How personal testimonies contribute to our understanding of the Holocaust


The Holocaust was a mass murder of Jews by the Nazi government of Germany. It is considered one of the most important events in the Jewish history. It is also a key human and ethical experience of the Jews. Understanding the Holocaust from a historical perspective can be enhanced through the stories of Holocaust survivors who have lived to tell their stories. In the Jewish culture, to remember is an essential aspect. However, its obligation does not only rely on the cognitive memory but also requires a connection with meaning and action. Magen (n.d.) suggests that learning about something requires the learner to know it. Therefore, learning about the Holocaust requires learners to know it from the perspective of those who experienced it.

The testimony of survivors who actually experienced the atrocities of the Nazis makes the understanding of the Holocaust easier. Such survivors express their opinions from memory of the Holocaust. This helps us to understand the Holocaust and its influence on humankind. Survivors also express the importance of memory in the understanding of the Holocaust. Magen (n.d.) suggests that the memory expressed by the survivors of the Holocaust represent knowledge accompanied by moral and ethical value. This leads us to understand the Holocaust with moral and ethical intent; hence enables us to dedicate our energies towards making the world a better place. If students of the Jewish history learn about the Holocaust through the testimonies of survivors, they are able to connect themselves to the event more strongly. This approach of learning from the survivors of the Holocaust untangles the masses and focuses on the individual survivor is a more powerful tool of understanding the Holocaust (Kacel, 1998). It allows learners to sympathize with the survivors and learn from past horrors of the Jews.

One of the survivors who gave their account of the Holocaust was the family of Mr. and Mrs. B. who recorded their testimonies in video tapes. Reviewing the video tape, Lawrence L. Langer suggests that the testimonies of Mr. and Mrs. B’s family provide a good way of understanding the Holocaust. Mr. and Mrs. B had lost almost all their family members, and they feel as though the Holocaust event left them lonely. Despite having two children, Mrs. B. still feels lonely due to the many Jewish lives that the Holocaust claimed. Mrs. B. also contends that her children were deprived the opportunity to grow up with their grandparents and relatives who could give them presents and affection. This indicates that the event really affected the Jews significantly.

Mr. B. on his part demonstrates a feeling of resentment and sadness. He showed a despondent face and shrugged his shoulders. He fell short of words and just expressed his sadness with the situation. In fact, he wept.

When asked what she feels about her parents’ experience, the daughter suggests that she feels very strong. She has been strengthened by the fact that her parents survived such a difficult experience as the Holocaust. The daughter is also strengthened by the ability of her parents to build their lives after the bad experience and live with hope. She believes that her parents must have had a great amount of strength to be able to survive the Holocaust. The daughter also still feels connected to the Jewish culture and traditions which she believes have disappeared due to the Holocaust.

Langer (n.d.) suggests that Mr. and Mrs. B. were hostages to their Holocaust’s ordeals and memories. He also provides that the understanding of the Holocaust depends on the source. In the videos, Mr. and Mrs. B’s family is the source. Their testimony leads students of Jewish history to understand the Holocaust from a point of sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, and resentment on one hand; and strength and connection to culture on the other.

However, Langer (n.d.) criticizes this manner of learning from experience. He argues that testimonies demonstrate disintegrated rhetoric and consolations. Apart from the video cited by Langer, there are also other commentaries and memoirs describing the experiences of survivors from the Holocaust.

Through the memoirs and testimonies of Jewish people, it is clear that those people do not expect their audience to understand them. For instance, Magda F. escaped the mass murder of the Holocaust and when she went to the US in 1948, she met her brother and sister who had immigrated to the US in 1920s. Her husband, brother, sisters, all their children and parents had been killed in the Holocaust. When she explains her ordeal, she starts by acknowledging the fact that her brother and sister would not understand her. She believed that nobody really understood her. For Magda’s and all other testimonies, understanding requires the audience to understand the Holocaust event from a sympathetic perspective. When one gets information from someone who experienced a certain issue, he/she understands the issue in the manner in which the speaker presents it.

