The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations, and Traces of the Holocaust (Book Reviews)

Author:  Edited by Nancy R. Goodman and Marilyn B. Meyers 
Publisher:  London: Routledge; 432pp, $39.95, 2012
Reviewed By: Batya R. Monder

The Power of Witnessing is an extraordinary and enveloping book. Reading and writing about it drew me to other books about the Holocaust, books I've not been able to fi nish until now, speci fi cally Primo Levi's Surviving Auschwitz (1958) and The Drowned and the Saved (1989), written 40 years after Levi's camp experience. I have also revisited books I had read earlier in another context (Frankl 1959, Richmond 2002) and thought of Holocaust fi lms I've seen in recent years. I had the courage to view Shoah and felt a need to do so, illustrating what the editors note in the opening paragraph of their preface: “The power of witnessing creates space in which courage, resilience and connection are discovered.” And finally, because of The Power of Witnessing, I also experienced a change in perspective on my own life experience that I will discuss further in the course of this review.

Goodman and Meyers have gathered together a collection of pieces that are varied and nuanced and fi lled with both pain and wisdom. All of the chapters contain personal details about the contributors, and many are written by psychoanalysts—psychoanalysts who are also writers, artists, or poets. Most of the chapters focus on the Holocaust, but not all. It is through the Holocaust that we have learned so much about the importance and power of witnessing and the devastation in its absence. And this is the larger subject of the book—witnessing in all its many forms. Only when trauma is symbolized, when there is a witness, or when one is able to be one's own witness, a concept that Dori Laub has written about so eloquently both in this volume and in his earlier book, coauthored with Shoshana Felman (1992), is there an opportunity to recover and resume life.

The editors, two gifted women who are long-time colleagues and friends, tell us at the start of the book how they embarked on this daunting project. They knew their task was enormous, and they were humbled by it. To keep themselves focused and moving forward, they established to-do lists and set up a schedule to meet twice weekly, coming together as they gathered materials and opened up new avenues and leads to possible contributors.

The material grew and grew, and at times they were overwhelmed by it, at which point they turned to their psychoanalytic skills to help each other deal with the emotional riptide that had been unleashed. They both experienced nightmares, and they analyzed these together so as to be better able to bear the feelings. In reading and reviewing this book, I have experienced my own painful memories and losses as well as come upon invaluable insights about my personal and family history.

In the preface, both editors tell us about their backgrounds and their connections to the Holocaust. Goodman speaks about seeking out Dori Laub as her clinical supervisor in 1978 when he was already involved with Holocaust testimony. Laub, a contributor to this book, is an analyst and a child survivor of the Holocaust, and the cofounder of the Yale Video Archives of Holocaust Testimony. Goodman has remained close to him through the years.

We learn from Meyers that her immigrant family left Vilna, Lithuania, in 1905 to escape the rampant anti-Semitism. Her father related a story to her about her paternal grandmother that underscores her interest in the Holocaust. Shortly after WWII, her grandmother received a letter that brought tears to her eyes as she silently read it in front of her family. She refused to divulge its contents, saying only, “‘You don't want to know.' The best we can surmise,” says Meyers, “is that her family was executed in the killing fi elds of Lithuania” (p. xx).

Meyers also tells us about the gaps in her knowledge about her family's background and how much more she has learned in recent years. It made me think about my own lack of knowledge about my family—those I never could meet or know—and my not asking questions about them, a seeming lack of curiosity that made more sense as I read of Meyers's states of dissociation as she approached knowing more about family members who were “named but remain unknowable” (p. xx). I also understood for the fi rst time why my father insisted on being cremated, which so saddened my mother. His need to be cremated had everything to do with his own mother's death in Terezin. Whether conscious or not, cremation for him was a way to honor his mother's horrible end. My mother, my brother, and I honored my father's wish, but my brother and I righted the wrong for my mother by burying my father's ashes with her when she died three years after him.

The editors close the preface with a poem written in 1944 by Herman Kruk, who was a librarian in Vilna. Before his own violent death, he managed to document the destruction of the Jewish community of Vilna and hide the manuscript. One line from the poem screams out at the reader: “And let it show what I could not live to tell” (p. xxii).

Knowing how difficult the subject matter is and how crucially important it is to learn more about the Holocaust, more about the devastating impact of trauma in all its many forms, and more about the healing powers of witnessing—both for the witnessed and for the one who witnesses—the editors have provided the reader with many ways to approach this collection. Each chapter stands on its own, and though the organization of the book is compelling, it is not imperative to read the book in sequence. One way to approach the collection is to begin with Goodman's chapter about the fi lm Schindler's List and the use of art in dealing with unspeakable trauma, speci fi cally the Holocaust. She examines how Spielberg makes it possible for so many to view this fi lm and stay with it to its conclusion. His pacing is paramount; the camera moves in close on the horrors depicted and then shifts focus to Schindler as witness. The shifts, and the presence of the witness, give the viewer space to take in what Spielberg wants us to see. Goodman and Meyers have done something analogous with their book. There are chapters that focus on memoir and others that include biographical details about the authors but focus on sculpture, painting, theater, poetry, or history. There is also a chapter by Meyers devoted to the treatment of trauma and the recent gains from neuroscience.

