Survivor Testimony

Much of what occurred during the Holocaust seems too horrible to imagine. Indeed, for many years following the end of World War II, survivors were extremely hesitant to speak of their personal experiences. They focused instead on rebuilding their lives. Following Adolf Eichmann's trial in the 1960s, Holocaust survivors finally began to speak and write about their traumatic ordeals. For each survivor, the act of recounting the Holocaust experience is a personal struggle. Many share their painful memories in an effort to understand or accept the Holocaust with the urgent hope that such a dark age of human history will never be repeated. The content of a written survivor memoir, whether presented as fact or transformed into fiction, is often harrowing and gruesome. Still, biographies and personal narratives can help to personalize historical events and establish real faces in the overwhelming sea of facts and statistics. Elie Wiesel has been credited as the first to break the nearly twenty years of silence with his remarkable semi-fictionalized memoir, Night, a work inextricably associated with Holocaust literature.

 by Elie Wiesel

This highly regarded novel tells of Wiesel's teenage experiences at various Nazi camps. At Auschwitz, Elie and his father were separated forever from his mother and sister. Young Elie struggled to maintain his religious faith in the face of Nazi brutality. He finally despairs of both God and humanity, yet juxtaposed against the atrocities is the story of his enduring relationship with his father. This emotional, imaginative, and thought-provoking memoir deals with the issues of survival, loss, death, and faith. It is recommended for high school students.

Never shall I forget that night, that first night in the camp, which has turned my
life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I
forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of the children, whose bodies I
saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of
the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God
and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget those things, even
if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

One Generation After
 by Elie Wiesel

This nonfiction narrative of Elie Wiesel's was published in 1965. While he relates events of World War II, his primary focus is on the relationship between the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. Wiesel deals plainly with the paradoxes that confronted Jews around the world after the Holocaust. The creation of Israel, he notes, served as a consolation to all of humankind, not to Jews alone, for the atrocities of the Holocaust. His theme is the affirmation of life and faith following such an abominable tragedy. Recommended for high school students.

Man's Search for Meaning:
An Introduction to Logotherapy

 by Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl's book recounts his personal struggle to survive in the Auschwitz concentration camp. In discussing "logotherapy," a version of psychotherapy he developed to cope with extreme conditions designed to humiliate, dehumanize and eventually destroy, Frankl offers worthwhile advice and instruction to those who seek meaning in life. Moreover, Frankl refutes the notion that people today are mere robots, fully conditioned in their behavior. Whether men behave as beasts or as saints, states Frankl, "depends on decisions, but not on conditions." Recommended for high school students.

Survival in Auschwitz
 by Primo Levi

Primo Levi was a young Italian chemist, only twenty-four, when he was captured by the Nazis in 1943. He spent two long and torturous years at Auschwitz before the Russian army freed the remaining prisoners. Levi was allowed to live only because of his superior scientific knowledge which made him useful to the Nazis. This memoir, a classic of twentieth-century literature, tells of his time there, and of the horrors he both experienced and witnessed. Levi's style is uncomplicated and frank, yet sophisticated. At times his tone is almost detached. Both his words and his silences will move and grip the reader as he relates the evils of this notorious death camp. Recommended for high school students.

Voices from the Holocaust
 edited by Sylvia Rothchild

This powerful book is a compilation of firsthand Holocaust stories told by Jews currently living in the United States. The survivors reveal their attitudes toward the Holocaust as they reflect upon their experiences and tell of their lives before, during, and after the era of the Third Reich. Materials from the William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee are used. Recommended for junior high and high school students.

The Lost Childhood: A Memoir
 by Yehuda Nir

In this touching memoir, Yehuda Nir tells the story of his life from 1939 to 1945. At the age of nine, he experienced the German invasion of Poland. During the years following the invasion, Yehuda and his family endured many hardships, including the death of Yehuda's father. The family members survived by obtaining false identity papers which fooled the Nazis into believing the Nirs were Polish Catholics. In Warsaw, Yehuda joined the Polish underground resistance against the Nazis. The story of this brave and determined family touches on the themes of identity and loss. Recommended for high school students.

