When recalling experiences related to a large-scale historical event, memoirists face a number of challenges; most urgent, perhaps, is the need to secure the trust of their audience so that their accounts will be read in the first place. Concerned that their entire testimony will be discounted if there is a single error, memoirists make a sustained effort to avoid mistakes and inaccuracies. Memoirists are also aware that their accounts can be read against the historical record. Indeed, Holocaust deniers are quick to point out testimonies that do not align with the facts per se, and subsequently negate both memoirs and history books in one fell swoop. Given the prevalence of Holocaust denial, some historians have been wary of testimony, anxious that these personal recollections could undermine, rather than support, the facts that have been established.
Like memoirists, literary critics also think about the roles that truth and authenticity play in the production and reception of Holocaust memoirs. Critics Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub have played an important role in the growth of Holocaust studies as an academic field within literature departments, and their scholarship tackles some of the complexities of Holocaust representation.
Art Spiegelman also integrates some of these anxieties about accuracy and truth into his graphic novel Maus, winner, in 1992, of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. In Maus, Spiegelman recounts his father’s Holocaust experiences as well as the difficulties of representing his father’s story.
Suggested Activity: Ask students to gather into groups and analyze the excerpt from Laub and Felman’s text regarding testimonial inaccuracies. Ask students if they agree with the historians or with the psychoanalyst and why. Then, share this Art Spiegelman’s quote with the students. Ask them to think about Elie Wiesel's preface to Night (Hill & Wang, 2006) as well, where he frames the new translation of the book as an opportunity to correct and revise "a number of important details" in the memoir. Ask students: do mistakes matter in testimony? Why or why not? Why might memoirists be particularly afraid of making a mistake? Highlight that Holocaust deniers frequently undermine Holocaust testimony by pointing to factual errors. Ask students: must mistakes or inaccuracies be negative? Or can mistakes somehow contribute to a fuller picture of history? If students were to write their own memoirs, to what extent would they be concerned about making mistakes? To what extent would they be able to avoid errors? What is the substance of memoir and how important are facts? Is establishing fact more important in certain contexts than in others?