Dori Laub, trauma, and a Holocaust without witnesses

faces-986236_1920Dori Laub puzzles me.  A child survivor of the Holocaust, and co-founder of the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University, both he and his achievements are admirable.  I’ve spent over 300 hours viewing testimony in an Archive that would not have existed, at least not in its present form, without Laub’s effort.  More than any other person, Laub created the format in which the testimonies were given, one in which the interviewer asks few questions, allowing the witness to speak for long periods without interruption.   Laub is a psychoanalyst, and the format psychoanalytically inspired. 

But if the man and his creation are admirable, his claims about trauma and the Holocaust are troubling.  The Holocaust, he says was an

event that produced no witnesses. . . . One  might say that there was, thus, historically no witness to the Holocaust either from outside or from inside the event. (Laub, An event, pp. 80-81, his emphasis)

Elsewhere Laub says

The Holocaust created in this way a world in which one could not bear witness to oneself. (Laub, Truth, p. 66, his emphasis)

What Laub means is that in order to experience an event, one must communicate it to an “inner Thou,” the addressee with whom inner dialogue takes place.  Without the “internal Thou,” an event cannot be symbolized, and hence cannot be known, even as it exerts a continuous pressure which expresses itself in trauma. 

The “inner thou”

I think the easiest way to make sense of the “inner thou” is through attachment theory, though this is not Laub’s way (sometimes he relies on the death drive as an explanation, sometimes not).  Experiencing a sudden loss of attachment to all that is known and familiar, we lose the sense that there is anyone who would listen, care, and understand.  Living in inner isolation, we lose the ability to experience our own experiences. 

Millions of people were removed from their homes, starved in ghettos, confined in concentration camps, knowing or suspecting that everyone they ever knew or loved was dead, while believing that soon they would be too.  If trauma is “the sudden, uncontrollable disruption of affiliative bonds,” as Lindemann puts it, then the Holocaust was the most traumatic of traumas.

Thinking about trauma this way, it makes sense to say that trauma is the loss of an “inner thou.”  For an “inner thou” to exist, social relationships must support it.  We do not live within ourselves, but among others in a social world.  I can’t talk to myself if I can’t imagine that there is anyone left to talk to, anyone who would understand.  I don’t actually have to talk to them, they don’t actually have to actually exist, but their annihilation makes it so much more difficult to imagine that they do. 

But, not impossible.  I have viewed the testimony of dozens of survivors who talk about friends and companions in the concentration camps with whom they spoke daily, and with whom they conspired to survive. 

Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo have both written extensively about their relationships in Auschwitz, without which they would not have survived.  In addition, both Levi and Jean Améry have written about the strength of those inmates with religious or ideological convictions, men for whom their suffering had a purpose.  Values are attachments.  Levi writes movingly about the Muselmänner, inmates who had given up all hope, and so became isolates, the walking dead.  They were numerous, but there were many others (p. 90).    

The concentration camp was not a place without attachments.  Hence it was not a world in which the “inner thou” could not survive, even if the ability to talk with oneself was under severe pressure. 

The survivor knows last

Laub believes that the Holocaust only came into existence through the testimony of its survivors.  Internal experience was not enough.  It had to be spoken.  The listener, he says, must

know that the trauma survivor who is bearing witness has no prior knowledge, no comprehension and no memory of what happened. (Bearing witness, p. 58)

This knowledge, he says, is created by the very act of being listened to.

The listener, therefore, is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo. (Bearing witness, p. 57)

In fact,

the listener (or the interviewer) becomes the Holocaust witness before the narrator does. (An event, p. 85, his emphasis)

The interviewer waits at the place for the narrator to arrive.  And when the narrator does, then one can say that

the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and co-owner of the traumatic event. (Bearing witness, p. 57)

Why is Laub saying these things?  It depends on what he is really trying to say.

It’s not true.  And I, who never came closer to the Holocaust than the Fortunoff Archives, want to say that Laub is arrogant.  There are no “co-owners” to Holocaust testimony, only those who suffer and those who listen.  Furthermore, Laub doesn’t even support his claim with his own testimony, writing that

I have distinct memories of my deportation, arrival in the camp, and the subsequent life my family and I led there.    I remember . . . these events and the feelings and thoughts they provoked, in minute detail. They are not facts that were gleaned from somebody else’s telling me about them.  (An event, p. 75)

Sometimes Laub writes in less cryptic terms, and when he does it seems that he means that

being inside the event . . . made unthinkable the very notion that a witness could exist. (Truth, p. 66, his emphasis) 

A witness would only be someone who could step outside the totalitarian and dehumanizing frame of reference. In other words, nobody experiencing the Holocaust could witness it. 

This is true if Laub means that the victims of the Holocaust could not have a comprehensive picture of their circumstances, even though documents written at the time, such as Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, hidden there and discovered after the War, paint a remarkably detailed and ideologically sophisticated picture of their circumstances. 