To Tell the Story: Poems of the Holocaust
 by Yala Korwin

Yala's collection of poetry reflects her experiences and memories of the Holocaust. As a young Polish art student from an academic background, Yala appreciated the fine arts. Her studies were interrupted by the rise of the Third Reich. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Yala's family attempted to evade the Gestapo and survive outside the ghetto. Yala and her sister survived by passing as "Aryans" and working in a labor camp. The rest of the family perished at the hands of the Nazis. Recommended for junior high and high school students.

Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli
 by Nelly Sachs

The most effective Holocaust poetry is sometimes the most painful to read. Nelly Sachs, a German Jew who escaped to Sweden, writes eloquently about Holocaust atrocities in her collection of verses. Images of Nazi crematoriums pervade these poems, and the innocence of the imprisoned children touches the reader's heart. Sachs wrote the surreal mystery play, Eli, just three years after her 1940 escape from Berlin. This play was influenced by myth, dance, and folk ritual. Sachs was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. Recommended for high school students.

A short biography of Nelly Sachs is available at the "Women and the Holocaust" site.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
 by Tadeusz Borowski

This collection of a dozen tales conveys a range of messages about the Holocaust. The title story is about the dehumanization of concentration camp prisoners as they are forced by the Nazis to work to the brink of exhaustion. Those few who are not designated for gassing must carry the corpses to the burning piles. Captive laborers rummage through the pockets of the dead and search for bits of decaying food. Yet all of these savage acts are treated matter-of-factly: even the most beastly behavior on the part of the inmates must be excused, for all is done in the name of survival under the most terrible of circumstances. Other stories tell of a typical day in the life of a prisoner; another is an account of a German soldier killed for his cruelty by a naked woman who tricked him out of his pistol. The soldier dies unable to comprehend the desperate woman's act of vengeance. Recommended for junior high and high school students.

Upon the Head of a Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-44
 by Aranka Siegel

This award-winning novel is based on Aranka Siegel's own childhood experiences growing up in Hungary from 1939 to 1944 when she and her family are transported to Auschwitz. At the tender ages of nine through fourteen, she experiences prejudice and discrimination, imprisonment in the ghetto, and finally the horrors of Auschwitz. This book probes some important issues, such as tolerance of other races, yet the excitement and danger make the story fast-paced and engrossing. Recommended for junior high and high school students.

Adam's Daughter
 by Ronald John Vierling

This moving play by Ronald Vierling, a Holocaust scholar and dramatist, explores the topic of a second generation survivor coming to grips with suppressed emotions stemming from the Holocaust. The main character, a young woman named Natalie, is the daughter of Adam, a famous scholar and survivor of the Nazi extermination camps. She struggles to find her own identity, fighting with the overpowering shadow of her father's personality, as well as his terrible history as a survivor. Natalie also is raped, and must cope with this event, which only adds to her emotional burden. The issues of religious faith, familial love, and personal identity are covered in an insightful manner. Recommended for high school students.

The complete text of this play, including stage directions, is available here, within A Teacher's Guide.

I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust
 by Inge Auerbacher

This author is one of the one hundred children who survived Terezín, a concentration camp where fifteen thousand children were temporarily housed before being sent on to their death at other extermination camps. Inge Auerbacher, a German girl, was seven when she was sent to Terezín in 1942. Her semi-fictionalized memoir includes poetry, drawings, and photographs that help document her experiences at Terezín. Inge and her parents managed to survive until the Allies liberated the camp in 1945. This book also includes background information on the Holocaust that is appropriate for younger children. Recommended for middle, junior high school, and high school students.

All But My Life
 by Gerda Weissmann Klein

A true story that tells about Gerda's experience as one of only 120 women who survived a three-hundred-mile march from a labor camp in western Germany to Czechoslovakia. The author was only fifteen when the Nazis brought the war to the Polish town in which she lived with her family. All but My Life is a moving story of her suffering as a slave laborer, and of others who did not survive. Recommended for middle and high school students.

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A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 1997-2013.