From the Survivor-Witness to the Activist-Witness Through the Prism of the Eichmann Trial

By the end of the twentieth century, “bearing witness” to genocide was an increasingly common expression of social solidarity and of protest against the pain of others. The “witness to genocide” was a pervasive icon of suffering humanity in place of “human conscience” and the “conscience of mankind” to symbolize the affront caused by mass violence to human moral sensibilities. And “witness to genocide”, which first described the survivors of the Holocaust of European Jewry, was and is still often used as a title for books and conferences about the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, as well as for articles in newspapers and museum events1. My subject is how the witness to genocide became a central trope of contemporary moral culture.

Like witnesses from earlier periods, including abolitionists fighting slavery, Jews condemning pogroms, and humanitarians denouncing mass atrocities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the witness to genocide adapts a biblical representation of the witness. The moral witness testifies to human suffering as if conveying God’s word, and false testimony is a sacrilege2. In the nineteenth century, such witnesses testified to the plight of persecuted peoples, spoke movingly about their injuries, and appealed to audiences’ sympathy for suffering humanity, on whose behalf publics were presumed to feel aggrieved and wish to act. The witness to genocide warns of the destruction of human life if no action is taken to punish the perpetrators, appealing instead to a potentially sympathetic but just as likely indifferent audience, one that may well need convincing. This recent witness figure symbolizes the culmination of a long-term process through which Western European and American publics came to conceive mass atrocities not only as unconscionable, reparable, and at worst regrettable forms of barbarism, but also as constitutive and permanent features of modern political formations.

How did this most recent witness take shape? How did this figure, now a ubiquitous and self-evident reference to the Western moral imagination, first appear and change over time? This witness icon developed over the course of the last century and emerged in its current form only in the late 1990s, after genocide became a ubiquitous reference for state-perpetrated murder3.

Though there are many possible avenues of investigation, including the emergence of soldiers’ testimonials during and after the Great War, my work analyzes courtroom battles spanning the 1920s to the 1960s, all of which struggled to understand, recognize, and redeem victims’ suffering and survival in conditions of radical powerlessness that were distinct from war and combat. These include the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian acquitted in Berlin in 1921 of murdering Talaat Pasha, an architect of the Armenian genocide, and the trial of the Jewish avenger Scholem Schwarzbard, acquitted by a jury in Paris in 1926 for having murdered the alleged leader of Ukrainian pogroms against Jews. We should also include the 1950 trial brought by David Rousset against Les Lettres françaises for defamation, staged to publicize the Soviet Gulags, as well as my focus in this essay, the 1961-62 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem4.

Raphael Lemkin, Hannah Arendt, and Bruno Bettelheim all referred to these trials to conceive the moral affront of genocide. By envisioning the witness icon in a broader field of representation instead of only a true or false perception of survivors, we unearth connections between very different kinds of thinkers, ideas, and events that otherwise have little in common except the witness figures they bring into presence. Witness figures, like events – the Armenian genocide, Soviet gulags, and Nazi camps – are historically distinct. They are also inevitably composites, symbols of darkness and hope that have an ideological and memorial function, erase some realities and distort others.  The courtroom scenarios in which audiences strained to comprehend victims’ testimony transformed the speakers into figurative witnesses, each a variation on a narrative about mass murder that ascribed moral meaning to victims’ experiences of pogroms, of concentration camps, and of extermination. Brought into being by the act of testimony and the symbolic solidarity it constitutes, the witness possesses similar features across different trials that makes victims’ experience of extreme violence culturally legible. Moreover, the witness figure negotiates the dual poles of the universal violence inflicted on humans and the particular violence imposed on certain ethnic groups; the witness constructs and negotiates a relationship between the concept of “humanity” and the particular humanity attributed to victims. The witness opens up historical and moral questions about whether, for example, Nazi violence is best represented by the universalizing concept of the univers concentrationnaire or the more specific focus on the genocide of Jews into another query about how these distinctions were drawn in the first place.

The symbol of the Jewish Holocaust survivor witness emerged fully formed only after the Eichmann trial, reaching its apogee in the late 1970s. The trial not only gave belated credence to the Jewish experience of death and destruction, but was also one of the most forceful postwar efforts to formulate moral norms governing twentieth-century culture in the shadow of state-sponsored deportation and murder. The head of the section of the Gestapo responsible for “Jewish Affairs” in 1941, Adolf Eichmann played an important role in organizing transports of Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe. He escaped after the war but was kidnapped in Argentina by Israeli secret service agents and tried in Jerusalem after a lengthy investigation. He was finally sentenced to death and executed on June 1, 1962.

