Trauma in First Person

Diary Writing During the Holocaust

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Amos Goldberg
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , October
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Amos Goldberg’s Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust is an important and thought-provoking book not only on reading Holocaust diaries, but also on what that reading can tell us about the extent of the destruction committed against Jews during the Holocaust. Amos Goldberg, Chair of the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and long-time author on the subject of Holocaust diaries, has presented here a full-length monograph that discusses many of the strands of work he has been contemplating and publishing on for years.

In order to understand Goldberg’s conclusions, one must first understand the theoretical frameworks through which he interprets Holocaust diaries. First and foremost, the author explains his interpretation of Holocaust diaries as “life-stories.” He describes the fundamental principle in autobiography studies, which suggests that authors who write autobiographies strive to create their identities through the language and narrative structure of their writing, but argues that this was not the case for Holocaust diarists. Unlike those free to write in other circumstances, these authors faced traumatic threats to their individual humanity that often resulted in the opposite: a “radical and undermining helplessness … and internal disintegration that shook the identity of the victims to the point of threatening to nullify their very human existence” (x). Trauma theory is the primary axis around which this book is based, and Goldberg relies primarily on the writings of Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Paul Ricouer, Giorgio Agamben, and secondarily on the works of Dominick LaCapra, whose style of intellectual history Goldberg’s book resembles. 

In the second chapter, entitled “Reading the Diaries as a Critique of Holocaust Historiography,” Goldberg presents what seems to be the heart of this book and its raison d’être. Here, the author dismisses many of the major historiographies of the Holocaust (written by giants such as Yehuda Bauer and Ruth Wisse) as essentially misguided. Goldberg argues that previous writing on the subject has concluded that Holocaust victims, though enduring great suffering, were ultimately able to keep the “outside” suffering away from their “inside” selves, thereby remaining whole as individual human beings (60). The author believes that interpreting wartime sources (here, diaries) through the framework of psychoanalysis and trauma makes it clear that this interpretation is fundamentally flawed, and that the “outside” very often infringed on the “inside,” creating fundamental questions about the figure of man in the Holocaust that previous histories have not addressed or have purposely ignored.

In the bulk of the book, Goldberg applies his analytical reading to two of the most extensive and well-known Holocaust diaries, that of Victor Klemperer in Dresden and Chaim Kaplan in Warsaw. Victor Klemperer, a German-Jewish, converted man convert who survived the war, wrote a diary rife with German national identity. Much of his struggle during the war had to do with Nazism’s inherent challenge to that part of his self.  Here, Goldberg uses a psychoanalytic reading to call into question the traditional linear movement of time in Klemperer’s writing. He argues that “the past, the present, and the future are not the same in Klemperer’s diary as they are supposed to be structured in a ‘life-story,’” and that that “breakdown of autobiographical temporality” leads to a radical shift in his diary from autobiographical to documentary diary (135, 146). To Goldberg, these shifts demonstrate the almost complete fragmentation of the self in Klemperer’s diary.

Goldberg uses a different theoretical framework in his section on Chaim Kaplan, a Jewish educator, ardent proponent of Hebrew, and dedicated Zionist who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto until his deportation to Treblinka in 1942. Kaplan held a deep belief “that the ‘nation’ was a natural phenomenon whose heritage was passed on to its sons and daughters in an almost genetic manner” (233), and therefore interpreted his own suffering and that of his fellow Jews through a right-wing worldview. This becomes essential to Goldberg’s assessment of the diminishment of self in Kaplan’s diary, for which he creates the term “the gray zone of consciousness.” Here, Goldberg argues that Kaplan ultimately presents a “dualist consciousness” in his diary that both identifies with and fights against basic tenets of Nazi ideology, such as the belief in the concept of “nation” mentioned above (238). Goldberg writes that this identification with the perpetrator threw Kaplan into a “gray zone” (as delineated by Primo Levi), whereby he sometimes internalized the German perspective, demonstrating the infiltration of the Nazi voice into even his most private writing.

Ultimately, by walking the reader through various examples of systematic breakdown in these diaries, Goldberg effectively demonstrates his main goal of making the reader rethink the kind of affirmative Holocaust historiography that has largely been written until now. However, Goldberg does not leave the reader completely bereft and believing that all sense of personal identity and selfhood was destroyed during the Holocaust. He moderates this assessment in the conclusion, where he suggests that these diaries present not only a collapse of self, but more importantly, a constant struggle against it. While not exactly an uplifting sentiment, Goldberg suggests that it is precisely in that striving that we can begin to understand the “essential thing” about the Holocaust (258).

One issue that arises from such a heavy use of theory and a close focus on only two diaries is some doubt about the generalizability of his conclusions. Though Goldberg does discuss a number of other diaries early in the book, it is not clear that the conclusions drawn about the “gray zone of consciousness” in Kaplan’s diary would apply also to other diarists with other worldviews opposite to his, as suggested by the few paragraphs devoted to such a figure, Emanuel Ringelblum. Also, though provocative and inspiring to an academic audience, the amount of theory and resulting use of jargon in this book will make it difficult for the layperson or casual reader. In the end, despite these minor drawbacks, this book provides a compelling and exciting new reading of Holocaust diaries that presents new insights into the deepest question posed by Primo Levi: “If this is a man?”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Simon is William and Audrey Farber Family Endowed Chair in Holocaust Studies and European Jewish History at Michigan State University.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amos Goldberg is senior lecturer in Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He is the author of Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust and the co-editor with Bashir Bashir of Traumatic Past and Civil Spheres: The Holocaust and the Nakba in Israel/Palestine.


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