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Mark Goldstein
Professor Kansteiner

Emotion and Memory of the Holocaust

Surviving what was arguably the greatest act of genocide in human history, the Holocaust, entitles one the opportunity to recount one’s feeling and memories of the horror. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, an outpouring of eyewitness accounts by both survivors and perpetrators has surfaced as historical evidence. For many, this has determined what modern popular culture remembers about this atrocious event. Emotion obviously plays a vital role in the accounts of the survivors, yet can it be considered when discussing the historical significance of and the truth behind the murder of six million European Jews by the Third Reich? Emotion is the expression of thoughts and beliefs affected by feeling and sensibility of an individual regarding a certain event or individual. In terms of the Holocaust, emotion is overwhelmingly prevalent in the survivors’ tales of their experiences almost sixty years ago, conveyed in terms of life, death, and survival. As scholars often point out, the Holocaust evokes strong sentiments, and transmits and reinforces basic societal values. Through in-depth observation of various forms of media sources, this paper will argue that emotion and the lack thereof, as a repercussion of the Holocaust, through the testimonies of those who survived its trials and tribulations, has played an enormous role in determining historical knowledge of the genocide.

In analyzing the stories which survivors of the concentration camps and their perpetrators have put forth as historical evidence supporting the findings of scholars, one must pose the question: where does fact end and emotional distortion of the subject begin? It is critical to approach this question with great care, so as to note that not all historical accounts of the Holocaust by survivors and perpetrators are laden with emotional input and a multilayered interpretation of the event. In her acclaimed article “Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum,” Susan Crane argues that the distortion of memory is the fault of historical institutions in failing to pose evidence which agrees with the testimony of the eyewitnesses. She writes that “the ‘distortion’ related to memory…is not so much of facts or interpretations, but a distortion from the lack of congruity between personal experience and expectation…and the institutional representation of the past on the other” (Crane, 1). At some point, scholars must interpret a filtered account of the survivor’s tale, searching through the layers of important facts and emotional embellishments, and find the most important knowledge buried deep within. Yet how may one distinguish fact from emotion? Famed Holocaust historian James Young, in his 1997 work “Toward a Received History of the Holocaust,” asks:

Is it possible to write a history that includes some oblique reference to such deep memory, but which leaves it essentially intact, untouched and thereby deep? In this section, I suggest, after Patrick Hutton, that ‘What is at issue here is not how history can recover memory, but, rather, what memory will bequeath to history’ (Young, 1)

Clearly, this is an issue with which scholars have struggled to deal for years, however this paper will show that it is quite possible to distinguish the two sides.

The methodological approach undertaken in this paper confronts each account as one in which memory and fact have merged together, through which even scholars often have trouble determining how historical knowledge can be retrieved from these testimonies. A prime example of this emotion layered within a survivor’s account of the Holocaust is Primo Levi’s discussion of a fellow prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp. Henri, to Levi’s discontent, rarely exhibits any displeasure with his treatment in the camp and is one of the most well-respected inmates at Auschwitz by all, often granted special treatment by the German officers present. Levi’s vendetta against Henri is emotionally-charged, as he writes, “I know that Henri is living today. I would give much to know his life as a free man, but I don’t not want to see him again” (Levi, 100). Why would Levi force obvious feelings of anger into his remembrance of the camp? His obvious jealousy of Henri’s stature within the camp taints his testimony, and begs the question of whether of not certain or all parts of Survival in Auschwitz can be counted as a reliable source. This paper will attempt to differentiate between emotional charges, such as Levi’s personal vendetta, and those lacking sentiment, and the way in which both play a role in historical memory.

It is important to first look at the stoicism portrayed in accounts of the Holocaust in order to understand those testimonies which are laden with it. One must also distinguish the testimonial proof provided by victims as well as perpetrators of the Holocaust, as both are historically significant in piecing together the chronology of events between 1939 and 1945. No proof could be stronger than that voiced by Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: Report on the Banality of Evil. Her work describes the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli Government.Eichmann was one of the most notorious desk killers of the Third Reich, organizing the deportations of many Jews from all over Europe, including Germany , Vienna, Prague, and Hungary . At the same time, Arendt deals with the intricate details of his Jerusalem trial for crimes against humanity. She uses her work as a medium through which she describes him as ordinary gentleman, a far cry from the brutal murderer as he is portrayed by Nazi documents which survived through the end of World War II. Similar to Christopher Browning’s argument regarding the psychological state of Reserve Police Battalion No. 101 in Ordinary Men, Arendt surmises that Eichmann was influenced by the authoritarian regime of the Nazi government. She portrays Eichmann as a common citizen, no different from those who opposed his position during the war.

