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Wirklichkeitswund und Wirklichkeit Suchend (Stricken By and Seeking Reality): Literacy Conversations which Restore Families, Schools and Communities

Ray Wolpow


The late psychoanalyst and survivor of the Holocaust, Victor Frankl, understood that spiritual healing is attained through one's capacity to transcend suffering by assigning ultimate meaning to that suffering (Frankl, 1962). One theme of contemporary education is that past sufferings somehow serve as the seeds of future redemption, both physical and spiritual. The implication is that through education we can learn the lessons of the Holocaust so that we need not repeat them. In so doing, those who have suffered most will be rewarded for the sacrifices they have made for the good of humanity. However, what possible spiritual meaning can be articulated to justify the systematic extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children? Promises of eternal reward and ultimate punishment do not make sense when depictions of Hell have already been experienced in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Dachau, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno, and the dozens of other such places of horror.

The last of these concerns is especially relevant when we consider that of the six million deaths, approximately two million were children. Domestic abuse, rape, homicide, suicide, juvenile gang violence, vehicular-related death and dismemberment, physical and sexual abuse is becoming more and more commonplace in the lives of today’s Post-Holocaust children and youth (Carlson, 1984; Governors Commission, 1993; Koss & Dinero, 1989;  Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987;  Pynoos & Nader, 1990; Straus & Gelles, 1992).. More importantly (and unfortunately), these children’s stories most often remain untold and therefore uncontextualized (Browne & Finkelhor, 1986). The German psychological term invented to describe this phenomenon is wirklichkeitswund und wirklichkeit suchend, stricken by and seeking reality.

According to current research, it is precisely the untold story that exacerbates the continuing damage of trauma, in turn resulting in an inability to learn to read and write (Bower, 1994, 565). Literacy teachers are not psychologists. However, we are trained to show students how to glean a personal understanding from what we read and then to write about this understanding. This paper will first provide an overview of ways that survivors of the Jewish Holocaust community have used testimonial literature and acts of literacy to contextualize the wounds of the Holocaust. Next, this paper will explore the literacies of testimony and witness as they relate to recovery from suffering. Finally, one example of an instructional paradigm utilizing the literacies of testimony and witness will be provided.

Changing Jewish Reflections on the Holocaust

The Holocaust is perceived by Jews (and by many non-Jews) as an event unequaled in human history, unmatched in the scope of its suffering. In its initial stages, Jewish reflections on the Holocaust focused primarily on Jewish death and misery. As in personal mourning, the Jewish people angrily imagined that they alone bore the brunt of Nazi victimization. Now, five decades later, Jews properly note that beyond the six million deaths were the deaths of gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents and others, poetically described by Reverend Martin Niemoller, survivor of Dachau, in his moving reflection on scape-goating and responsibility:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up. (in Peter, 1977, p. 53)

The Literacies of Testimony and Witness

      One of the richest sources of personal Holocaust testimony comes from survivor, professor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Speaking to a group of educators and students at Northwestern University, Wiesel (1977) asserted: "If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony" (p. 19). However, immediately we are confronted by a staggering contradiction between the redemptive power of testimony and the futility of its very transmission.

How is the reader supposed to develop an understanding of a phenomenon so atrociously incomprehensible that the words themselves defy their meaning?  Wiesel explains that the only hope for communication requires the use of "words against words":

[It was] a matter of words...Language had been corrupted to the point that it had to be invented anew and purified. This time we [survivors] wrote not with words but against words. Often we told less so as to make the truth more credible. Had any one of us told the whole story, he would have been proclaimed mad. . . . Now he [the author] remembers the past, knowing all the while that what he has to say will never be told. What he hopes to transmit can never be transmitted. All he can possibly hope to achieve is the impossibility of communication. (Wiesel, 1977, 7-8)

How does one transmit that which “can never be transmitted?” How does one communicate the impossible? The survivor definitely wants to be a teacher but is frustrated by his or her inability to do so. So in turn those of us who teach about such testimonies. We also experience the futility inherent in communication of the unspeakable. To tell without being heard is to re-experience trauma without acquiring relief. Hence it is necessary to ask: by what process can the survivor who risks “telling” be assured that he or she will be heard? No greater expression of this dynamic can be found that then the suicide of Levi after his completion of The Drowned and the Saved or Chelan’s suicide shortly after the publication of Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works).

A process by which a survivor gives "testimony" to an attentive listener who "bears witness" to create a “new” story which may be given a context within a community of discourse is described by psychiatrist Dori Laub. Laub is co-founder of the Fortunaoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale; an interviewer of survivors who give testimony; a child-survivor of the Holocaust, and a psychoanalyst who treats Holocaust survivors and their children. Laub explains:

The listener to the narrative of extreme human pain, of massive psychic trauma, faces a unique situation. In spite of the presence of ample documents, of searing artifacts and of fragmentary memoirs of anguish, he comes to look for something that is in fact nonexistent; a record that has yet to be made. . . . Massive trauma precludes its registration. . . . The victim's narrative. . . testifies to an absence, to an event that has not yet come into existence. . . . The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to--and heard--is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the 'knowing' of the event is given birth to.