The Jerusalem courtroom transformed Jewish Holocaust survivors into purveyors of hard, unfathomable truths about human suffering. The belief that the trial format was inadequate to represent victims’ suffering is implicitly or explicitly the conceptual starting point of most work on survivor testimony. Scholars have so far focused on the trial’s integration of Holocaust survivors into Israeli politics and society at that time, its redemptive Zionist narrative, its role in the emergence of Holocaust consciousness in Western Europe and the United States, its public validation of survivor stories, on how Hannah Arendt’s reporting shaped the trial’s reception, and on survivor testimonies themselves5. They have not, however, examined the figurative process by which the survivor-witness became a cultural icon except to argue that the trial transformed the survivor into an exemplar of heroic Jewish memory and later, into a new and problematic Western icon in a new Jewish civil religion, the Holocaust6.

I wish to address the rhetorical dimensions of survivor testimony in trial accounts to explore how the Eichmann trial laid the groundwork for transforming survivors into “survivors” and witnesses into “witnesses” Of course the trial fashioned survivors rhetorically from multiple perspectives. The Zionist narrative, the most important at the time, transformed the trial into the last stage of an epic struggle to defend the Jewish nation, and redeemed victims’ suffering by symbolically rectifying their statelessness. I use survivor testimony from and other responses to the Eichmann trial instead as the point of departure for a discussion of contemporaneous and later portrayals of survivor-witnesses that focus more on the terrors of death and their meaning than on Hausner’s Zionist narrative. The survivor recounted an unfathomable experience very much his own, and in the process challenged assumptions about the victims – they were said to have gone like “sheep to the slaughter” and were a source of shame in Israel and of guilt and indifference elsewhere. In so doing, witness testimony laid the rhetorical foundation that challenged conventional narratives of heroism and became the heroism attributed to survivor-witnesses after the 1970s7

The trial dignified victims’ lives and deaths, especially in the post-trial reception of its import, not only because it offered them an opportunity to testify, but also because its rhetorical fashioning of victims cleansed them of blame and rendered them worthy of recognition. It developed a narrative about the experience of mass murder that eventually transformed victims’ abjection into a redemptive force, placing their suffering center stage.

The symbolic witness forged in these trials drew on victims’ testimonies but was a composite of “survival” only loosely attached to particular individuals and experiences.  Witnesses are symbols of darkness and hope that have an ideological and memorial function, erase some realities and distort others, and most problematically, especially after the 1970s, transform the victim into a sacred sign. Like all symbols, they condense specific survival stories to construe a broader message. Witnesses’ positive traits do not outweigh political interests and deep-seated racism or antisemitism – the Rousset trial redeemed partisan witnesses at the expense of Jewish ones and the Eichmann trial’s redemption of Jewish victims hardly snuffed out antisemitism. And although the witness figures –persecuted ethnic minorities, camp survivors, the Jewish Holocaust survivor – shaped a universal image of wounded humanity, their reception may well vary from one location to another.  

The definition of who is and is not a symbolic witness is always linked to whether there develops a moral consensus around victims whose suffering can be universalized and whose presence no longer inspires guilt, denial, and displacement. Victims of colonial violence, in spite of the witnesses like Henri Alleg or Djamila Boupacha who spoke loudly about torture in Algeria, have only recently been inducted into the Western witness pantheon, where for a long while there was a thin consensus against the torture they underwent but not against the colonial regime that persecuted them. Indeed, of all the trials, only Eichmann generated a moral consensus, itself extremely fragile and contested by Holocaust denial.

The redemption of the Jewish witnesses ultimately rendered the evil of the Holocaust a source of near absolute moral consensus in the West by erasing the guilt and ambivalence projected onto the victims and explains, along with other important factors, why the Holocaust came to stand in so problematically for evil in our time, and was thus universalized and emptied of its specific historical dimension. The Eichmann trial and its reception was the source of a longer process that redeemed the victims’ nakedness and brought them back into human community at the cost of turning them into icons.