Sophia Richmond and Henri Parens are analysts and child survivors who have written autobiographies in recent years. Writing for them has been traumatic, necessary, healing, and of course revealing, something that analysts are trained not to do. Richmond describes her fi rst analyst's inability to be a witness, to take in her story as a child in hiding under a false identity, wanting instead to focus on her Oedipal struggle. Parens articulates the dilemma of wanting his children and grandchildren to know what happened to him and not wanting to burden them with that history. But after reading Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, and specifically the poem at the start of the book, Parens is compelled to take pen to paper. In the poem, Levi commends those who live in “warm houses” to consider what those in the camps experienced:

Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you. (Levi, 1958, p. 11)

At age 70, 60 years after his mother was taken to Auschwitz, Henri Parens begins writing his memoir.

Clemens Loew, a psychoanalyst who is also a sculptor, relates the experience he had while sculpting a life-size figure of his father, who had been taken by the Gestapo when Loew was only 4 years old. He based the head of his sculpture on his parents' wedding photograph and the body on his then 23-year-old son. Loew tells us that he had always felt the trauma of having lost his father but had never thought of his father's devastating loss till he was molding his father's face in clay.

“Poets are the ultimate witnesses,” said Jacob Arlow (2012). Arlene Kramer Richards, an analyst and poet, focuses her attention on those who wrote about the unspeakable in poetic form. She begins her chapter with a searing poem of her own that captures the insanity of the Holocaust and the deadly legacy of those caught in its wake. As with all the contributors, she provides some biographical context for her deep interest in the Holocaust, telling us that as young as age 4, she was trying to grasp her family's struggle to gather enough money to bring relatives to America. While still very young, she was introduced to the devastating brutality of the Holocaust by absorbing The Black Book of Polish Jewry (Apenszlak, 1943), a “present” given to the family that detailed how the Jews were “maimed, tortured and degraded . . . hated, hunted, killed” (p. 218). The poems she reprints in this chapter convey wrenching feelings about the Holocaust, and her commentary about these selections helps us to take in more of their meaning.

Richards feels it is important and necessary to represent the trauma of the Holocaust, in contrast to those who feel that it should not be passed along in images and who view all efforts at representation as either inadequate or ethically suspect. She writes that “conveying feelings somehow strengthens the possibility of coping with them. [Poetry] makes possible a context that is not horrible, which contains the horror even as it evokes the most pain in the listener or reader” (ibid.).

Dori Laub's contribution had profound personal meaning for me and has affected my approach to writing about this book. He tells the reader how he came to understand the need for witnessing and chose to focus his career on this subject. As he enlarges our understanding about witnessing, he weaves in his personal history. We learn that at the tender age of 5, he and his parents were taken from their home in Romania and put on a crowded train to an unknown destination. What was particularly significant for me was his description of his distorted memories of the terrible time in childhood spent in the concentration camp. As an adult, two weeks into an analytic treatment with a Swedish analyst in Massachusetts, Laub described his experience in the camp, recalling sitting with a little girl on a riverbank on a sunny day and discussing whether they could eat the grass. The analyst's response to that story was to recount that he had been with the Red Cross when they liberated a concentration camp and had taken depositions under oath from inmates. “Several women declared that conditions had been so good that they received daily breakfast in bed, served by SS officers” (p. 61).

The analyst's anecdote about unconscious denial cut through Laub's defense—a necessary defense that had covered over the memory of the terror he had lived with, and had served his need to distort and repress in order to survive, until that moment when he had a witness who could take in what he had endured. Laub tells us much more in this chapter about memory and about a child's mind, but also about a whole society's resistance to knowing more about the Holocaust and what happened to its victims—something he felt as a teenager living in Israel and that fueled his subsequent work on testimony.

Laub also speaks about the questions he never asked. He and his mother returned from the camp, and she could have answered his question about whether he had ever witnessed a public execution, a subject of nightmares for him. “I never raised that question as long as she was alive even though I had always wanted to know. Neither was I aware that I had failed to ask ” (p. 62, emphasis added).

