Narratives

2 Violence and violations1

Violence and violations 1 : Betrayal narratives in atrocity accounts

Dennis B. Klein

The unseen

The standard scholarly account of assault goes something like this: “The Germans brought along with them a Ukrainian battalion that had been set up by an intelligence officer called Theodor Oberländer and was known as the Nightingale unit ... Together with local hooligans, the troops went on a rampage” (Segev 2010, 44). In their reports, as primary sources, scholars commit themselves to describing the scene, noting the brutality and carnage.

Unlike secondary documentation, witnesses’ accounts have had a difficult reception as sources of reliable information. From the time their accounts entered popular circulation in the 1960s, scholars and jurists often regarded them as merely subjective and sentimental, at best as derivative confirmation of their empirically validated arguments. This view was exemplified by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who covered the 1961 Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. The proceedings provided a major platform for survivors ofNazi-era destruction. Though they offered little evidence in support of the case for the prosecution, they succeeded at drawing worldwide attention to atrocity victims' emotional ordeal. Arendt disparaged their testimony as "embroidery” (Arendt 2006, 229). Their testimonies did not meet the classic, empirical standard of objective and verifiable truth, a standard in the tradition of historical and legal positivism that exalted historical reconstruction.

A new wave of scholars pushed back against this rationalist standard that they felt silenced the victim's voice. Noteworthy was the emergence in the 1990s of "deep-memory” theorists who championed attention to emotional expressions from the "inside”, where they claimed to harvest authentic truths (Langer 1991; 1994, 79; Felman 2002; Hirsch and Spitzer 2009, 151-170). In The Era of the Witness, Annette Wieviorka criticized the over-attention to what she claimed were ahistorical emotions that decontextualized and deracinated the expressive emotions in survivors' accounts and robbed them of their historical immediacy. She argued for a resurrection of historical reconstruction as the legitimate alternative and best practice - history authorized by historians (Wieviorka 2006).

Our argument seeks to preserve the victim's voice but aspires to mine it for historical insight. Victims, who serve as witnesses to atrocity, disclose dimensions of persecution that empirical and schematic interpretations miss. These subjective dimensions, which valuably include the interpersonal and intercultural dynamics of persecution, are what Primo Levi termed the "unseen from the outside” (Levi 1988, 82). For Levi, the "unseen” was what he called the "gray zone” - in his iteration, the surprising convergence, and not only divergence, of "masters and servants” in the Lager where the oppressed pandered to the authorities for privilege (Levi 1988, 36-39). He observed new codes of behaviour that required "that you take care of yourself first of all” (Levi 1988,78-79). The offer to help another inmate, he observed, simply didn’t exist (Levi 1988, 78). This kind of conduct was not limited to time or place or party: All were implicated (Levi 1988, 86-87). Levi concluded that the obsessive behaviour abetted the summary collapse of moral order; his remarkable analysis also helps us to recognize the historical immediacy of victims’ subjective negotiations.

Scholars have since come to recognize the historical disclosures of victims’ accounts. Geoffrey Hartman noted “The psychological and emotional milieu of the struggle for survival” that factual, documentary evidence ignores (Hartman 1996, 142). Dominick LaCapra used this principle against Raul Hilberg's notorious critical assessment of Jewish Council members. Hilberg's evaluation of SS-appointed Judenrat leaders exemplified the compromised perspective of outsiders, LaCapra argued. Though the evidence indicates their responsibility for implementing Nazi orders often at the expense of fellow Jews, witnesses’ testimonies assert another reality: they were implicated in a hopeless dilemma (Lacapra 1998,100). (See for comparison (Davidson 1964,191-194).) Omer Bar-tov argued that conventional documentation "distorts and ultimately falsifies the historical record”. It is helpless, for example, to deal with the fog of hostilities, imposing on extraordinary chaos a tripartite victim-persecutor-bystander schema that failed to reflect actors’ frequently indistinguishable roles: "The distinction between rescue and denunciation was often blurred and at times nonexistent, as was the distinction between perpetrators and victims” (Bartov 2013, 403). In one instance, a survivor recounted that a Ukrainian nationalist, who hid him and his mother, was responsible for killing Jews and Poles (Bartov 2013, 407). The enemy, he affirmed, was often once an ally: “I would say that 80 percent [of my family] were killed by the Ukrainians who were our friends” (Bartov 2013, 407).

In citing witnesses' accounts, Bartov refers to a crucial historical dynamic. The Ukrainian killing fields were spaces where Jews were historically in close contact with their ethnic Polish and Ukrainian neighbours. "While there were periods of strife - both domestic and with external forces - and although we should not idealize their relations, these groups knew only the reality of coexistence” (Bartov 2007, 116). Interaction was constant in schools, at marketplaces, in common spaces, and even in state and military service. The relative comity did not last into the twentieth century as Ukrainian nationalism and Soviet interference marginalized “foreigners”, including ethnic Poles as well as Jews. But even as terror mounted in the 1930s interethnic relationships remained close, closer than the term "coexistence” suggests. Bartov is especially poignant when he investigated relationships in the severe climate of racial antagonism. Killing, he showed, often occurred among residents who had cared for each other; provocatively, it was "intimate”. The parties in conflict, he asserted, knew each other well: As he documented, Jewish victims identified their assailants as their school friends and Christian neighbours before the war. One survivor, Alicia, told the story of her friend's father who became a Ukrainian police official. Before arresting her, she recalled, he said "he loved me like a daughter” (Bartov 2013, 406).

These accounts "from below” refer to an intercultural affliction in circumstances of intense conflict we will identify as the phenomenon of betrayal. As Wiesel reflected, "The further I go, the more I learn of the scope of the betrayal by the world of the living against the world of the dead” (Elie Wiesel 1982, 191). This is a reality often unseen that deserves our attention - it is a sovereign truth and a stark emotional reality of atrocity. "The cruelty of the enemy would have been incapable of breaking the prisoner”, Wiesel continued. "It was the silence of those he believed to be his friends - cruelty more cowardly, more subtle - which broke his heart” (Elie Wiesel 1982, 189).

 
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