The aging survivor of the Holocaust : the effects of bearing witness on the witness / by Anne Grenn Saldinger.
In the midst of the significant historical and ethical imperatives to have survivors bear witness to the Holocaust, the psychological vicissitudes of their personal experience have been largely overlooked. This qualitative research study investigated the psychological significance of bearing witness and the impact of this experience on aging Holocaust survivors. Holocaust survivors who participated in an Oral History Project were re-interviewed three to seven years later about their ongoing experience of bearing witness. Tapes of the original oral history were reviewed prior to the interview in order to involve an element of longitudinal depth and continuity. Individualized questions based on earlier testimony were added to a semi-structured interview which probed aftereffects and personal meanings of each participant's witnessing. Grounded theory methodology was adapted to identify themes which emerged from fourteen interviews ranging from two to six hours each. Based on these themes, a conceptual model for a developmental process of bearing witness is suggested. A developmental perspective helped to recognize how bearing witness in old age extends beyond the solitary work of the life review and to what extent the reparative potential of giving testimony relies on the reciprocity of teller and listener. One of the key findings was that survivors need to be asked to tell their story, and that giving testimony is a relational process intimately tied up with having a receptive audience and recreating "the empathic other." This can be understood as an insidious consequence of trauma whereby the Nazi plan to silence infiltrated into the psyche of the victim. Testimony can serve to defy these old internal and external messages and be the vehicle for transforming and making meaning out of one's traumatic experience. Asking survivors about the meaning of bearing witness was not only a way to learn about living with trauma in old age, but served as an intervention in and of itself. The follow-up interview constituted a public acknowledgment of their legacy and, for many, resulted in increased introspection and discovery of threads linking their past experience with their daily lives. This study underscores the importance of calling attention to the personal experience of the Holocaust survivor who bears witness.
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