest archive of its kind in the world. (From: USC Shoah Foundation Institute)

Contexts for Testimonials

We discussed the legal and scientific flaws of (moral) testimonials as they showed in the trial against John Demjanjuk (read Draaisma about it). Is it safe to conclude that the courthouse is not the right context for a moral tstimonial to be induced, for one, because the questions posed there are far too restricting, “leading”—which in a court of law seems excusable as the aim is to find the truth about matters. The court needn’t be interested in how it felt–or should it be?
What then are we to think of the context the Shoah Visual History Foundation provided for the witnesses: a cold studio, utterly neutral to any historical existentials. Perhaps they chose these circumstances to interfere as little as possible with the lifes of the survivors, and to protect them from reliving the horrors.

Questions Concluding

I conclude by putting two questions before the reader:
1. What value are the latter types of testimonial if they are not based in a real reliving–for us?
2. What value do they have for the witnesses themselves? We can be sure that their testimonial will have reinduced the storm of nightmares that pesters survivors, if it has ever left them. Yet, the witnesses cannot be expected to have learned mucht for themselves of their accounts, which may have been rehearsed over the years, adn, now, are repeated in front of the cameras in a neutral place. The narrative rather than its experiential anchorage.

Perhaps someone feels confident enough to take up the challenge of charging a criticism against the Shoah Foundation Institute. The confidence is needed to ward one off of any too hesitant dismissals, as, obviously, in itself the project is important as an effort to retain the testimonials of those will die in the next few years. It is just that they might have been triggered in more fruitful conditions, such as those provided by Lanzmann.

farmed out perception

All this has to do with how people are in the world, as embodied perceivers. How their perception of the world surrounding them consists in the recognition of possible or effected actions. Memories, I think, consist in this that they are refound in the places where these anticipated actions were farmed out to.
That the reality of the memories does not necessarily require the site to be scientifically correctly real, shows from the devastating effects Auschwitz will have on its ever visitors, even though large parts of the camp were reconstructed to serve as a memorial site. It still functions thus, even though it is reconstructed. memory has little to do with the physical reality of the processes it refers to.
These latter remarks await further elaboration, though some of that can be found on my site:

on addiction; on tactile perception; on >> memory; on the self (in Dutch); >> Plato’s cave-myth

Finally a quote from Ewout van der Knaap, seemingly in support of my views, although I am not sure whether he would mean it as literal as I do. He seems to refer to cultural contexts, rather than the physical context the witness finds himself in:

“Every testimony is a choice of memories and is framed within the situation in which the testimony is put forward. We therefore need to consider the context in which the speaker remembers.” (14)
van der Knaap, Ewout. 2006. “The Construction of Memory in Nuit et Brouillard.” In Uncovering the Holocaust. The International Reception of Night and Fog, edited by Ewout van der Knaap, 7–34. London & New York: Wallflower Press.
Lanzmann, Claude. 1985. Shoah. An Oral History of the Holocaust. New York: Pantheon Books.
____________. 1994. “Schindler’s List: een onmogelijk verhaal (Schindler’s List is an impossible story—my tr.).” NRC Handelsblad 26/03/1994:11.
Margalit, Avishai. 2002. “A Moral Witness.” Chapter 5 of The Ethics of Memory, 147–182. Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press.

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