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Early Reports and Survivors’ Texts

The International Tracing Service (ITS) along with the Center for Holocaust Literature in the University of Giessen held a three-day seminar last week about eyewitness accounts held in the ITS archives. Ten students, three historians, and seven literature scholars dealt with early reports and survivors’ texts of the Holocaust. “It was a full and incredibly successful weekend which far exceeded my expectations,” said the seminar leader Professor Sascha Feuchert. “With these archives the students have opened a treasury for themselves.”

In the documentary holdings of the ITS there are survivors’ statements for trials, reports in children’s search records, letters, diaries, as well as questionnaires for the Allies. The texts were written primarily right after World War Two ended. These texts of early reports have been long neglected by research, explained Feuchert. “We have previously dealt with the historical literature, especially the published works. But the texts in these archives have a strong similarity. Regardless of the form they are in, they are characterized by a literary and emotional quality.”

The students looked at more texts in terms of their style, development of content, historical context, and the biographies of the survivors. Among these was the diary of Hans Horwitz from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and a 30-page testimony from Zdenka Fantlova who survived the Theresienstadt ghetto, the Gross-Rosen camp, and Bergen-Belsen. “It is extremely interesting to look at these eye-witness reports again from the historical-literary perspective,” said student Anne Thürmer. “They have a lot to do with the culture of remembrance.”

They students analyzed how the survivors reported at different points in their lives. They also addressed the question of how the events had shaped the survivors’ outlook on life. Particular attention was given to the comparison of literary works by survivors such as Jurek Becker or Solly Ganor with those whose fates are recorded in the historical records of the ITS. “The research takes time,” said student Johannes Berscheid. “But it is worthwhile for later work with students.”

The three historians among the seminar participants, along with other students, are planning an exhibition about survivors, with the title “Displaced Persons in Central Hesse.” It should be completed by the end of the year. In the archives of the ITS, they are also looking for survivors that they can interview for this project. “It is incredibly exciting to see what lies here,” stated Sebastian Müller. “We will return for further investigation.”

With this seminar, the ITS wanted to raise awareness of the early witness reports among researchers and pedagogues. “For us, the seminar has opened new doors,” explained Dr. Susanne Urban, head of research at ITS. “It has shown us the many different ways we can use the documents. The witness reports of the survivors offer us insights that are not possible anywhere else.” ITS, along with the University of Giessen, are planning to continue regular seminars and lectures.