In Jerusalem, survivor testimony actively supplemented the review of a multitude of documents with unusually rich, meaning-conferring narratives that placed victims center stage by transforming Jewish survivors from passive objects, often of contempt, who did not fight back, into human beings constrained by unimaginable terror and despised by an enemy determined to wipe them off the face of the earth. It is useful to recall that until the Eichmann trial, the marginalization of Jewish victims, those “deported on racial grounds”, as Jean-Marie Domenach noted after the war, went without saying: “we weren’t going to praise” them, he stated, for their deportation had little meaning in the partisan struggle8. Around the same time, David Rousset described all victims of the univers concentrationnaire as having experienced extreme degradation, but restricted the role of the witness to partisans rather than all victims: partisans were redeemed by virtue of having chosen to fight.  Countless texts and speeches evoked partisans’ heroism, including that of Germaine Tillion about Ravensbrück or of André Malraux’s 8 May 1975 speech in Chartres invoking Ravensbrück survivors’ experience of resistance and endurance in camps as of a piece.  In 1966 Jean-François Steiner published a fictional account of the Jewish revolt at Treblinka to redeem the Jewish victims in the eyes of a French audience persuaded they had not resisted, and shaped their response to Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann Trial – only published in French in 1966 – which accused Jewish Councils of being complicit in Jewish suffering9.

In this context, the Eichmann trial was the first to put the suffering of Jews on display to a Western world still ignorant of the particularity of the Jewish experience of Nazism, whether for reasons of guilt, indifference, denial, or political expediency.  In this sense, it differed from Nuremberg and other postwar trials in which witnesses were either marginalized or used more conventionally as forensic rather than as moral witnesses.  Survivor testimony made the trial controversial because witnesses spoke about hair-raising experiences sometimes unrelated to Eichmann’s specific crimes10. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the prosecutor Gideon Hausner conceived the trial in both legal and pedagogical terms: the selection of more than one hundred witnesses out of the many who volunteered was determined by a variety of considerations, including their ability to supplement documentation on Eichmann’s activities and politics11. Arendt famously protested that the trial had a primarily pedagogical rather than legal function because the outcome was known in advance12.  Susan Sontag wrote that the trial “could not have conformed to legal standards” because “there was no strictly legal way of judging [Eichmann’s crimes]”. She called the suffering that could not be held legally to account the trial’s “tragic dimension”, which took the form of a “collective dirge”, a ritualized memorialization of Jewish death13.

Though Eichmann was under indictment, the witness-survivors were forced into a defensive position from the outset. They had wrenching stories to tell, but the judges often restricted their testimonies to the subject at hand or for lack of time. They could finally set the record straight about the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust, but the attorney general also asked them painful questions about why they had behaved weakly and passively in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

The testimonies that recount the pointlessness of resistance or escape punctuate the trial and are among its most harrowing moments. Hausner elicited this testimony because he aimed to undermine then pervasive beliefs in Jewish cowardice and complicity, even at the risk of distressing witnesses. He forced survivors to describe the effects of terror, imminent death, the price of resistance, and the power of hope, compelling observers to grapple anew with their feelings that Jews should have put up more of a fight, which were as common in Israel as elsewhere. Jean-Marie Théollyre, correspondent for Le Monde, focused an article on such testimony, as many words as he devoted to the testimony of Georges Wellers, who testified about the plight of children in Drancy14.

Hausner’s questions about revolt were sometimes indirect, as when he asked, in the part of the trial devoted to gassings, why Jews continued to believe they would live in spite of what they knew about extermination camps after 1942. The testimony of Abba Kovner, leader of the Vilna ghetto resistance and also famous for regretting a comment he made about how Jews were led like lambs to the slaughter, described a hopeless world in which the illusion of hope prevailed and sealed the Jews’ fate:

– Judge Halevi: At the end of your remarks you said: “Between us and the enemy there was something more”, if I understood you correctly. What were you referring to?

– Witness Kovner: The illusion that we did not all share the same fate. That until the last moment, even if one knew that there was a Ponary, they always gave us a spark, this distorted hope, that possibly you would be exempt. The frightful illusion produced frightful results of people wanting to prolong the life of some at the expense of others… Only a minority that felt itself possibly less stricken, less misled, less under shock, due to its past, its education and its adherence to certain movements which trained people to give a personal example, perhaps only they could cope with it. And it is not, evidently, a matter of chance from where the people came in every ghetto, who formed the fighting nucleus. Perhaps it arose from the fact that they experienced less degradation, that they were less panic-stricken, and they knew better how to live in the ghetto as free men in every respect15.

