Lawrence Langer has played a foundational role in foregrounding the importance of examining Holocaust testimonies in their own right, as singularly textured personal remembrances, not only as historical sources to be read for their transcripts by historians and other scholars of the Holocaust. At its centre, Langer’s body of work over five decades emphasizes the anti-redemptive experiences and ‘choiceless choices’ of those who survived the Holocaust. He underscores how testimony can begin to reveal what life was like for witnesses under circumstances that systematically undermined moral and ethical values. Rather than imposing heroic or healing narratives on testimonies, his analytical approach is directed towards training our eyes and ears to how witnesses express the anguished, humiliated, and shattered aspects of their experiences. While it is impossible for anyone other than a survivor to fully comprehend what he or she went through, Langer makes the compelling case that interviewers and audiences are nonetheless obliged to try to understand survivors, all the while acknowledging the impossibility of doing so. In that sense, Langer foregrounds the paradoxical nature of giving and receiving testimonies. He advocates for modes of intimately conducting and interpreting testimonies with witnesses without being appropriative of their experiences; while deeply invested in receiving the testimonies of others, he nonetheless recognizes the experiential rift that separates witnesses from those who bear witness to their recollections. This essay foregrounds the importance of Langer’s explorations of the lacunae and tensions that mark testimonies, particularly as they manifest in the interplay between ‘common memory’ and ‘deep memory.’ Langer’s analysis of that dynamic profoundly shapes not only the ways we document and interpret testimonies of the Holocaust, but also those of other genocides.
- Holocaust and Genocide Studies