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Number 12: Summer 2016

Be Deported…and Bear Witness! Psychoanalysing, Bearing Witness: A Double Bind?

Anne-Lise Stern

Henri Bulawko, one of those ‘professional deportees’ as they are sometimes dared to be called, wrote in 1990: ‘At a conference, recently, I heard some historians state that former deportees were ‘documents’ to them. This wasn’t the first time I ran up against the use of that term to refer to us. I expressed my puzzlement and was told in reply, with a genial smile, that we were ‘living documents’. I suddenly saw myself turned into an object of curiosity, locked up in a zoo in the company of other rare species. Historians came to examine me, asking me to lie down, flipping me over and over the way one flips the pages of a book, asking me questions too and jotting down a few notes randomly, loosely following my answers. (…) The term being used here seems infinitely shocking to me. You can go from being a ‘former deportee’ to being a ‘witness’ and from a ‘witness’ to a ‘document’. What are we then? What am I?

In Shoah, the film, those who were in the Sonderkommandos are given a chance to speak: those whose spoken words we had to bear to hear, and to whom we had to lend a strong ear. Are they witnesses in the way it is now understood? They say nothing of their own personal history, of their lived experience. At any rate, the editing, barebones, leaves all this out. Shoah is not a documentary; it is not a pure masterpiece of the seventh art either. Rather, it is the inaugural work of an eighth art, by the yardstick of our time. As a result, it has in fact elicited, prompted, in one and all, a wish to express oneself, for each to bear witness in one’s own name. The people involved, actually, often have some connection with psychoanalysis, through a child, a partner, a friend, themselves. For psychoanalysis relates to subjects one by one—their petty little secrets, their little history—even if it is tied to History. As a result, the film and its director can act simultaneously as an impetus and a burden through an effect of prohibition, of stoppage. This is where I locate a form of constraint, of double bind, which I will try to circumvent while considering it categorically all the same. Thus, some psychoanalysts congratulate themselves: Claude Lanzmann has arguably introduced a Hebrew signifier into the French language. I personally contend that, before the film Shoah, what Israelis referred to with the term ‘shoah’ remained Hebrew to them and that, since the film, the word, the name Shoah has become French in France, German in Germany, English in the United States.

The few words quoted from Henri Bulawko are featured – and this is no fortuitous fact – in the foreword to Gilles Cohen’s Tattooed Numbers in the Camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.1 In there, there are photos: tattooed faces, tattooed arms, and texts written by the individuals these faces and arms belong to – among them, a Gipsy woman, untattooed people – bits of skin and a corpse from Struthof (among other corpses used as anatomical material by the medical students in Strasbourg). Serge Klarsfeld restored a name to this ‘document’ – no 107969. His name was Menachem Taffel (Taffel, plate, board, table?). He was deported from Berlin, immatriculated in Auschwitz on 13 March 1943, and selected for Struthof by German anthropologist Bruno Beger. He was born on 28 July 1900. If Bulawko rejects the term ‘document’, however ‘living’, it is precisely because it is applied to someone who is already tattooed, someone who already bears a written mark. A document: paper is also made from rags, tatters (paper, rags, scrap metal for sale?). What are we? What am I? He asks. This is what all deported-subjects, in truth, bear witness to: to those wrecks in tatters ((Translator’s note: In order to retain the important reference to torn and ragged clothing, ‘wreck in tatters’ is my suggested translation of the French term ‘loque’ used consistently throughout the section. ‘Loque’ means ‘rag’ literally (and is translated as such in places) but it can also mean ‘a wreck’ when applied figuratively to a human being. )) that they once were, that the others were around them, or that they were doomed to become. This is what deported-knowledge is, some knowledge about waste (le déchet), about tatters. But as a result of talking about it, of bearing witness to it, they cease to be wrecks in tatters. Robert Antelme writes this in relation to someone who was balking at an order during the Liberation: ‘there isn’t any more wreck underneath this wreckage’.2 Note that basic Jewish deportees were dressed in tatters from the outset, women at least, in tatters that the women of the previous convoy had been stripped of, for they were already gassed for the most part. Access to the striped uniform was restricted to those who were already part of a ‘real’ work Kommando.


  1. English translation of Les Matricules tatoués des camps d’Auschwitz- Birkenau: Tattooed Numbers in the Camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Paris: Sons and Daughters of Jewish French Deportees; New York: Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 1992).  

  2. Robert Antelme, The Human Race, transl. by Jeffrey Haight and Annie Mahler, Northwestern: Northwestern UP, 1998, p. 291.