Memoirs also provided a good way of understanding the ordeals of the Holocaust. In memoirs, people provide their experiences in terms of writing. The memoirs are stored and later distributed. Several memoirs written by Jews who survived the Holocaust bring the same effect of sympathetic, moral, and ethical understanding of the Holocaust as also presented by the testimonies (Obama and Lewis, 2010). Through memoirs, students of Jewish history learn to identify each individual survivor of the holocaust and connect them to the theoretical perspective provided by historians.

Individual memoirs bring out a better understanding of the Holocaust as audience try to connect the ordeals of the writers with the overall experiences of the Holocaust. For instance, a memo by Leon Sciaky provides a good platform for students of Jewish history to understand the Holocaust. Leon Sciaky explains the ordeals of a little boy who experienced the life of Jews while he was still in his grandfather’s home; when the environment was quiet and nothing dangerous had happened (Sciaky and Barnett, 2007). His father was tilling his land, the river was full of water, and his grandfather would engage him happily in storytelling. As the years went by, however, he started to experience the horror of the Holocaust when Bulgaria and Greece fought against the Turks and the Jews (Obama and Lewis, 2010). The little boy survived the horror. As he escaped with his grandfather to the countryside to seek refuge from an old friend of his grandfather, the boy experienced the effects of the war; villages lay in ruin, remains of destroyed houses, villages left sin desolation, and parts of guns lying all around. The boy was just amazed how his grandfather managed to escaped the bad killings that occurred at that time.

Through this memoir, students of history get to understand the horrors of the Holocaust from sits genesis. Learning about the life of a little boy from a time of peace and innocence to a time of bloodshed leads students to understand the holocaust more easily. On general terms, the story of the holocaust may just sound like a story without great significance, whose details are only vague and numerical. However, when we get to hear from a boy who went through the entire event, we grasp the entire situation on more specific terms. It becomes more real and relevant than the general aspect of it.

Another memoir that shed light on the horrors of the holocaust for a deeper understanding by history students is the memoir called Night, written by Elie Wiesel. This memoir explains the experiences of Wiesel’s teenage life at various camps of the Nazi (Wiesel et al, 2002). Wiesel had been separated from his mother and sister; he remained with only his father. Throughout his life in the Nazi camps, he maintained his religious faith despite the brutality of the Nazis (Wiesel et al, 2002). There was also strong relationship between the boy and his father despite the problems that befell them in the hands of the Nazi. When things get too bad for him, Wiesel despises the God he had previously adored greatly. He also started to despair Humanity.

This memoir provokes thought, memory, imagination, emotions, most importantly understanding of the Jewish Holocaust mass murder (Vorshirm, 2000). It deals with loss, death, faith and survival. History students learn from the memoir that it was a long enduring experience for survivors. It sounds as if the survivors were ordained by God to survive and live to explain the pain of the Jews in the Holocaust. The strong relationship between the boy and his father despite the horror they went through enables history students to understand the fights and the strength that the Jews had to uphold in order to survive.

From this discussion, it is clear that the testimonies and the memoirs of the Holocaust survivors form an important platform on which history students are able to understand the holocaust and its effects. The survivors enable us to connect with the Holocaust in an individual basis rather than a generalized historical perspective. Through memoirs and testimonies, students of history also sympathize with each survivor’s ordeals and understand them well.



Kacel, B. (1998). From hell to redemption: a memoir of the Holocaust. Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado.

Langer, L.L. (n.d.). Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Magen, S. (n.d.). The International School for Holocaust Studies. Accessed April 21, 2014 from   

Obama, G.H. and Lewis, D. (2010). Homeland: an extraordinary story of hope and survival. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sciaky, L. and Barnett, N. (2007). Farewell to Salonica. City at the Crossroads. London: Haus Books.

Vorshirm, A.F. (2000). From Hitler to Trujillo: in search of a homeland. Raleigh, N.C.: Boson Books.

Wiesel, E. and Perry, J. and Natchez, J. (2002). Night: Elie Wiesel. New York, NY: Spark Pub.

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