Ecologies of Witnessing

The Naomi Foundation recently spoke with Dr. Hannah Pollin-Galay about her newest book, “Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place, and Holocaust Testimony.” Dr. Pollin-Galay is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at Tel Aviv University, with a specialization in Yiddish literature and culture. The Naomi Foundation is proud to have partnered with Tel Aviv University to create this position and to advance the study of academic Yiddish. 

Naomi Foundation (NF): What inspired you to focus on language and place as key factors in the remembrances of Holocaust survivors?

Hannah Pollin-Galay (HG): Part of my interest in language and place comes from a research experience. When I graduated college in 2004, I traveled to Lithuania armed with my knowledge of Yiddish. Once there, I sat down with a phone book and looked for Jewish last names. If they were Holocaust survivors, I asked if they would speak to me. I listened to their stories and was surprised at how difficult it was for me to align what they were telling me with what I had read and heard as an American Jew. It took me over a decade to identify what that feeling of surprise was about. I felt that it had to do with the fact that we were speaking so close to the scene of the crime, in Lithuania, where these events took place; and that we were speaking in Yiddish, which was their primary language of experience. This made me begin to ask new questions about how language shapes memory and thought. Most international research is written in English, so therefore people assume that English is a neutral medium when it comes to conveying the Holocaust. It is not. It comes with certain paradigms, certain judgments, certain moral frameworks that lead us to decide which types of Holocaust memory are valuable and which aren’t. I really wanted to lay that assumption bare.

NF: In describing interviews with Lithuanian survivors, you comment: “…I, as a researcher of American Jewish background, could not recognize these events as told to me in this manner…these aging Lithuanian Jews narrated the Holocaust in a way that did not sound like the Holocaust.” What do you mean by this?

HG: Over the year when I was conducting these interviews, people would ask me, “Are they talking to you about the Holocaust?” I would say, “No, they’re not.” And they’d ask, “Well, what are they telling you about? They were there – either in the ghetto, in hiding, or in partisan forces, or in the evacuation – so what is it that they’re talking to you about?” I said, “They are talking about the Holocaust, but there’s something really different.” And that something took me many years to identify. [One thing that’s different is the] approach to family as a constantly shifting kin network. And then different ideas of who the enemy is, what went wrong, how did this happen, and what does justice mean. There’s a much stronger sense that individual people should be prosecuted and held accountable in Lithuania because they see crimes as being much more human and thus more the result of individual human agency than a kind of mass force of wrong and anti-Semitism that often characterizes Holocaust perpetration abroad. They conveyed different ideas about language – I call it language biographies – and different relationships to place. What ties all of these differences together is a challenge to the concept of catastrophe. We take for granted, justifiably, that we should call the Holocaust the catastrophe. If we think strictly about “catastrophe” in the dictionary sense of the word, catastrophe is not just an extremely horrible, violent event. A catastrophe is a break in the system of human values. So I became convinced over time that what was different about the Lithuanian Yiddish-language testimonies was that they were describing the same level of human carnage and horror and loss, but not through a lens of catastrophe. They did not see a revolution in values in the Holocaust. They told their stories through a lens of porous continuation in which history goes back and forth. The people who were responsible for the events of the Holocaust, they might be your neighbors now, they might do something wrong again, they might not; history might get worse or better. In other words, they never cast the events of the Holocaust as a lesser horror, a lesser evil, but placed them in a different narrative about human values

NF: What do “ecology” and the idea of a “landscape of memory” mean within the context of Holocaust testimony?

HG: A friend of mine who is a great editor commented on the title, “Well, it’s an interesting title, but it doesn’t make a claim.” I think, actually, my biggest claim is the word ecology. The way researchers have thought about these questions in the past is a dichotomy between individualism and determinism. [Regarding individualism,] everybody remembers in his or her own terms – I have my own feelings, my own heart, my own head, and that’s what makes my memory the way it is. [Determinists] say there is this thing called culture, and it sits there and tells you what to remember, and we don’t look at what’s going on inside our brain or heart or soul. We look at statues, we look at presidential speeches, and so forth—that’s memory to them. I wasn’t satisfied with either of these approaches. I wanted think about this flow between what we hear around us, what we read in the newspaper, what our friends talk about at school, our own individual inclinations, our own memories of how all these factors flow toward one another. I like the word ecology because it implies something that is extremely powerful, but also very messy and constantly changing around you. I see language and place as two very important aspects of this constantly changing ecology of memory that surrounds people and gives them a way to think. If we didn’t have a natural ecology, like water and air, we wouldn’t be able to breathe or drink. Likewise if we didn’t have an ecology of memory – words that constantly come up, stock images – if we didn’t have those resources, we wouldn’t be able to function as individual rememberers. That’s how I came to the title.

NF: What is an example of a way in which language has shaped the testimony of survivors?

HG: One example is the Yiddish word eygene, which means ‘’our own.’’ It can be an adjective – [as in] our own people – or it can stand by itself, “our own,” leaving ambiguous what is owned. This is a term that was very prominent in the Yiddish language testimonies that I gathered and heard as a way to describe family or kin relations during the Holocaust. Eygene is a flexible term. So, when horrifyingly, someone’s parents are brutally killed at the beginning of the Holocaust [in Lithuania], it’s not the end of the story family-wise. There’s this eygene—which is both word and idea—which gives people a way of emphasizing new types of kin relationships. The next thing you know this orphan has been adopted by her neighbors are they are now her eygene. And then she moves into a ghetto and all those people who live in the same house as her are now her eygene. She moves to a camp and the women who are in the bunker with her are her eygene. And then the process continues and even reverses itself as she moves back to Lithuania. It’s not that people are unfeeling or they don’t care about their biological families. It’s a different way of looking at social bonding. It’s a constant process rather than a fixed structure. It’s not fixed in nature and it’s not defined by a nation or even by an ideology. Eygene does not mean a political party – that’s a critical source of social strength in the Hebrew language testimonies – and it’s not about nuclear family relationships, which are so important in American Holocaust culture, and in American culture period. The “eygene” was something else, something that can be described in English but not translated. This notion dramatically shaped how people interpreted their own pain and their own losses during the Holocaust.

NF: What is an example of a way in which geography has informed survivor memory?

HG: In the testimonies of people who emigrated to Israel or the United States, the very place of Lithuania represents the unspeakable and unrepresentable in many ways for them. It’s a place that’s lost, that’s dark, that’s no longer there. What happened there is of a different register of history. This is a powerful motif that shapes the way people imagine events playing out. If a certain event is almost off the map or untouchable, then the evil that people did there is also unworldly and untouchable. It’s not regular human evil. It’s not something that you or I could ever repeat. It’s of another world in a sense. When people still live on or near the sites of Holocaust violence, they go to the grocery store and see Lithuanians who may have had grandparents who were perpetrators, or they walk past the site that used to be the ghetto on a regular basis. They don’t have that same blocked off, unrepresentable depiction in their minds, in their mental maps of Lithuania, of the events. They therefore have a different way of judging the crimes of the Holocaust. They place this violence on a spectrum of human behavior that they can still see and imagine because they can see and imagine the places where it happened.

Learn more about “Ecologies of Witnessing” at