Learning with Biographies. Objectives, Opportunities and Limitations of Educational Work with Life Stories and Biographical Fragments about Former Victims of Nazi Persecution

Content-Author Profile / Contact

Content-Author: Ingolf Seidel

You have to be logged in to view the profile
and to contact the author.

Click here to register

Ingolf Seidel is Project Manager and Editor of the online magazine "Learning from History".

By Ingolf Seidel 

Learning with biographies is essentially about using life stories to approach the events of a specific historical epoch from a subjective perspective. In the context of National Socialism, it is usually understood to mean learning based on individual histories of persecution suffered by survivors of the German policy of extermination. The focus is on the testimony of survivors of National Socialism - “contemporary witnesses” is the vague term often used to describe them today. Biographical learning in connection with perpetrators, bystanders, or people who have been incriminated by others etc. plays at best a marginal role in this canon. 

Contemporary witnesses and historical learning 

As the concept of contemporary witnesses is closely connected with questions of historical learning using biographies, I would like to begin by quoting Primo Levi‘s well known and unsettling words on the subject of witnesses: 

»We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. (…) We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch the bottom.« 

If these lines written by Primo Levi are taken literally, there are no surviving contemporary witnesses of the German policy of extermination. The people who were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, in the camps of “operation Reinhardt”, are no longer with us. Often, all that is left of them is an anonymous mass grave, and so there is usually not even a place where the bereaved can mourn today. The perpetrators of these crimes made every effort to ensure that no witnesses to these murders survived. 

At the same time, our everyday knowledge and the desire to communicate that lies at the heart of our work as educators go against Primo Levi’s words. We are aware of the existence of countless reports made by survivors and preserved in archives. The archive of the Shoah Foundation alone, which was founded by Steven Spielberg and is part of the University of Southern California (USC), contains over 50,000 interviews.

We are familiar with Yehuda Lerner’s account of the Sobibor uprising and of his escape from the camp, which he speaks about in Claude Lanzmann's documentary titled “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” Yes, even surviving inmates of the so-called Sonderkommando in Auschwitz have given testimony in written and visual form, including Jakow Silberberg, the protagonist of Karl Fruchtmann’s 1987 film „Ein einfacher Mensch“ (a simple man). 

Written accounts can also bear witness. The nature of ego-documents such as letters, diaries and memoirs is, of course, different. Persecutees record their sufferings, their resistance, or their survival strategies in these ego-documents, which embody the victims‘ perspective. However, in the witness statements recorded by the media or transcribed during the Nazi trials, there is already some blurring of the clarity which stems from the notion that these statements are testimonies given from a strictly first-person perspective. Even the camera perspectives used during the Eichmann trial constitute an element of staging by third parties. 

Documents in archives, here the documents in the Arolsen Archives in particular, represent different perspectives. These might be the perspectives of perpetrators, if the documents concerned are files which come from concentration camps, for example. Or they may represent the bureaucratic perspective of people from aid organizations who worked with survivors. These documents are contemporary testimonies too, albeit from the point of view of the perpetrators or other parties.

Marginalized victim groups

Learning with biographies or with biographical elements provides the opportunity to demonstrate the heterogeneous nature of the victims of persecution; this applies in particular, but not exclusively, to Jewish persecutees who did not become "THE JEWS" until their homogenization through National Socialist ideology. When dealing with Nazi history, it is also necessary to devote attention to the biographies of other groups of persecutees in order to counteract the hierarchization of these groups that is seen in practice and that results in their marginalization. 

It is a sad fact that the National Socialist genocide of Sinti and Roma people, which has its own specifics, is remembered as an afterthought at best. Similarly, the almost uninterrupted continuation of antiziganism after 1945, which is evident in the life stories of the Sinti and Roma minority as well as in archival documents, is hardly mentioned, in contrast to secondary antisemitism. In recent years, the forced laborers who were exploited so murderously have come to receive a little more attention. And some seminars cover the biographies of homosexuals in concentrations camps. More attention is also now being paid to the murders perpetrated by the Nazis on the sick as well as on the T4 campaign. 

But who is providing pedagogical support and who is reminding us of the second largest group of victims? This group consists of about 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war. Where has the debate about so-called anti-social elements or alleged career criminals found its way into educational contexts? Even Social Democrats and Communists, who were the first victims of the Nazi state, receive only marginal attention today. The usually unintentional hierarchization of the victims that is seen repeatedly in practice, is primarily, but not only, carried out by the dominant society. 

All these groups are not simply "forgotten victims" – they were and still are marginalized in the discourse of remembrance. It is certainly true that archives contain hardly complete biographies – and still fewer ego-documents – about so-called anti-social elements or people who were forced to wear the green triangle that identified career criminals. However, biographical traces of a wide range of different groups of persecutees can be found in the holdings of the Arolsen Archives – and not only there.