Kovner emphasized the theme of hope and its ability to impede resistance, combined with fear. He speculates about the type of people who retained their humanity. They are a small minority, likely Zionists with training, who knew how to manage the degradation and panic from which even they were not free, as suggested by his use of the conditional “possibility” and “perhaps” in reference to “trained people”. Whatever his debt to Zionism, the memory of those too weak and too terrorized to fight is most engraved in Kovner’s mind. In his testimony, the resistance hero remembered most acutely not an uprising, but the image of a terrified girl as she was shot.

Testimony ultimately set the stage for the “collective dirge” to which Sontag refers, in part by refashioning survival as a form of extreme and miraculous endurance rather than conventional heroism, and as the experience of devastating and unfathomable loss. The dramatic contrast between received ideas about how human beings might fight and defeat their persecutors and the terror that discouraged all but the most desperate acts of resistance describes the incommensurable gap between the public’s presumptions about how people might be expected to act under such circumstances and the survivors’ experience. Many trial observers figured the inconceivable suffering that haunted most of the witness testimonies by invoking the deathly atmosphere they brought into being.  They were not conventional heroes but emissaries of the dead—indeed one of the most important dimensions of the trial is its supplementation of the combatant’s tragic heroism with an image of survivors tied to death and to the dead. Critics later transformed the inconceivable dimension of survivors’ experience into a source of supra-human wisdom and universal truths about life and death in the twentieth century.

Asked first by the attorney general and then by the judge whether he had worked in a Sonderkommando until July 1944, witness Avraham Karasik replied: “On 13 July 1944 they liquidated us”16. Another witness, Dov Frieberg, who had been ordered to carry corpses in Sobibor, recounted how “the dead man –whom I believed to be dead– sat up and asked me: ‘Is it still far to go?’”17 Rivka Yoselewska’s testimony was perhaps the most dramatic in this regard. Her testimony was given only one court session after Hausner announced that she had suffered a heart attack and might not be able to appear.  She testified the next day. Shot with her family and village, she was left for dead.  As she put it: “the four whom we likened to Angels of Death shot each one of us separately”18. She crawled out of the mass grave covered by blood, with nowhere to go. In despair, she sought to dig her way back into the grave, but it rebuffed her efforts. She slept on it for three nights and wandered around for several weeks, surviving because a sympathetic peasant took pity on her and gave her food, after which she joined a group of Jews in the forest.

Rita Yoselewska testifying at Eichmann trial

Rivka Yoselewska testifying at the Eichmann trial in 1961.

Yoselewska’s testimony brought into being the dead and dying so dramatically that observers imagined her as a symbolic repository of cries from the mass grave. Her survival was miraculous but, they said, she could not live in this “impure” world because her real home was with the dead19Observers not only asserted that her experience was inconceivable, but tried to imagine her powerlessness and subjection, which defied all narratives of heroic redemption. She was not only an Israeli heroine but also an otherworldly presence; she relived her death every day and was too pure to live on earth.

Witnesses do not simply honor an oath to the dead, or have a special relation to them, but bring their sacred bond with the deceased into being. These ghostly survivors take observers on a journey to hell, plunging them into flames, smoke, gas, and death.  Israeli journalist Haim Gouri, who attended the trial, used an allusion to the biblical Exodus, proclaiming: “One hundred eleven witnesses, an endless procession now receding from view, sinking and rising in a miasma of blood and smoke. One hundred and eleven proxies, each taking his or her turn on the witness stand, and leading us across the desolate landscape”20. Now that Gouri had witnessed, in his biblical terms, a pillar of fire in the courtroom, he understood more clearly why Jews did not and could not have resisted as if they had been in a war with ordinary enemies. The witnesses spoke, the audience listened, and the room was transformed into an enormous meeting of the living and dead in which it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two. It is as if the witnesses themselves had summoned the dead, the flames, and the souls into the courtroom. The victim testimony recreated the past in the present21.

Gouri suggested that the witnesses were conduits for the speech of the dead. Survivors not only testified about their experiences, they also appeared to observers as oracles of truth from another world: some transmitted the voices of the dead in a flat, constrained, and humble delivery, as if self-abnegation would allow their agonized bond with the dead to surface and was a tone better suited to the enormity of the crimes committed against them22. Critics interpreted their testimony not only as free of sentimentality, but also as a form of self-surrender, an exercise in humility from supplicants not of a divine entity, but of the dead. The American writer Martha Gelhorn, covering the Eichmann trial The Atlantic Monthly, wrote that “all of the witnesses were humble; none had anything much to say about his own life or acts. They were only reporting what they knew because they had seen and heard it, lived through it. (….) They spoke of others”23. The living surrendered so that the dead might speak. 