As scholars have written, it is the Eichmann trial which first opened the eyes of the world to the atrocities of the crimes committed by the Nazi perpetrators. Many continue to argue that Eichmann himself is the stereotypical desk killer of the Third Reich, and represents the ‘banality of evil’ of this regime. Arendt attempts to research Eichmann’s statements which deem him ordinary, not diminishing his murderous deeds, however removing the sense of emotional hatred for the Jewish people which most view as the impetus for his actions. She accomplishes this task well as she presents ample evidence, while allowing the reader to decide whether to accept such ideas. Furthermore, she shows Eichmann as a willing captive of the Israeli Parliament, detailing his lack of opposition to the arrest, seemingly accepting his fate. “I, the undersigned,Adolf Eichmann…express my readiness to travel to Israel to face a court of judgment…I shall try to write down the facts of my last years of public activities in Germany , without any [emotional] embellishments” (Arendt, 241). Arendt’s argument highlights the lack of emotion often viewed in reminiscent accounts of the Holocaust by the surviving perpetrators.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of the testimony of the Nazi perpetrators, contrasting Arendt’s views is Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. Kramer’s emotional film depicts the trial of four German justices who implemented and enforced the sterilization as well as anti-Semitic measures of the Third Reich. Kramer evokes emotion through accounts of their actions by the judges themselves, forcing them to confront their past and realize the err of their ways, dissimilar to Eichmann in Jerusalem: Report on the Banality of Evil, in which Arendt proposed Eichmann to be an ordinary citizen merely following orders. As one of the top German justices during the Third Reich, Dr. Ernst Janning is represented in the film as a man, at first, unwilling to come to terms with his decisions and the consequences thereafter. Eventually, though, through an emotional description of his wrongs and the state of humanity, Janning accepts responsibility for his enforcement of Hitler’s policies. As lead prosecutor, Colonel Tad Lawson, argues: “[These men are] the embodiment of what passed for justice during the Third Reich…They distorted, they perverted, they destroyed justice and law in Germany ” (Kramer). Kramer’s emotional portrayal of the judge forces the viewer to feel some sympathy for Janning.

As Arendt argues that Eichmann was an ordinary man, Judgment at Nuremberg exhibits the exact opposite regarding these four Nazi judges. Through expert testimony, and especially the discussions between the group of perpetrators, Kramer portrays these men with a mission to uphold their nationalistic feelings for Hitler’s cause. Possibly the film’s most emotional segment, other then Lancaster’s monologue, is the viewing of the liberation of the internment camp Dachau, during which the entire courtroom, most for the first time, views the atrocities of the Holocaust. The horror is most obvious in the faces and expressions of the four men on trial, who have finally realized the fatal effects of their decisions. The final change in these judges from silent killers to emotionally scarred criminals takes place as defendant judge Friedrich Hofstetter inquires of a fellow inmate whether the film’s portrayal of the murder of thousands upon thousands of individuals is possible. The prisoner assures him that it is not only possible, but also easy, a horror which they previously failed to readily accept.

Following Arendt’s lead, Levi also seems to convey coldness and stoicism, however his work clearly relates to certain aspects of his account of his time spent in Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz seems to juxtapose itself so often on numerous fronts, exhibited clearly by Levi’s jump from emotional to stoic descriptions of life within the camp. As noted earlier, he exhibits a personal vendetta against another former member of the camp, Henri, however often completely reverses these feelings of emotion with cold recollections of his experiences. In his depiction of the hanging of a prisoner attempting to rise up against the Nazi forces within Auschwitz-Birkenau, Levi leaves the reader void of any emotional memories, recalling the incident with harsh and bitter precision, not allowing his feelings to interrupt. “Everybody heard the cry of the doomed man, it pierced through the old thick barriers of inertia and submissiveness…I wish I could say that from the midst of us, an abject flock, a voice rose, a murmur, a sigh of assent” (Levi, 149). Levi’s chilling testimony contradicts his earlier descriptions so radically that one must beg to ask: why does he remove all emotion from this description while layering others with it? The answer, however, is one which historians have pondered since the conclusion of the Holocaust, and cannot truly answer, as these differences in the body of the eyewitness testimonies account for problems regarding their historical significance. One reason for Levi’s stoicism, though, could relate to his eventual indifference to death; it is likely that his mind has become numb to the Nazi murders, and thus such a hanging is merely another life lost, a number rather than a name.

