Holocaust Narrative as a Species of Imaginative Literature

Published: 1997-12-01

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The lead story of SR 47, describing the identities of Ada Bimko and Hadassah Rosensaft, advances a theory I have been working on for some time. The idea behind this project is to demonstrate in something of a new way how Holocaust narratives evolved as a species of imaginative literature, with all that that involves in terms of themes, tropes, and “intertextuality.”

With respect to the immediate postwar trials it can be shown that witnesses and confessors were strongly influenced by what I call “The Canonical Holocaust,” a handful of official reports issued by the Soviet, Polish and American governments. These reports, comprising Soviet reports on Auschwitz and Majdanek, Polish reports on Treblinka, Auschwitz, and other camps, and the U.S. War Refugee Board report on Auschwitz-Birkenau, were the basic source of all “official” knowledge about the camps in the immediate postwar period. There are two problems with these reports. First, they have not been subjected to serious text criticism or empirical corroboration. Second, they contain many errors of fact.

If a witness or a confessor makes statements that corroborate statements in an official and widely publicized report, that witness or confessor “may” be viewed as independently verifying the truth. But when the witness or confessor corroborates statements in these reports and the statements are false, then one can presume that the witness and confessor statements were simply derivative of the reports. To put it another way, several testimonies may converge on a truth, but several testimonies cannot converge on a falsehood: in such a case one is most likely dealing with statements derived from a common erroneous source.

The thesis I have been developing for the Belsen trials is that Bimko and Bendel (among others) had keyed their testimony to the Soviet Special Commission on Auschwitz, widely published several months before the trial, and most notorious for extrapolating four million dead from a simple-minded and erroneous calculation of crematoria capacities.

Bimko’s affidavit and testimony proves this was so, certainly in her case. The four million claim for Auschwitz comes directly from the Soviet report, and directly from the erroneous Soviet crematoria calculations. It appears first in that document but it is also not true, as everyone today agrees. Yet Bimko twice corroborated this claim which we now know to be false. Bimko was directly or indirectly influenced by the spurious propaganda of the Soviet report; her testimony is valueless.

The same can be said about many other witnesses and confessors. The way in which Miklos Nyiszli’s memoirs (from 1946) correspond to the Soviet four million is notorious among revisionists, and led Pressac into one of his most ungainly mental maneuvers. Maximilian Graebner, the political officer at Auschwitz, confessed in September, 1945 to three million dead by the time he left in December, 1943. This also corresponds to the Soviet projections. Six months later, Rudolf Hoess, who left Auschwitz at the same time as Graebner, also confessed to three million (2.5 million gassed plus .5 million dead by other means). All of these individuals provide a convergence of evidence: not to the truth, however, but to the decisive influence of the erroneous Soviet report.

Testimonies and confessions that lead back to a common source are of little value. At the same time we can see how such testimony and affidavits could be sincerely generated by survivors and Allied interrogators. Every survivor would no doubt consult the Soviet report to get a bird’s eye view of what had really happened in the camps. And every interrogator of an SS guard would peruse the report so as to know whether or not the prisoner was lying.

While we can understand how such material was generated, it should be obvious that derivative eyewitness testimonies and confessions are of little use from a historiographical point of view. It appears that all the “gas chamber” eye-witness and confessor testimonies in the crucial period 1945-47 are derivative, as was Bimko's. Under such circumstances it is impossible to arrive at a “blind” sample or “untainted” testimony.


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Author(s): Samuel Crowell
Title: Holocaust Narrative as a Species of Imaginative Literature
Sources: Smith's Report, no. 49, December 1997, pp. 5f.
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Published: 1997-12-01
First posted on CODOH: Oct. 4, 2015, 2:07 p.m.
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