The “living dead,” as some scholars of the trial have noted, became a powerful image of the survivor.  Gouri, who noted that one witness looked as if he had just returned from the railway platform at Auschwitz, figured survivor testimonies’ challenge to narrative mastery as the ghostlike appearance of life in death, as the burden of inhabiting both the world of the dead and the living, transmitting messages to the living while commiserating with the dead24. Survivors’ seeming ability to walk in the shoes of the dead, to speak on their behalf, turned them into secular oracles whose survival bestowed special knowledge of human degradation and gave their experience a meaning. Julius Margolin, once imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, writing on the Eichmann trial for the Russian émigré press, claimed that when silent, witnesses often appeared “as though they were dead while still alive” (comme s’ils étaient morts de leur vivant), and noted that their survival was “miraculous,” (tous comportment un élément de salut miraculeux) that they had been “elected by fate” (ces témoins sont élus du sort…)”25. They were luminous figures, redeemed from the abjection of death camps.

In a 1961 essay, Elie Wiesel, in despair about Hausner’s questions about Jewish resistance, argued that Jews died without a struggle in order not to betray those who had died before them26. “Knowing themselves abandoned, excluded, rejected by the rest of humanity, their walk to death, as haughty as it was submissive, became an act of lucidity, of protest, and not of acceptance and weakness”27. Survivors prefer, he wrote, “not to hurl their defiance at men” but to “remain silent” in a monologue with the dead28.

Wiesel represented courageous and dignified Jews marching to their deaths, recasting Jewish “resistance” in keeping with the realities of death camps, and portraying Jewish survival and its unbearable weight in a new light. The dead now set an example for those still alive, demonstrate their courage in the face of abandonment by the world, and show lucidity in the face of certain death. In Wiesel’s account, Jewish pride and protest are not intrinsic in resistance, but in the consciously chosen martyrdom of dying quietly without a struggle. In a depiction that some have argued “Christianized” the narrative of survival and witnessing, Wiesel transformed behavior that the world stigmatized as weakness into a source of unheralded and magnificent strength, into a sign of loyalty to those who had died in the gas chambers before them29.

No longer cause for shame, survivors’ stories of suffering recreated a world of horror and powerlessness that transformed the trial into a space of communal mourning and a forum for the transmission of terrible truths. Observers who were not survivors experienced testimony as a form of collective witnessing through which they were moved or illuminated. The trial represented a rhetorical erasure of the moral ambivalence that clung painfully to Jewish survivors of genocide – they had been regarded with suspicion about whether they were really so innocent if they survived, and asked if they fought back or in any way invited their own persecution. By capturing the harrowing nature of their experiences and the utter irrelevance of these questions, the trial restored their dignity. Eventually, Jewish witnesses became symbols of suffering humanity born of twentieth-century industrial genocide as well as figures of life beyond the grave.

Within a decade of the trial, as the event penetrated public consciousness, a plethora of work presented Jewish Holocaust survivors as a western universal stand-in for a redeemed because enduring “humanity” and its future guarantor. According to cultural commentators, beginning in the 1970s, survivors embodied special knowledge derived from their endurance of and proximity to unspeakable suffering that made them sacred, not only those who were literally or symbolically combatants, like resistance fighters30. Many observers, especially in the United States, where Elie Wiesel shaped the reception of Holocaust memory, reserved the pantheon for Jews because they had touched bottom like no others. 

The figure of the survivor-witness expressed a relation to the dead that both redeemed and memorialized survivors’ meaningless suffering and infused it with cultural significance.  The sacralization of the survivor incorporated her inconceivable suffering into “heroism” conceived as the possession of a luminous truth; it was not tragic heroism, as Terence Des Pres wrote in 1977, but heroism “commensurate with the sweep of ruin in our time”31. The survivor became central to perceiving and responding to the horror created by genocidal regimes in the late twentieth century, and supplanted heroic redemption with the equally redemptive “survival,” which better expressed the unmitigated terror of modern violence and the possibilities for life after death in the world we now know.

