The Certainties of Evil and the Politics of Not-Forgetting
By Dagmar Barnouw
Ms. Barnouw is Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California, and author of Visible Spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German Jewish Experience, John Hopkins (1990). She lives in Del Mar, California. Her latest book is The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, And Postwar Germans.
“The Holocaust” as a construct of memory stories about the historical events of Nazi rule began its spectacular rise in Western culture with the Eichmann trial that located Jewish identity in the experience of extreme suffering and victimization. Presented on the stage of the world, before hundreds of journalists of the print and electronic media, this trial changed the earlier universalist perspective on Nazi crimes by focusing on individual Holocaust witnesses. The chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner had chosen a large number of witnesses on the basis of their written testimonies and his subsequent interviews with them.
His goal was to derive the dramatic structure of Eichmann’s trial exclusively from their stories rather than the extensive collection of Nazi documents gathered by the Israeli police.The extreme experience of “the Holocaust”could only become ‘real’ for the millions of readers, listeners and viewers of the trial, if a large number of carefully coached survivors testified in person and thereby individualized the uniqueness of unimaginably cruel persecution. In the cumulative acts of individual recitation, however, these stories would not draw on collective memories “refreshed,” as Hausner had hoped, by the witnesses’ recorded testimonies.
Rather, the emotions released by the recitations overpowered the witnesses to the point where they became their stories of extreme suffering—an identification that exploded the elaborate choreography of the trial. Screaming with the recalled pain, fainting from the remembered fear, the performance of their past persecution collapsed all temporal and spatial distance between the narrator and the narrated and thereby erased the historicity of their experiences of persecution, that is, the complex relational historical reality of Nazi crimes.
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