Writ­ing in Wit­ness: A Holo­caust Reader

Eric J. Sundquist

January 1, 2013

A com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of the most impor­tant writ­ing to come out of the Holocaust.

Writ­ing in Wit­ness
 is a broad sur­vey of the most impor­tant writ­ing about the Holo­caust pro­duced by eye­wit­ness­es at the time and soon after. Whether they intend­ed to spark resis­tance and under­mine Nazi author­i­ty, to com­fort fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty, to beseech God, or to leave a memo­r­i­al record for pos­ter­i­ty, the writ­ers reflect on the pow­er and lim­i­ta­tions of the writ­ten word in the face of events often thought to be beyond rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The diaries, jour­nals, let­ters, poems, and oth­er works were cre­at­ed across a geog­ra­phy reach­ing from the Baltics to the Balka­ns, from the Atlantic coast to the heart of the Sovi­et Union, and in a wide array of orig­i­nal lan­guages. Along with the read­ings, Eric J. Sundquist’s intro­duc­tions pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive account of the Holo­caust as a his­tor­i­cal event. Includ­ing works by promi­nent authors such as Pri­mo Levi and Elie Wiesel as well as those lit­tle known or anony­mous, Writ­ing in Wit­ness pro­vides, in vital and mem­o­rable exam­ples, a wide-rang­ing account of the Holo­caust by those who felt the imper­a­tive to give writ­ten testimony.

Discussion Questions

In a genre already brim­ming with com­pelling works, Writ­ing in Wit­ness stands out as an impor­tant addi­tion to the canon of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. Sev­er­al dozen authors, some famil­iar, some less so, pro­vide their own first-hand accounts of the hor­ror inflict­ed upon Jews dur­ing Nazi rule. The pieces are divid­ed into six dis­tinct sec­tions cov­er­ing the nar­ra­tive arc of the Shoah, from the ear­ly crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Jews, to the imple­men­ta­tion of ghet­tos and the Final Solu­tion, to sur­vival and its dev­as­ta­tion. They are pre­sent­ed as diary entries, essays and/​or poems. But regard­less of for­mat, they are not easy to digest, even for those famil­iar with the work of Pri­mo Levi and Elie Wiesel, both of whom have pieces here. With imagery and detail only afford­ed by a per­son­al account, each piece allows the read­er to be an eye­wit­ness to unimag­in­able hor­rors. A hand­ful of reports from non-Jews are includ­ed as well, such as that of Kurt Ger­stein who recounts in plain lan­guage the oper­a­tion of the gas cham­bers. It’s all excru­ci­at­ing to read, to process, and to make sense of, but it’s nev­er been more impor­tant to do so.