The stark contrast between emotional and stoic accounts of the Holocaust as a whole is most noticeable in the aftermath of the events, through the recollections of its survivors. Such a scene is painted, in contrast to Levi’s account of the hanging at Auschwitz, by Morris Wyszogrod in his book A Brush with Death. Wyszogrod’s work recounts his experiences at the Warsaw ghetto and finally the internment camp Theresienstadt until its liberation by the Allied forces in 1945. What is most intriguing about this book, however, is the artwork created by Wyszogrod to convey specific events within the camp. One of the most significant pieces is one in which the author, and artist, has painted a scene recounting the torturous murder of a member of the Warsaw ghetto in the autumn of 1943. In contrast to Levi’s account of the hanging of an unnamed revolutionary in Auschwitz, this portrayal contains emotional memory and thorough detail.Wyszogrod describes the murder of Bitter as one in which mob rule, the sentiment felt by those within a society to conform to the feelings of that community, prevailed and horror set in. Bitter was murdered by the Ukrainian guards, Polakov and Popov, for attempting to steal potatoes, a violation of an unwritten ghetto law. “Earlier, this poor soul had been discovered in the industrial area boiling some potatoes in his tin can…A Jew was not supposed to have potatoes” (Wyszogrod, 158).

From here on, however, the description of the beating and murder of the victim becomes much more graphic, detailed, and emotional than at any point in Levi’s work. Wyszogrod writes of the ways in which the guards forced other prisoners to attack Bitter, thrashing him to the threshold of death, while the description concludes with the account of the final acts committed by the Ukrainians to kill their “criminal” prisoner:

Bitter was bleeding from all over, but he was still alive. The Ukrainians…decided that Bitter’s condition was not bad Enough. They bent his head down and began to burn his Eyes with cigarette lighters and matches. While all this was Happening…Bitter cried out as loudly as he could: ‘[May I be An atonement for the whole people of Israel . God, take my Soul. Hear, Oh Israel .’ At the end, when he was already close To death, they forced a sharp wooden stake down his throat And poured water into his mouth. (Wyszogrod, 159)

This account of the murder of a fellow Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust strikes the reader with an obvious contrast to Levi’s lax re-telling of a similar event. Here, however, emotion pours throughout the testimony.

Similar to Levi’s account of his interment at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel’s work Night describes one man’s battles against the Nazi regime and the social structure of the four different death camps through which he passed.Wiesel’s account is similar to that of Levi in that both portray their experiences through emotional means, however there are many significant instances during which the author fails to exude a sense of feeling and sentiment in recounting specific events. A famed Holocaust speaker, it is highly likely that Wiesel intentionally fails to convey emotion in his portrayals, as he is a firm supporter of the idea that readers and listeners to such memories can never fully understand what happened in the camps. As Levi stoically describes the hanging of a prisoner within the camp, Wiesel also discusses death with a haunting lack of emotion. In Night he writes:

That same evening, we reached our destination…The guards came to unload us. The dead were abandoned in the train. Only those who could still stand were able to get out…The last day had been the most murderous. A hundred of us had got into the wagon. A dozen of us got out-among them, my father and I. We had arrived at Buchenwald. (Wiesel, 98)

His account of the death of eighty-eight Jews on a train bound for the Buchenwald camp is chilling, one clearly affected by the personal experience of mass murder. The lack of emotion exhibited in this instance alters the historical significance of this testimony, and begs the question of whether historians may take Wiesel’s argument as evidence regarding the Holocaust if all emotion is drained? Though not evident in every stage of Night, Wiesel’s unemotional description here might not accurately describe the event as historical records must remember it; the records must portray these experiences devoid of bias and sentimental memory.

Reeve Robert Brenner takes a different approach to investigating the aftermath of the Holocaust and its effects on the survivors in his 1980 book The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors. Brenner eloquently discusses the religious feelings and beliefs of those who survived, while furthering his argument by discussing the issue of religion itself and the current state of Judaism. He sheds light on the innermost secrets and sentiments of those who emerged from the camps in regards to their religion and affiliation with it. As Dr. Debora Phillips, Director of the Princeton Center for Behavior Therapy Congress Monthly writes, “Page after page, the book lifts the veil which reveals the Jewish innermost soul, the richness of the Jewish mind and character” (Phillips). Brenner, however, explores the emotional aspect involved in the testimony of the Jewish victims remaining today, as one survivor comments:

Why do you have to do research...There’s nothing so complicated That it requires scholarship. We who went through the camps no Longer believe in God. It’s as simple as that. We, because of our Experience and what we witnessed, know there is no God. God is a Myth. (Brenner, 109)

This account highlights the fact that many of the survivors who emerged from the Holocaust felt that there was no one, especially no higher being, who was concerned for their well-being; many felt betrayed. Brenner extracts a great deal of emotion from this testimony, which clearly exemplifies the bitter resentment which many survivors sense towards the acts committed against them and the lack of aide received. With no one to blame but the Nazis, the Jews turn to God as the culprit of the Holocaust, guilty of not saving his people from their ruthless extermination.

