May 27, 2024
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How Do We Know Anything About the Holocaust?

As Michael Shermer and I noted in our book “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It?” we know the past through a convergence of evidence. When describing the history of the universe, cosmologists employ evidence from astronomy, astrophysics, planetary geology and physics. Archaeologists reconstruct the history of civilization through artwork, written sources, tools and weapons and other relevant artifacts. Geologists recreate the history of the Earth through a convergence of evidence from geology and pertinent earth sciences.


In writing the history of the Holocaust, we use a number of different sources:

  1. Written documents: hundreds of thousands of letters, memos, blueprints, orders, bills, speeches, articles memoirs and confessions
  2. Eyewitness testimony: accounts from survivors, Sonderkommandos (Jews who were forced to help load bodies from the gas chambers into the crematoria), commandants, local citizens, and senior-level Nazi officials who openly declared the Nazis had been engaged in mass murder
  3. Photographs: official military and press photographs, civilian photographs, photographs clandestinely taken by Jews, aerial photographs, footage taken by Germans and the Allies and unofficial photographs filmed by the German military
  4. The camps themselves: concentration, extermination and labor camps that still remain in different states of originality and reconstruction
  5. Inferential evidence: population demographics reconstruction from the World War II era

One significant example of this convergence is found in “Auschwitz,” written by social historian Debórah Dwork and architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt. By examining original architectural blueprints, historical photographs and existing ruins together with requisition documents, transportation receipts, development authorizations, bills of sales and sales’ receipts verified by eyewitness statements, confessions, diaries and letters, they constructed a compelling account about the role of the camp and test a premise. They wanted to know whether Auschwitz was initially conceived as an extermination camp or something else. From original designs of the camp, they found that Auschwitz had evolved into an extermination and had not been planned as one.

Leading Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer added that to tell the story, historians need the writer, musician, psychologist and theologians to include their insights, allowing them to “probe deeper into the darkness.” Most important is the voice of the witness.

Jewish Survivor Testimonies

Jewish survivor testimonies, diaries and letters of those who were murdered, help us in understanding what transpired. We also learn how the Jews lived, the moral dilemmas they encountered, not just how they were murdered.

“There was a veritable passion to testify for the future, after death and oblivion, a passion conveyed by every possible means of expression,” asserted Elie Wiesel in “One Generation After.” “I can do no more than give testimony,” declared Jean Améry in “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities.” He found that “you do not observe dehumanized man committing his deeds and misdeeds without having all of your notions of inherent human dignity placed in doubt.” “Silence is the real crime against humanity,” proclaimed Sarah Bick Berkowitz in “Where Are My Brothers?”

The Nazis attempted to thwart Jews from documenting their experiences, yet Jews succeeded in establishing the Emanuel Ringelblum Archive in Warsaw, the Mersik Archive in Bialystok and in memoirs, diaries and letters.

In “The Forgotten Memoirs: Moving Personal Accounts from Rabbis Who Survived the Holocaust,” “Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership During the Holocaust” and “Hidden In the Heights: Orthodox Jewry in Hungary During The Holocaust,” Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, the leading haredi scholar of the Holocaust, has provided us with an area of Holocaust documentation that had been sorely missing: the remnants of Torah leadership.

The fear that future generations would not believe what the Jews experienced was expressed by Dr. Ignacy Schiper, a leading historian, to Alexander Donat, another Majdanek inmate and confidante.

“Everything depends on who transmits our testament to future generations, on who writes the history of this period,” Schiper said. “History is usually written by the victor. What we know about murdered peoples is only what their murderers vaingloriously care to say about them. Should our murderers be victorious, should they write the history of this war, our destruction will be presented as one of the most beautiful pages of world history, and future generations will pay tribute to them as dauntless crusaders. Their every word will be taken for gospel. Or they may wipe out our memory altogether, as if we had never existed, as if there had never been a Polish Jewry, a ghetto in Warsaw, a Maidanek. Not even a dog will howl for us.

“But if we write the history of this period of blood and tears—and I firmly believe we will—who will believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the entire civilized world… We’ll have the thankless task of proving to a reluctant world that we are Abel, the murdered brother.”

A Hebrew University-trained historian, Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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