It is not true if it means that the Germans convinced the Jews of their inhumanity, for countless testimonies, and the works of authors such as Levi and Delbo, testify to Jewish resistance to the psychology of their circumstances.  To me the most touching was the observance of religious holidays.  Some Jews fasted on Yom Kippur, giving up their meager ration of watery soup.  

What is true is Laub’s claim that there was “no witnessing that could decisively impact on it.” (Truth, p. 68, his emphasis)  This, it turns out, is the last meaning Laub gives to his “an event without a witness claim.”  It is not a priori true, but it is historically true.  In spite of witnesses, they did not change the course of the planned annihilation.  Only the end of the War did that. 

But with this interpretation we have ended up a very long way from where we began with Laub: that the Holocaust was an event without a witness.  It was an event in which no one cared enough to hear the witnesses. 

But there were witnesses

Though it may seem odd to end a short post with a long quote, it concerns an insufficiently appreciated reality.  American leaders and the public did know about the destruction of the Jews.  The Holocaust was not an event without witnesses.  It was an event without witnesses who cared enough to make the destruction of European Jewry a priority. That’s not as cryptic or clever, but it’s true.   

In August 1942, the State Department received a report sent by Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva-based representative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). The report revealed that the Germans were implementing a policy to physically annihilate the Jews of Europe. Department officials declined to pass on the report to its intended recipient, American Jewish leader Stephen Wise, who was President of the World Jewish Congress.

Despite the State Department’s delay in publicizing the mass murder, that same month Wise received the report via British channels. He sought permission from the State Department to make its contents public. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles asked Wise not to publicize the information until the State Department confirmed it. Wise agreed and after three months the State Department notified him that its sources had confirmation. On November 24, 1942, Wise held a press conference to announce that Nazi Germany was implementing a policy to annihilate the European Jews. A few weeks later, on December 17, the United States, Great Britain, and ten other Allied governments issued a declaration denouncing Nazi Germany’s intention to murder the Jews of Europe. The declaration warned Nazi Germany that it would be held responsible for these crimes.

As the magnitude of anti-Jewish violence increased in 1939-1941, many American newspapers ran descriptions of German shooting operations, first in Poland and later after the invasion of the Soviet Union. The ethnic identity of the victims was not always made clear. Some reports described German mass murder operations with the word “extermination.” As early as July 2, 1942, the New York Times reported on the operations of the killing center in Chelmno, based on sources from the Polish underground. The article, however, appeared on page six of the newspaper. Although the New York Times covered the December 1942 statement of the Allies condemning the mass murder of European Jews on its front page, it placed coverage of the more specific information released by Wise on page ten, significantly minimizing its importance.

(Holocaust Encyclopedia of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,

For all his experience, Laub has it quite wrong.  There were lots of witnesses to the Holocaust.  Some spoke only with their inner thous, others with friends and relatives with them in the camps.  Still others spoke to a larger world.  Only the last could not hear.   


Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, trans. Rosette Lamont.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Dori Laub, An event without a witness: truth, testimony, and survival.  In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, pp. 75-92.  New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dori Laub, Bearing witness, or the vicissitudes of listening.  In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, pp. 57-74.  New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dori Laub, Truth and testimony: the process and the struggle.  In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth, pp. 61-75.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Dori Laub and Susanna Lee, Thanatos and massive psychic trauma: the impact of the death instinct on knowing, remembering, and forgetting.  Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (2003), 51: 433-464.

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. [published in England as If this is a Man]

Erich Lindemann, Symptomatology and management of acute grief. In American Journal of Psychiatry (1944), 101: 141–149.


Comments (3)

  1. Jim Glass

    One wonders why Laub would have such a narrow and restricted concept of witnessing; how could Primo Levi, Jean Amery write without having ‘witnessed’? Is not surviving an act of profound witnessing?

  2. Dear Jim, I think the theories of Caruth and Shoshana Felman have been so influential that they have led even thoughtful and sensitive people to deny their own experience. And yes, surviving IS witnessing.

    • juliet rogers

      Dear Fred and Jim,
      I admire both your work and your thoughts, but, I have spent a lot of time with those Archives and indeed, quite a good deal of time with Dori Laub discussing them. I do not believe he means that they cannot be written about or spoken about, but that language fails and, in this sense, witnessing cannot be performed as a speech act. This is an issue of transmission not an issue of speech, and it is an issue of how one can speak – I believe, Jim, that your recent presentation at the ISPP of some survivors of the Khmer Riouge spoke precisely of this issue. One need only listen to Yehiel Dinur’s attempts at the Eichmann trial to see the difficulty – as I am sure you both know. I think there is something important here about clarifying what ‘witnessing’ means, but I also think that Dori is correct on this. The witness is the listener because it is for them that the symbols of language attain meaning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *