The Struggle for Memory: Documenting the Holocaust

At a time when chronicling the Holocaust could not be a more pressing endeavor, when those concerned with cementing the history of such inconceivable atrocities are fully cognizant of the reality, fast approaching, in which the world will be bereft of witnesses and survivors able and willing to give first-hand accounts, it is hard to believe that the creation of the concept of the Holocaust was not concurrent with the Holocaust itself. In fact, the arduous, determined struggle on the part of those determined to impart the memory of the Holocaust to posterity took decades, and continues to this day.

On March 14, Toronto-based filmmaker David Kaufman came to McGill and spoke about the many moral issues and creative challenges filmmakers face when they charge themselves with the task of the documenting the Holocaust. Mr. Kaufman began his lecture by giving a brief history of the Jewish cultural climate of Canada just before WWII and the reasons behind Canada’s involvement in the war. Mr. Kaufman also provided the attendees a background on Canada’s restrictionist immigration policies towards Jews during the war, and how such policies affected the discussion of the Holocaust in years directly following the end of WWII.

David Kaufman explains a film clip.


Mr. Kaufman explained that the narrative of the Holocaust emerged only gradually, through memoirs, artistic representation, and events such as the Eichmann trial. Slowly, Jews began to believe that they could safely discuss their personal traumas and tragedies, and much of this harrowing discourse took the form of literature, theatre, music, and other artistic media. Mr. Kaufman recounted his engagement as a young man with the theme of the Holocaust in various artistic forms, and his belief that much of the content was presented too much as “entertainment,” and that tragically, in the first decades following the Holocaust, the direct voice of the survivor was muted or sometimes even completely absent from such works.

As the Holocaust receded from the immediate past, however, the tone and techniques of many works addressing the theme of the Holocaust changed. Mr. Kaufman spoke, for instance, about the 1955 documentary “Night and Fog,” by Alain Resnais, which contains graphic imagery of corpses and the interiors of Nazi death camps. The footage within this film, at the time of its release, was the dominant visual representation of the Holocaust. Yet, in Mr. Kaufman’s opinion, the film has very little to do with the actual experience of victims of these death camps, and seriously lacks political and historical content. Essentially, works like “Night and Fog,” while successful in making the public aware of the nature of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, very much lacked the voices and perspectives of actual victims.

Since the 1950’s, many films on the subject of the Holocaust have been made (Kaufman estimates the number at around 400), but unfortunately, many of these films similarly focus on horrific imagery, and not the experiences of survivors and affected communities. Over the past decade, Kaufman has labored to correct this unfortunate circumstance through a number of films, including “Night of the Reich’s Pogrom” (2001), “From Despair to Defiance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (2003), and “Song of the Lodz Ghetto” (2009). Kaufman described the difficulty he faced in finding much of the material for the films, as well as the intriguing origins of much of the footage.

"Song of the Lodz Ghetto"

Some footage in “Night of the Reich’s Pogrom,” for example, was shot by a German firefighter – also an amateur filmmaker – who shot footage of burning synagogues that his brigade was prevented from extinguishing. The footage was shot during Kristallnacht. In fact, Kaufman said, a lot of accessible film footage and photographs actually come from Nazi photographers, a testament to the terrifying efficiency with which the gradual emptying of towns, cities, and ghettos was documented. Such documentation is integral for historians and artists attempting to build upon the unfinished record of the Holocaust. However, the origins of a lot of unearthed material remains unknown. Photographs taken by Nazis sometimes look no different from photographs taken by civilian Jews.

Kaufman finished his lecture by describing the difficulty a documentary filmmaker faces when confronted with the question of what material to ultimately include in the final cut. To Kaufman, what matters above all else are the descriptions and memories of the actual survivors. In fact, he identifies this as his obligation to his films and his work in general. What one always must remember, Kaufman said, is that the Nazis believed that the awareness of their crimes would be kept with their victims. One of the great ironies of the era is that their own fastidious documentation of the events provides us with our basis for an increasingly true understanding of what transpired. Kaufman expressed that the attempt to chronicle the Holocaust is far from complete, and that now it is imperative that we do what we can to continue the effort. What drives him is the obligation that he feels to survivors and their families, and the immense gratitude of these people who have shared their pain and stories so that we may remember.

McGill Jewish Studies would like to thank Mr. Kaufman for such an enthralling and thought-provoking lecture. We look forward to his forthcoming work!

for more information on Mr. David Kaufman, visit his website.

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