“Experiencing history”: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust is a digital primary source tool that enables college and university students and teachers to study contextualized Jewish primary sources on the Holocaust, and create a customized learning experience. The sources featured in Experiencing History—diaries, letters, testimonies, art, still and moving images and other sources produced by Jews in response to the escalating persecution and genocide—have been carefully selected and introduced by Holocaust scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. They are organized by theme, with an introductory text that raises critical questions about the nature of the documents and the methodological, epistemological, and other challenges that they pose for students and scholars.

Experiencing History builds on this pioneering effort, expanding the chronology of Jewish perspectives on the Holocaust into the postwar period.

Experiencing History features Jewish sources, thus highlighting the all too often ignored or marginalized perspectives of Holocaust victims. The source base presented here is an extension of the groundbreaking print series, Jewish Responses to Persecution, produced by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. The aim of the book series is to rectify the imbalance between use of perpetrator and victim sources in scholarship on the Holocaust, and point to the wide range of Jewish documents that have traditionally been neglected or marginalized by many Holocaust scholars. Rather than ask questions about the Holocaust that the perpetrator source base has traditionally driven scholars to pose (“When did the Nazis decide to murder all Jews?” “What were the specifics of persecution and murder of the Jews in Estonia?”; “How did the perpetrators of the genocide perceive the Jews?” “What was the role of Christian churches in the Holocaust?”; etc.), Jewish Responses to Persecution seeks to recover and showcase the breadth of Jewish reflections and responses to the unfolding catastrophe. Without the benefit of hindsight, individual Jews coped with the escalating persecution, made sense of the often unclear and conflicting regulations, imagined their prospects and options in rapidly changing circumstances, and—importantly—often wrote about all this or documented it in other ways. Whether in diaries, letters, newspaper articles, reports, or other genres of writing—as well as in visual and musical art—Jews dealt with the Holocaust on a daily basis, and we can learn a lot from delving into this material.

Experiencing History builds on this pioneering effort, expanding the chronology of Jewish perspectives on the Holocaust into the postwar period. Much of material presented here still squarely fall into the period between 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated, and the Red Army put the Soviet flag on the Reichstag. But unlike in the book series, for reasons both obvious and educational, we now offer to students reflections and responses that some Jews produced after the Holocaust, in forms impossible to master widely during the war, and impossible to reproduce in a book. Film footage, video testimony and other genres thus augment the record and provide the necessary addition to the variety of sources presented in Jewish Responses to Persecution.

The selection of sources in Experiencing History is a tiny sample designed to serve diverse educational goals, while providing a glimpse into the vastness of the source base.

Several important clarifications are in order. Posed today, a question whether a document is “Jewish” or not in many ways rings odd and borders on the irrelevant. However, from 1933 until the end of the war, Nazi policies, as well as those of the collaborationist states, territories and movements, defined people as “Jews” regardless of their religious practices or preferred identities, and then targeted them for annihilation. Because of this, the category of “Jew” encompassed many different people—religious Jews and secular Jews, Jews in name only and those who did not want to identify themselves as such, converts, Zionists and anti-Zionists, communists and others who abhorred national identification—and so our criterion for a “Jewish” source is the broadest one possible. If a person was targeted as a “Jew” during this period, their writing, art or other work is considered “Jewish” for the purpose of this educational tool, even if it was explicitly addressing this very issue, and the author was defining themselves as non-Jewish. Furthermore, because the Nazis were aimed at creating a world “free” of Jews, all Jews were affected, even those who lived in lands not conquered by Hitler. In addition to documents from Eastern Europe, the heartland of the Holocaust, and its margins, Experiencing History features documents from places not directly affected by the Holocaust—locations as diverse as New York, Benghazi, Havana, and Moscow, where various Jews addressed the events unfolding in Europe.

We have selected the materials featured here carefully, with an eye to their educational value, as well as their contribution to the impossible yet imperative goal of achieving a balance between the incredible diversity of cultural, linguistic, geographical, political and other Jewish contexts and the need to represent “typical” Jewish experiences of the Holocaust. By no means could we ever include here all Jewish materials for the study of the Holocaust. The selection of sources in Experiencing History is a tiny sample designed to serve diverse educational goals, while providing a glimpse into the vastness of the source base, and pointing those whose interest is aroused to spaces, physical and digital, in which many other similar sources reside.

Introductions to each document are designed to provide its historical context and some information about the fate of its author, as well as to occasionally raise some questions about the document’s production or history. These relatively short texts are annotated so as to point students to further readings, as well as to other trusted websites—both those hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and others—that further explain concepts, historical developments, and ideas relevant for the understanding of the context in which each document was created. We have sought to minimize explanation and interpretation, while still hoping to provide enough context for an intelligent and cogent classroom discussion. Since teachers and students will come to the documents with a variety of educational goals, analytical perspectives and disciplinary concerns, we have stayed away from closing off possible avenues of discussion and interpretation by raising unidisciplinary questions or providing unidisciplinary explanations or lesson plans.