The perspectives of the victims of persecution and integrated history

Discussions with contemporary witnesses and recorded interviews with survivors are used in educational contexts with the intention of making it possible to experience history from a subjective perspective and of making history more accessible. At the same time, according to Matthias Heyl, subject-orientation also means »enabling young people to analyze a historical situation as well as their own references to it in order to be able to search for ways and means of finding their own individual perspective on the historical situation which presents itself to them and to do so in the context of their own interests.« This requires them to distance themselves from both victims and perpetrators in a way that is not always possible during a discussion with a contemporary witness involving intense emotions. Documents from archival collections can help to create this distance as they are indirect reports about a person. 

It is due to the great historian Saul Friedländer that history is increasingly being recounted in the form of "integrated history", which takes the perspective of the victims into account and gives it a central place. Among other things, (videographed) interviews with survivors of German extermination policy are available for this purpose. This approach, which Friedländer conceived for the persecuted Jews, should not be limited to them alone. Ultimately, examining and communicating the perspective of the victims is just as important as examining and communicating the perspective of the perpetrators or the history of events and structures. In this context, we also need to tell the life stories of the persecutees before and, in the case of survivors, after their persecution, as well as focus on their reactions to the persecution and on decisions in order to ensure that these people are not reduced to the status of victims. For me, however, it remains unclear whether the absolutization of this perspective in educational contexts, while correct, may in fact prevent a confrontation with the concept of guilt in all its various forms - and ultimately constitute an affirmation of post-National-Socialist society, which, at the expense of repressing its own responsibility and "secondary guilt" (Giordano), believes itself to be able to free itself from guilt by identifying with the victims and sacralizing them. 

This leads me to question the purpose of using biographies in an educational context. What do we aim to achieve by working with contemporary testimonies or by analyzing biographies? Is it all about instigating a sense of personal involvement and about emotionalization? Or is it a question of simply reconstructing biographies, especially with a view to evaluating historical documents? Does the much-hailed concept of authenticity play the most important role? Or is it all about conveying the history of events from a subjective perspective? Whatever the concrete objective in schools and other educational contexts may be, when we work with biographies, as with any other source, and this cannot be emphasized often enough, historical integration within the history of National Socialism is essential. The narrative competence called for in schools can only develop when the historical context is not hidden by the powerful nature of discussions with contemporary witnesses and ego-documents.

When learning with biographies, as when working with biographical archival documents, it is therefore neither adequate nor sufficient to consider individual biographies in isolation or to deal exclusively with individual stories of persecution. When working in an educational context, we must, and I understand this is in a normative sense, reveal the underlying ideologies (primarily antisemitism and racism), the social and political processes (such as the radicalization of Nazi politics during the war and the sometimes competing interests of Nazi institutions), and the cultural context. And the concrete circumstances and historical events must also be taken into account, by examining the history of the concentration camps, for example. Consequently, imparting knowledge about the history of events and about the structural history of National Socialism is essential for a real understanding of biographies and individual stories of suffering. Traditional textbooks still have an important role to play here, although a number of problematic aspects are seen over and over again, such as the way Jews are hardly ever depicted as active agents. 

The abovementioned processes can also be inferred from biographical fragments from collections of files held in archives. Some of these documents were created or used by perpetrators. This means that when working with archival documents, the first step should be to reveal the provenance of the source in order to understand whose perspective is involved. It follows that the data the documents contain must be subjected to a critical appraisal. Many types of documents (e.g. registry office cards from concentration camps) are not self-explanatory. Unlike discussions with contemporary witnesses or interviews which have been recorded on video, archival material has to be discovered and collated. This in itself calls for a more intensive examination of the materials involved. A biography is not available to participants as a finished product, they have to explore it, or even research it, for themselves. This research-centered approach provides special opportunities for differentiation when learning with biographies.

An additional difficulty that may – and probably will – arise is the fact that it is often only possible to reconstruct fragments of a biography on the basis of archival documents. However, these biographical elements are not unsuitable for use in the context of historical learning. What is more important in such cases is to explore, discuss and present the reasons for and the background to the gaps. Gaps in a person's biography can also serve to symbolize fractures in their life story or biographical fragment, which were in fact caused by their persecution or even their murder. One objective might be to investigate which aspects of a person's life do not feature in the files created by perpetrators, i.e. to explore how the files negated a person's reality and robbed them of their humanity even while they were still alive. In fact, the biographical fragments which can be gleaned from the documents in the Arolsen Archives concretize Moishe Postone's analysis, which holds that the National Socialist perpetrators and those who collaborated with them turned the Jews they persecuted into shadows, numbers, and ciphers.


Add comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.