Most important, by virtue of their experience, survivors became nothing less than the image of human conscience. They bore witness to the suffering they had endured and insisted on vigilance toward future suffering; now more than combat veterans, they provided a model of social solidarity based upon a burning address to the world, in which the once-victim demanded that no one be abandoned to a dreary fate. Bearing witness is a call to moral imagination and to human conscience, both of which were effectively mobilized during the Eichmann trial because of the trial’s ability to redeem survivors so dramatically that they eventually became “secular saints” free of the taint left by where they had been32. This was a tremendous accomplishment, if only because it provided a means of envisioning and empathizing with suffering that had been the source of so much ambivalence, shame, and guilt. The trial and its aftermath affirmed not only the dignity of all styles of dying, but also and more troubling, the survivor’s specialness and deep knowledge of what was often, in a version promulgated especially by Wiesel, called the “mystery” of the Holocaust33

The survivor-witness’s redemption was essential to later Holocaust politics and its assertions of incomparable suffering. Survivors could not be cast in a “heroic” role without the transformation of survival into a special form of endurance and knowing which gave cultural meaning to the distinct experience of genocide. The anti-communist historian François Furet once said facetiously that French intellectuals only recognized survivors of the Soviet Gulags once the former inmates had become writers34. But his assertion is not entirely misplaced. So too the symbolic witness, its traces in the Eichmann trial appropriated by critics such as Des Pres, turned survivors into figures akin to oracles and poets, and in so doing, made them worthy of our respect and even awe.

The Holocaust became a “civil religion” in the United States and in Western Europe, for many reasons: American Jews’ overestimated the force of antisemitism; younger Jews “fantasized” about having been “there” because they identified with their parents’ suffering; the “religion” of the Holocaust substituted for a lack of adherence to organized Jewish religion; and commemorative rituals evacuated memorialization of substance and substituted cheap sentiment for a real engagement with Jewish death35. All these arguments are important, if occasionally overstated. I want to argue differently that the survivor-witness’s sanctification by the late 1970s was not only a late symptom of sometimes empty forms of commemoration, but was originally the condition for an affirmative non-Jewish as well as Jewish public memory of the victims of genocide. This argument makes a different claim from assertions that the Eichmann trial showed the world that camp conditions made any resistance at all a miracle, helped Israelis not to be ashamed of Holocaust victims, conferred moral authority upon survivors and redeemed victims’ memory in the name of the Jewish state, though these things are true36. And it does more than criticize the transformation of survivors into “secular saints”. Rather, it suggests that these truisms now make sense because the trial told a story about survivors that took on a life of its own over time; the story was not only a form of revelation about the torments they had survived, but also constituted their survival as a symbol of their innocence and unearthly wisdom, of miraculous life and living death. 

More than fifty years after the Eichmann trial, the shadow cast by persistent and massive state violence has only grown longer.  In a historical revision that only becomes visible in a genealogy of the symbolic witness, other “witnesses” have since appeared, symbolizing the moral and cultural problem posed by mass atrocities and genocide in our time.  Humanitarian workers in the field now use the term “witness” to describe not only those who survive mass atrocities and genocide, but also those who observe them, most prominently the French humanitarian medical organization Doctors Without Borders (Médécins sans Frontières), who dubbed their activism a form of witness after the 1967 Biafran war. The International Criminal Court (which began to operate in 2002) and the mushrooming of humanitarian and human rights’ organizations with which it works place victims’ sufferings center-stage as the moral challenge of our time, generating a bevy of “witnesses” who were not victims but struggle on their behalf. Away from the Court, exhibit goers are said to “bear witness” to photographs, transforming them into “witnesses” of human rights’ violations from a long distance away.

Bearing witness is of course a dialogic process, and yet increasingly, bearing witness is undertaken not only by a survivor, but also by journalists, humanitarian workers, and photographers. Such witnesses have become a subject of interest in their own right, as their agonizing work and proximity to atrocities prompts questions about how they manage the stress and what ethical dilemmas they face in their capacity as “surrogate voices37”. How did the institutionalization of care for the suffering victim in courts and humanitarian organizations, as well as the popular mobilization of concern for victims of mass atrocities or genocide transform the meaning of witnessing and designate witnesses other than survivors? If the Eichmann trial redeemed wounded humanity in the image of Jewish Holocaust survivors, a steady parade of politicians, lawyers, policy makers, and human rights’ activists mobilizing against various political regimes or genocides now invoke a universal and generic victim. This invocation is a rationale for taking action, one not attached to any victim group but instead to a symbol of a universal victim of mass murder and genocide on whose behalf activists struggle38.

