Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /homepages/11/d471477221/htdocs/journalism2014/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 601

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /homepages/11/d471477221/htdocs/journalism2014/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 601

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /homepages/11/d471477221/htdocs/journalism2014/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 601

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /homepages/11/d471477221/htdocs/journalism2014/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 601

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /homepages/11/d471477221/htdocs/journalism2014/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 601

Where History and Memory Collide

The Remuh Cemetery, or Old Jewish Cemetery of Krakow, was largely destroyed by Nazis during the German occupation of Poland. Reconstruction efforts have restored parts of the cemetery, where a number of prominent Polish Jews are buried.  Photo by Dustin Volz

The Remuh Cemetery, or Old Jewish Cemetery of Krakow, was largely destroyed by Nazis during the German occupation of Poland. Reconstruction efforts have restored parts of the cemetery, where a number of prominent Polish Jews are buried. Photo by Dustin Volz

By SAMANTHA PICKETTE

BERLIN–We faced a tough question on our last day in Berlin: Do you fact-check a Holocaust survivor before you publish his or her story?

Take the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of the highly contested Holocaust memoir, Fragments, published in 1995. Wilkomirski claimed to have survived Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau as a young child. Historians eventually uncovered evidence that Wilkomirski was not, in fact, a survivor, and that Fragments was fabricated.

This isn’t the first time that someone has tried to exploit the Holocaust for personal gain. In 1965, Jerzy Kozinski published The Painted Bird, which he marketed as a novel but said was based on his experiences in Poland during the Holocaust. But in 1982 The Village Voice revealed that not only was Kozinski’s “auto-novel” fiction, parts of it were plagiarized as well. Similarly, Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence was completely fictional—the author eventually admitted to lying because he needed the money the memoir would bring him.

The biggest problem with counterfeit Holocaust memoirs, of course, is that they threaten the credibility of all Holocaust stories. The Binjamin Wilkomirskis of the world are used as “proof” by Holocaust deniers, and are unfair to the true survivors. Still, because people like Wilkomirski and Rosenblat exist, we as journalists are obligated to ascertain the accuracy of every survival story we hear—whether it be the story of a victim of a natural disaster, a heinous crime, or a genocide.

The important part of this process, then, is to maintain a healthy skepticism without becoming so cynical that we refuse to believe anything. Simply put, we must adhere to the journalistic standard “trust, but verify.”

Yet, in the case of Holocaust survivors, how do we verify their stories without seeming cruel? There is no concrete answer, but something that FASPE fellow Martine Powers said during our discussion comes close to defining the most ethical approach: The stories of Holocaust survivors are so important that we need to fact-check with the aim of making each story as unassailable as possible. We should be thorough without being accusatory in order to prevent cases like those we talked about on Friday.

The Holocaust is where history and memory collide. Historical documents can only tell so much, and survivors expand the narrative of the Holocaust and give it an emotional texture that goes beyond statistics. Therefore, our biggest responsibility as journalists is to protect these stories by ensuring that they are as accurate and reflective of each person’s experience as possible before we disseminate them for public scrutiny.

Over the next three days, we will go to Auschwitz, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. A fortunate few, like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Bronia Brandman, managed to escape, to live on and tell the stories of their survival. These stories will undoubtedly shape the way we explore the camp and should be accepted as fact—after all, we were not there, and we do not know what every individual experienced. The grounds of the camp and the museum that accompanies it represent the history of the Holocaust.  On the other hand, the stories of victims and of survivors like Wiesel, Levi and Brandman allow us to understand the Holocaust as a human experience rather than as a historical event, and the passing on of these stories through accurate accounts ensures that we, as journalists and as human beings, truly will never forget.

Comments are closed.