Having filtered this individual memory into specific categories of emotional and stoic accounts, in addition to those by Jewish survivors and Nazi perpetrators, it is crucial to determine the weight of memory in recollection of the Holocaust as a whole. May a scholar take into account the testimony of a survivor of Auschwitz if his portrayal of his experiences is layered with feelings such as hatred and sorrow? On the other hand, does a lack of any such emotion play a part in determining the actual events of the Final Solution? Memory is a factor which must be considered heavily before taking any action regarding historical evidence of the Holocaust, however historians would be rash not to research the source of the account and its context. Even memorials, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and YadV’Shem in Israel , agree that memory plays a significant role in the determination and treatment of actions taken by both the victims and the perpetrators during the war. As certain historians have written in reinforcing the point that memory is a key aspect in the “myth” of the Holocaust, memorials and museums are important in promoting awareness of the event, as it can be argued that the Holocaust came to America only finally with the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many argue that the memory of survivors is an important tool for teaching present and future generations about the horrors which occurred so that such an atrocity never happens again.

As is written on the website for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, a direct quote from a tribute participant of the scroll of remembrance inscription, “I have survived and am here with my children and grandchildren. We will never forget and will pass on this memory so that this horror will never be forgotten”

( This section of the website is devoted to the preservation of the memory of Holocaust survivors, and allows visitors to read excerpts of testimony by such individuals. Thus, memory is clearly an important aspect of re-telling the story of the extermination of six million Jews during World War II, however, it also plays a significant role in shaping future attitudes towards the Holocaust. Memory devoid of emotion may be recorded differently from those accounts filled with feeling, often stressed with greater emphasis than the former, however both play equally significant roles in determining the ever-changing implications of the Holocaust.

Although survivor testimonials clearly weigh heavily in the role of re-piecing the events of the Holocaust, they are not the most important factors, a designation which is credited to historical documents and footage. Historical evidence, however, would not be the same without the memory of Jews and Nazis alike. As noted, memory plays on the emotional aspect of the scholars’ findings, evoking images and ideas about the occurrences in Eastern Europe, and other occupied territories, which hard facts could not uncover. As Ronald J. Berger writes in his discussion of memory of the Holocaust in Constructing a Collective Memory of the Holocaust, knowledge of the genocide and specific facts pertaining to its occurrences were lacking in the decade or so in its aftermath without the weight of memory. Berger’s work outlines the ways in which scholars and pedestrian readers may interpret the accounts by Jewish survivors as well as Nazi killers, and how that memory can be shaped into one cohesive whole. The book details the events leading up to the implementation of the Final Solution and its enforcement through testimony of those whole survived its wrath. As is clear from the work, without memory, as was the case essentially until the Eichmann trial of 1961, historical records of the Holocaust are tainted and fail to fully inform historians.

In the first decade after the war the suppression of memory of the Jewish experience was also apparent in the relationships Survivors had with those outside their community…Nevertheless, The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann marked a turning point in the Postwar memory of the Holocaust…Gradually survivors who had Been ‘deprived for so many years of respectful listeners to their Stories’ came to see themselves as responsible for reminding the world That what happened to them must happen ‘Never Again!’ (Berger, 4-5)

Berger’s account of the collection of facts regarding the Holocaust before and after the introduction of memory into scholarly research is remarkable. His argument exhibits that, without memory of the survivors and victimizers, the Holocaust would be merely another barbarous act of humanity, lacking the emotional factors which have made it such a crucial actor in European history. Devoid of the writings of survivors such as Wiesel and Levi, remembrance of this event would be seen in a different light than it is today.