The process by which the survivor-witness became a symbolic mainstay of a Western-inspired, global discourse of human rights’ after the Eichmann trial is thus inextricable, I would argue, from the dispersion of his symbolic power among lawyers, humanitarians, journalists, and spectators of atrocity images. Traumatized victims, by virtue of the urgency of their needs, their ubiquity, and the now politically salient demand that victims be healed, lend their symbolic power to those institutions and persons who address their grievances, document their wounds, prosecute their tormentors, and mobilize concern about their plight. Traumatized victims and the activist witnesses who speak for them emerge as two sides of the same coin, the latter invoking the political and moral status of the former to pursue an agenda on the victim’s behalf. The network of institutions and those who labor for them – the ICC, NGOs, exhibitions, museums, and other humanitarian and human rights’ organizations and publications – now exist as symbols of the urgency, cultural preeminence, and necessity of witnessing and as literal forums for bearing witness, the activity that best describes both the aim of institutions’ operations and the symbolic promise they hold out to victims39.

“Bearing witness to genocide” refers increasingly to the moral, legal, psychological, and physical labor of second- and third-party witnesses as well as traumatized victims; it describes the hard work of physicians in the field, lawyers as well as victims who testify at the ICC, and also the act of spectators looking at an atrocity photograph. All of critic James Dawes’ protagonists working in the field of human rights and of humanitarianism move locations to avoid “burnout” once their assignments are over, and yet another one – after Bosnia there was Rwanda, after Rwanda there was Darfur – calls their attention. The multiplicity of witnesses now represents an altered panorama, a world of seemingly intractable violence and an overwhelming commitment to remedy its consequences. Witnesses represent the ubiquity and self-evidence of mass graves and traumatized survivors rather than the shock of their existence; they represent a new global responsibility for healing.  Such shifts should inform a history of the witness to genocide from its first incarnations to its more recent manifestations. For now, it is important to recognize the historical contingency of the contemporary witness figure, built over time to make cultural sense of genocide and to assess how the ubiquity of mass atrocities shapes contemporary moral culture.

Unfold notes and references
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For a small sample (the list could go on): Roy Gutman, A Witness to Genocide, New York, MacMillan, 1993; Richard A. Salem (ed.),  Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda: Drawings by Child Survivors of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, Friendship Press, National Council of Churches in the USA, 2000; “Bearing Witness to Genocide and the Plight of the Minorities in Iraq,” panel presented by NGO leaders in Washington, D.C. on April 16, 2016; “Never too Late for Justice: A Bearing Witness Trip to Cambodia”.

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The prohibition against false witness is in the ninth commandment of the Hebrew Bible. On the “moral witness,” see Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 163-68.

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To avoid anachronism and confusion from now on I refer to “mass atrocities”, sometimes “mass violence” and where appropriate, “genocide”. When I speak generally I use “mass atrocities” to encompass all terms.  Events now understood to be genocides were not called “genocide” at the time, not even after the 1948 Genocide Convention was ratified.  After 1945, some referred to “crimes against humanity” to mean genocide because “crimes against humanity” was more generic and used at Nuremberg. Later, genocide was sometimes confused with “crimes against humanity”, which designated crimes against individuals rather than a particular ethnic or racial group. David Rousset, for example, invoked “crimes against humanity”, but he was also speaking about genocide.

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I discuss all of these trials in Carolyn J. Dean, The Moral Witness: Trials and Testimony after Génocide, forthcoming Cornell University Press, 2018.

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Annette Wieviorka, Eichmann: De la traque au procès, Bruxelles, André Versaille, 2011; Annette Wieviorka, Sylvie Lindeperg (eds.), Le moment Eichmann, Paris, Albin Michel, 2016. See also, among others, Hanna Yablonka, The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann, New York, Schocken Books, 2004; Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, New York, Henry Holt, 1991, p. 323-84; and Shoshona Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2002.