I know from my own work on shame and from my own childhood experience of sexual abuse before the age of 5 that repression in response to a real as opposed to imaginary threat is a strong defense. The immature mind hides what it cannot handle until such time that the ego is strong enough and there is a witness to the event, even if decades have elapsed. Laub repressed the suffering and terror of his time in the camp. In fact, he transformed it into a tolerable screen memory that protected him until he began working with a psychoanalyst who let him know that he understood both what Laub had experienced and why he had to disguise the memory of it. That recognition by the analyst allowed Laub to remember. From that moment, he had a witness whom he felt could bear what would be revealed.

Laub's comment about the question never asked resonated personally for me. I too never asked a crucial question, and like Laub never considered asking, yet wanted to know. When I regained memory of the abuse two decades after its occurrence, something stopped me from posing the critical question to my own mother: who had been the babysitter who had abused me? I continued to protect this nameless and faceless person. And only as I worked on this review did I understand that new piece of my history: the threat of being harmed that had silenced me as a child and pushed the event out of my conscious awareness was transformed into a deep shame that kept my lips sealed as an adult. Too often the sexual abuser of a young child issues a threat and freely walks away, while the terri fi ed child imposes on herself a life sentence of silence and shame.

Trauma that remains hidden, not spoken of, not witnessed, cripples the victim. It was the Nazis' intent to leave no witnesses to the Holocaust, and to make it impossible for those who did survive to be their own witness. Too, too often the Nazis succeeded; survivors imposed on themselves sentences of silence and shame and lived with ongoing fear. Dori Laub's work has helped us to understand more and more how to break into that silence and fear and help people to give testimony, to enable them, at long last, to have a witness to the horrors they endured. As clinicians working with patients who have experienced trauma, we need to be cognizant of the toxic impact of shame, and to have great reservoirs of patience and compassion as our patients mourn the past and slowly recover.

The chapters written by Goodman and Meyers expand the reader's perspective about the lessons of the Holocaust, their value to our day-to-day work as clinicians, our growing understanding of treating trauma in all its many forms, and the vicarious trauma that those who work with trauma victims are subject to. It is a sad commentary to note that almost a century has passed since W. H. R. Rivers worked with shell-shocked soldiers in WWI, establishing the need for psychiatric treatment of the wounded young men. Despite how much we have learned since then, “war trauma remains largely untreated but more readily recognized” (p. 301).

An additional strength of this book is an essay on Yiddish, the language associated with so many of the Holocaust's victims. Arnold Richards provides a poignant and fact- fi lled chapter on the history of Yiddish and the rich and varied literature in Yiddish produced by the many novelists, poets, journalists, and playwrights of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these writers were well-known and celebrated in their lifetime, but there were too many others who died young, especially between 1940 and 1945, and had not yet been able to write enough or have suf fi cient exposure beyond their local communities for their names to be known to us. He lists many of their names and their accomplishments in this chapter as a form of Kaddish to them and in so doing is acting “as a witness to honor the history of Yiddish culture and memorialize some of the writers and poets who were killed” (p. 268).

Growing up bilingual in Yiddish and English, Richards recalls as a 5 year old being able to read the headline in the Yiddish paper The Forward that announced the death of Sigmund Freud. Richards begins his chapter by noting, “To bear witness to the Holocaust is to look both ways. We not only must acknowledge heartbreaking destruction and loss but must celebrate the enduring power of life . . . destruction and creation—witnessing includes both” (p. 267).

Toward the end of the book, the editors move away from the Holocaust to events closer in time, the devastation of 9/11. Goodman and three other analysts in the Washington area come together to support each other in the aftermath of the attacks. A jointly composed chapter presents their clinical material.

The final piece in the book is an interview that Goodman and Meyers did together with Ervin Staub, a leading scholar in the “bystander phenomenon.” Staub spent WWII hidden with his family in one of Raoul Wallenberg's “protected” houses in Hungary. Important as their shelter was, Staub's family could not have survived without the active help of Macs, their beloved housekeeper. Staub's war experience led him to his life's work of understanding what motivates the active bystander and formulating ways to encourage that in society.

This book manages to include many different voices and perspectives on the large subject of witnessing. There is much to be learned from this collection. Readers of this book will be challenged in unexpected ways. Memories may be stirred, and genealogies may be questioned. The editors are to be applauded for their choices and for bringing together all this material in one volume.


Apenszlak, J. (Ed.). (1943).  The black book of Polish Jewry.  New York, NY: American Federation for Polish Jews.

Arlow, J. (2012). Unpublished mss. Retrieved from htttp://

Felman, S., & Laub, D. (1992). Testimony: Crises of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis, and history . New York, NY: Routledge.

Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man's search for meaning . (I. Lasch, Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Levi, P. (1958). Survival in Auschwitz . (S. Woolf, Trans.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Levi, P. (1989). The drowned and the saved. (R. Rosenthal, Trans). New York, NY: Random House.

Richmond, S. (2002). A wolf in the attic: The legacy of a hidden child of the Holocaust. New York, NY: Haworth Press.


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