The listener, therefore is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo. (Felman & Laub, 1992, 57)

The survivor participates in the personal process of “testimony” by manifesting, in words and silences, memories that have not yet been placed in the context of a current reality. The survivor of atrocity is trying to deliver his or her finely crafted letter without knowing the address or whether once delivered, it will be opened compassionately. The letter is lost because it lacks a sufficient address in current time with respect to historical context. Nonetheless, the listener can help provide an address by participating in the personal process of “witnessing.”  The conscious listener attempts to apprehend the meanings that the words and silences intend to encompass. When the survivor can "hear" the listener witnessing that which he or she has never experienced, a process is constructed in which a new common knowledge is created. Both can transmit and access this new story and thereby gain a restorative understanding of their worlds. This restorative quality can lead to the sense of redemption fundamental getting on with living one’s life.

Binocularity and Healing Agency: The Place Where the Survivor and the Listener Meet

How might we make abstract concepts such as “hearing the witnessing” and “constructing…a new common knowledge” more concrete? Perhaps we can borrow from science the attributes of monocular and binocular vision. In the case of monocular vision, the observer who views a moving object with only one eye is provided with a very clear image. This image, however, lacks depth and can thus lead to errors in perception. With binocular vision, the observer viewing a moving object with both eyes acquires depth, however, also acquires substantial distortion. Boundary problems, manifested by the blurring caused by the overlapping of two distinctly different singular visions requires the brain to locate images in the contexts of time, place and belief.

By analogy, binocular understanding, the overlapping of two distinctly different perceptions of the meaning of symbolic language may likewise blur the boundaries between "self" and "other," "survivor" and "listener," and "student" and "teacher." In the negotiation between the picture provided by the survivor and the picture provided by the listener lies the potential healing agency of telling and listening. Giving testimony and bearing witness requires an embrace of the "other" in ways that change both irrevocably. The pedagogy of testimony and witness provides opportunities for students and teachers to communicate with survivors of unspeakable trauma in ways which provide redemption for our educational community as a whole.

Theory Applied: A Kristallnacht Memoriam and Procession

      November 9, 1998 was the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the first night of violence aimed at the Jews in Germany and Austria. In remembrance of the shattered glass, suffering and murder that followed; and as a reaffirmation of the commitment of free peoples never again to permit such occurrences, the Northwest Center for Holocaust Education, in Bellingham, Washington, organized a memoriam attended by more than 350 members of the community. The literacies of testimony and witness played an important role in this event.

      Survivors of the Holocaust, who lived locally, honored the memories of family and friends who were murdered by replacing a piece of glass into a memorial.  As they did so, a two hundred-word testimonial, written by university students who had previously interviewed them, was read by narrators. Each testimonial was typed into the program. Following the survivors were family members, a generation younger, who wished to remember Jews, Roma and Senti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays and lesbians, and “righteous” Christians who were also exterminated by the Nazis. They too had testimonials read as they placed a piece of broken glass into the memorial. Immediately thereafter members of the Native American community remembered family members murdered on the “Trail of Tears," a Jesuit remembered the fate of Archbishop Romero, the grandson of a Japanese American who suffered in an American Internment Camp remembered his grandfather, and a black man remembered James Byrd. Each placed a piece of glass in the memoriam while their two hundred-word testimonial was read. Once the procession had ended, the window was whole. The narrator read the following:

Our community, like this memorial, is symbolically whole, though still scared by past bigotry and hate. The line between memory and history can be a very thin one. Tonight we can visit with those whose memories will some day be history. Let us share stories. Let us listen. It is easiest to drive away nightmares with respect for the dead and hope for the living. Let us heal. And then let us return home with hope.

Two grandmothers, one a survivor of the Holocaust, the other a Native American elder who had survived the BIA boarding schools, were the first to exchange hugs and express sympathy for each other’s losses.  Many hugs were then exchanged. Students left the ceremony explaining that now they knew the stories that comprised history. Programs in hand, the community went home with newly shared memories.


      When the Holocaust is improperly taught, feelings of guilt can be evoked or a myopic sense of victimization, such as the view that Jews and people in general are forever vulnerable, can be elicited. Questions about why the Holocaust occurred may easily give way to a fatalistic view that such disasters can and will occur again. This can also be the case with the many instances of traumatic violence commonplace in our post-Holocaust generations.

However, on the flip side, the capacity to demonstrate empathy and altruism, as shown in the Kristallnacht Memoriam, is also evidenced in the Holocaust legacy and is a treasure that must be fully explored and taught. The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Nothing could be more damaging to the survivor or his or her classmates. The paradigm of testimony and witness provides teachers and their students with a methodology to share “a new knowledge” which is transformative to both the victim and the listener, and hence, to the society as a whole. The paradigm of testimony and witness is a means to foster literacy conversations that restore families, schools and communities. The literacies of testimony and witness can restore hope to those wirklichkeitswund und wirklichkeit suchend, stricken by and seeking reality.




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