At the focal point of Steven Spielberg’s powerful 1996 documentary Survivors of the Holocaust is the effort to gather the testimonies of those who survived the extermination of over eleven million people between 1933 and 1945. Spielberg’s hope is to ensure that future generations understand the horrors through which the survivors lived, and never forget such crimes against humanity. These accounts are important to society as a whole because they assure that those who research the topic and learn about the events of the Holocaust will value their life on an entirely different level than previously thought; they will always remember and never forget. As Ben Kingsley states in the introduction to Spielberg’s film, “[The Holocaust] cannot be understood, may not be forgiven, and must not be forgiven” (Spielberg). These testimonies ensure that scholars and archivists create accurate representations of the genocide of the Jews, as well as other minorities, allowing future generations to understand what occurred and the impact it had on those who experienced its full force. Among the other “racially inferior” groups murdered were the gypsies, or Roma, who, as Guenter Lewy writes in his book The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, were exterminated because of society’s portrayal of them as thieves, vandals, and nomads. As one survivor recounted to Spielberg, “When the last Holocaust survivor dies, the six million will finally be able to rest in peace because we will have passed on the message…we must always be involved” (Spielberg). Similar to the YadV’Shem and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s websites, the Spielberg documentary attempts to force the accounts to teach those interested “lessons about life and hope and the devastation that can come from intolerance” (Spielberg). Although there is a difference between Levi and Wyszogrod’s account of the murder of a fellow inmate, both accounts further historical knowledge of life within the ghettos and camps, and develop an ever-increasing understanding of the proceedings of the Holocaust. As Kingsley states in regards to the vast amounts of testimonies recorded by Spielberg and his crew, “each was important, each was unique, and each was an important piece of history” (Spielberg).

The tales of Holocaust survivors are clearly among the most important data used to determine historical records of the genocide of six million Jews. Though some testimonies stand out with emotional accounts while others lack sentiment, both types support the idea that knowledge of the Holocaust would be severely different without the memory of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and others. The accounts such as those by Wyszogrod play on the emotion of scholars and pedestrian readers alike, however still maintain historical significance for the information underneath the layers of hatred, sorrow, and confusion. On the other hand, Arendt’s work is one of many which highlight the stoicism of the Holocaust, as she portrays Adolf Eichmann in such a light. Both types of tales, though, are used by historians to extract crucial information relating to the events which occurred within the death camps, in order to learn more about the daily lives of the survivors and victims of the Nazi regime. Works such as those visited in this paper have facilitated the spread of the Holocaust as a cultural phenomenon in the past two decades, and created an aura about the event itself. As scholar Yehudah Bauer writes,

Whether presented authentically or inauthentically, in accordance with the historical facts or in contradiction to them, with empathy and understanding or as monumental kitsch, the Holocaust has become a ruling symbol in our culture. I am not sure whether this is good or bad, but it seems to be a fact. (Bauer)

Bauer’s valid assessment leads one to question whether all of the current knowledge regarding the Holocaust is completely correct. Can Levi recount his experiences in Auschwitz correctly to every detail five years after his liberation? Many struggle with errors in the accuracy of the accounts of survivors and perpetrators alike in the aftermath of the Holocaust, however one cannot speculate as to their exactness as memory and emotion are different for each individual, treated differently from fact. The memory of those who lived through the Holocaust is assessed and read with care, for the survivors will not be here forever, however their testimonies will live on forever.


1.Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. United States of America . The Viking Press. 1963.

2. Bauer, Yehudah. The Significance of the Final Solution. London, England . 1994.

3. Berger, Ronald J. Constructing a Collective Memory of the Holocaust. Niwot, Co. University Press of Colorado. 1995.

4. Brenner, Reeve Robert. The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors. New York, N.Y. The Free Press. 1980.

5. Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men. New York, N.Y. Harper Collins Publishers. 1993.

6. Cole, Tim. Selling the Holocaust. New York, N.Y. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. 1999.

7. Crane, Susan. “Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum.”. History and Theory, Volume 36, Number 4, Theme Issue 36. December 1997

8. Greenspan, Henry. On Listening to Holocaust Survivors. Westport, Ct. Praeger Publishers. 1998.

9. Kramer, Stanley.Judgement at Nuremberg. 1961.

10. Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York, N.Y. Touchstone. 1996.

11.Lewy, Guenter. The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies. Oxford, England . Oxford University Press. 2000.

12. Spielberg, Steven. Survivors of the Holocaust. 1996.

13. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2004.

14.Wiesel,Elie. Night. United States of America . Bantam Publishing Group. 1958.

15.Wyszogrod, Morris. A Brush with Death. Albany, N.Y. State University of New York Press. 1999.

16. Young, James. “Toward a Received History of the Holocaust.” History and Theory, Volume 36, Number 4, Theme Issue 36. December 1997.

Last Updated: 8/12/16