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Among the numerous discussions of the role the Holocaust plays in contemporary western culture, see Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2000; Peter Novick, L’Holocauste dans la vie américaine, Paris: Gallimard, 2001; Gary Weismann, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004; Larissa Allwork, “Holocaust Remembrance as ‘Civil Religion’: The Case of the Stockholm Declaration,” in Diana I. Popescu, T. Schult (eds.),,Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, p. 288-304. Another strain of thought that stresses the boundary between history and memory and the problems of Holocaust sensationalism is best represented by Annette Wieviorka, L’ère du témoin, Paris, Plon, 1998.

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Hanna Yablonka, The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann, New York, Schocken Books, 2004.  Yablonka has hesitantingly challenged arguments about the evocation of conventional heroism in the trial. One legal theorist argues that the prosecutor used nationhood to evoke heroism because efforts to emphasize the brutality of the Nazis alone could not confer “pride and respect” on survivors. See Stephen Landsman, “The Eichmann Case and the Invention of the Witness-Driven Atrocity Trial”, Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, 51: 69, 2012, p. 85.

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Cited in Maurice Szafran, Les Juifs dans la politique française de 1945 à nos jours, Paris, Flammarion, 1990, 35. Szafran does not cite a source. 

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David Rousset, L’Univers concentrationnaire, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1965; Germaine Tillion, Ravensbrück, Paris, Le Seuil, 1988; and for Malraux’s 1975 speech on May 8 at Chartes, see the INA archive; Samuel Moyn, A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France, Waltham, MA, Brandeis University Press, 2005.

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Leora Bilsky has recently challenged this conventional reading. Leora Bilsky, “The Eichmann Trial: Toward a Jurisprudence of Eyewitness Testimony of Atrocities”, Journal of International Criminal Justice, n° 12, 2004, p. 27-57.

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For a thorough discussion of the witness selection process, see Hanna Yablonka, The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann, p. 88-120.

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Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York, Penguin, 1994 [1963], p. 266.

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Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 125-126.

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Jean-Marie Théollyre, “Les témoins s’efforcent d’expliquer pourquoi ils ne sont pas révolté contre la barbarie nazi”, Le Monde, May 3, 1961.

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The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, 9 vols., Jerusalem, State of Israel, Ministry of Justice, 1992-1995, 1: 466.

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The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, T. 1., Jerusalem, State of Israel, Ministry of Justice, 1992-1995, p. 474.

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The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, T. 3, Jerusalem, State of Israel, Ministry of Justice, 1992-1995, p. 1177.

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The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, t. 1., Jerusalem, State of Israel, Ministry of Justice, 1992-1995, p. 516.

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Elie Wiesel, “A Plea for the Dead”, Legends of Our Time, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

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Haim Gouri, Facing the Glass Booth: The Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2004, p. 140. 

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Here one might speak of secondary trauma.

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This tone of testimony is now most often equated with traumatized witnesses who narrate flatly what they feel in excess.


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Martha Gelhorn, “Eichmann and the Private Conscience”, The Atlantic, accessed Nov. 18, 2016.

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This particular image is often associated with the testimony of Yehiel Dinur (“Katzetnik 135633”, a nom-de-plume taken from “KZ”), who fainted on the witness stand. Much interesting work on the trial is devoted to his trauma as a symbol of the limits of law. Here I am less interested in the law or trauma than the figuration of traumatized witnesses, and so steer away from Dinur, who I discuss at length in the book version.

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Jules Margolin, Le Procès Eichmann et Autres Essais, Varese, Le Bruit du Temps, 2016, p. 18, p. 25.

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Elie Wiesel, “Eichmann’s Victims and the Unheard Testimony”, Commentary, Dec. 1, 1961, 32-6, p. 510-516. This essay is reprinted in revised form in Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 174-197.

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Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 187.

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Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 173.

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Naomi Seidman, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage”, Jewish Social Studies, 3, 1, 1996, p. 1-19.

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The most important book is Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976. 

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Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 6.

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David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press,1999, p. 7.

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Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Irving Greenberg (eds.), Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978, XII.

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François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 482-83.

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For these arguments, see Peter Novick, L’Holocauste dans la vie américaine, Paris, Gallimard, 2001; Gary Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004.

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Deborah E. Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial, New York, Schoken, 2011, p. XI.

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James Dawes, That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 4, p. 80.

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Sara Kendall, Sarah Nouwen, “Representational Practices at the International Criminal Court: The Gap between Juridified and Abstract Victimhood”, Law and Contemporary Problems, n° 76, 2014, P. 235-62.

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Didier Fassin, Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry Into the Condition of Victimhood, trans. Rachel Gomme, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 70-96; Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 200-22.