Hirsch on Thomas Trezise, 'Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony'

Thomas Trezise
Lily E. Hirsch

Thomas Trezise. Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. 336 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-4448-5.

Reviewed by Lily E. Hirsch (California State University-Bakersfield) Published on H-German (March, 2015) Commissioned by Chad Ross

Trauma and Biography

Witnessing Witnessing analyzes the reception of Holocaust survivor testimony by critiquing the work of Dori Laub, Cathy Caruth, Berel Lang, Giorgio Agamben, Theordor W. Adorno, and Emmanuel Levinas, among others. In so doing, the author, Thomas Trezise, makes use of his insider/outsider position as a scholar of French, offering unique perspectives on approaches to trauma from within the fields of psychology, history, and philosophy. It thus seems somewhat fitting that I, as a musicologist, add my response to this interdisciplinary throng--a response explicitly invited by Trezise, who offers his project as an unfinished conversation. In the conclusion, he writes, "With any luck, the book may simply help to invigorate and sustain the discussion from which it has already benefited so much" (p. 226). 

In chapter 1, Trezise parses a conflict between the historian, who insists on the accuracy of testimony, and the psychologist, in particular Dori Laub, who treats testimony as a recovery of agency. While Laub's retelling of Holocaust experiences avoids a revictimization of the survivor by valuing the individual above the group or a collective history, Laub, like the historian in Trezise's view, is too dogmatic. Both overlook a generic hybridity in testimony, especially the recorded public interview, which functions toward multiple ends simultaneously--education, therapy, documentation. Laub's oversight in this regard has some explanation in his biography. According to Trezise, Laub's own survival accounts for the meaning he ascribes to description with some inaccuracy of a failed uprising in Auschwitz. This recourse to biography and the context of listening is a significant theme throughout the book, one related to the author's own admission of trauma in the preface, his wife's sexual assault. This revelation leads to a provocative and potentially problematic correlation: "I am inclined to think that no one undertakes the study of trauma unless compelled to do so for personal reasons" (p. ix).

Trezise's valuation of biography informs unique hypotheses in subsequent chapters and his evaluation of the notion that the Holocaust is inherently unspeakable. In Cathy Caruth's theory of trauma, this notion of unspeakability prompts us to avoid survivor testimony--not only is there no point in listening, given the impossibility of truly expressing and thus understanding trauma, but any attempt to listen is dangerous, potentially traumatizing the listener. The ethical repercussions of such a theory are clear, a danger inherent also in Adorno's claim that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," especially when memoir is viewed as art.

With truly original results, in chapter 3, Trezise reevaluates this claim alongside Adnorno and his own discursive shift. As Adorno later wrote, "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems" (quoted on p. 66). After a long rumination on the power of "I" after Auschwitz and other related foundational material, perhaps better suited to the introduction, Trezise contextualizes Adorno's initial claim in survivor guilt.

Such strategy informs Trezise's reading in chapter 4 of Primo Levi's assertion that the "true witness" is the so-called Muselmann, one unable to speak, a position reinvigorated by Giorgio Agamben. With much critical wrangling--challenging Levi's assertion "that each man is his brother's Cain, that each one of us … has usurped his neighbor's place and lived in his stead," the author asks, "Does not the universal scope of the supposition threaten to obscure the shame of Holocaust survivors in its specificity?" (p. 151)--Trezise ultimately reinterprets the "true witness" in a moral sense, as a manifestation of shame built into Levi's experience of survival.

In the final chapter, the author relies more heavily on biography, ultimately making a critical misstep by proposing that the philosophical work of Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher of ethics, could be read as testimony. He writes, "it may well be that the scruples one can only infer from Levinas's pronouncement concerning the effect of the Holocaust on his life are expounded at length in his work, leading one to suspect that the signature of the Shoah might actually be more legible in the highly abstract discourse of his philosophical oeuvre than in his elliptical autobiographical allusions" (p. 161). In this chapter, unlike those before it, Trezise does not listen to the listening of others, but imposes his own seeming agenda on our listening. Why? Musicologist Florian Scheding has recently questioned a similar handling of music--readings of musical works as testimony or evidence of survival based on the composers' biographies alone, rather than any stated compositional intention. He insists that "discovering traces of the Holocaust in a work on the basis of its author's biography (and consequently coming full circle by suggesting that the work confirms the author's status as a survivor or exile, for example) is problematic--it takes the outcome of analysis for the process of analysis." Not only that, he continues, "The presupposition that biographical experiences are the sole determinant of creative output absurdly suggests that every minute experience likely shapes a creative artist's art."[1] Despite the differences in genre, I would also argue that philosophy and music, if either engages biography at all, address more than one life event; to assume otherwise would limit our engagement with either and raise certain ethical concerns. 

Apart from this agenda in chapter 5, Trezise in his book Witnessing Witnessing offers rich critical insight and food for continued thought, often based in the appraisal of context--thus listening to those who listen to survivors. The author specifically and successfully confronts the notion that the Holocaust is unspeakable, a view that, as the author maintains, "appears to stand in for a refusal to listen" (p. 211).


[1]. Florian Scheding, Dislocated Memories: Jews, Music, and Postwar German Culture, ed. Tina Frühauf and Lily E. Hirsch (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 213.

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Citation: Lily E. Hirsch. Review of Thomas Trezise, Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony. H-German, H-Net Reviews. March, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42333

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