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The Holocaust retold (Nonesuch spring 2015)

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Three Jewish partisans hiding in Wyszkow forest near Warsaw, 1944 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin (Miedzyrzecki) Meed

Memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau Tim Cole

15 May 2015

The second of two features on the legacy of the world wars introduces the work of historian Professor Tim Cole, who is using methods imported from other disciplines to examine first-hand accounts of the Holocaust and give them their place in the landscape of central and eastern Europe.

There was once a man – a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust – who, during a visit to Warsaw many years later, decided to hire a taxi to take him back to Auschwitz. It was a long drive, but when they finally arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the man got out of the taxi, walked in through the gateway of Birkenau, then turned round, walked back out, got into the taxi, and went all the way back to Warsaw.

'He described this as his moment of liberation,' says Tim Cole, Professor of Social History. 'He'd been forcibly evacuated from Birkenau and sent on the "death marches" in 1945, so he decided that he wanted to leave the place again, this time of his own free will.'

Cole's interest in the story illustrates the main strands of an approach to Holocaust studies that places survivors' accounts front and centre, and examines them as narratives, each with a specific set of temporal and geographical qualities. Perhaps most of all, it's the subjectivity of the man's account that points to a relatively new angle on the subject.

Telling details

Historians have examined mounds of surviving documents in order to establish as objectively as possible the cold facts of the Holocaust, its perpetrators and its victims. But the so-called 'cultural turn' in historical studies at the end of the last century brought with it an awareness of subjectivity – its risks, but also its potential for opening up new avenues of enquiry.

'There's been a developing conviction that, if you can work with subjective material like oral histories, using some of the tools from neighbouring fields like anthropology and sociology, you might be able to access another set of truths,' says Cole, who is one of a number of historians making extensive use of oral histories and memoirs in Holocaust studies. 'I was trained both as a historian and as a geographer, so I try to look at survivor accounts in the context of geography – to peg these stories down into the landscape. I think it’s ethically as well as historically important to work out what those places and experiences were like.'

Cole's search for the Holocaust's material contexts has resulted in a major new study, Holocaust Landscapes, to be published in 2016. 'I wanted to examine the Holocaust as something that happened in real places, not suspended in a kind of historical bubble or confined to purpose-built extermination camps,' he explains. 'Each chapter of the book focuses on a particular kind of environment – ghetto, cellar, railway, sea, mountain, forest, road, and so on.'

The European road network, for example, became the setting for 'death marches', forced journeys such as those endured by the man whose story we began with.

'The final months of the war were chaotic,' says Cole. 'Auschwitz was closed down in January 1945 as the Soviets approached from the east, then the other concentration camps started closing prior to the arrival of the Allies. The Nazis marched these prisoners – mostly Jews but also non- Jews – around an ever-shrinking area of German soil, looking for a camp that would take them. One of the reasons that conditions were so terrible in Bergen-Belsen when the British arrived was that it had become a dumping ground for all of these prisoners from Auschwitz and elsewhere.'

While man-made landscapes such as camps, railways and roads frequently become the settings for stories of unspeakable inhumanity, the natural world often represents something more complex: not the straightforward opposite of the human, but an environment where human and animal merge. Nature is, at worst, indifferent, but sometimes actively benign.

Tales from the woods

Tens of thousands of Jews used the thickly wooded areas of central and eastern Europe as places of refuge, either on their own or in family and partisan groups. 'They used nature in various ways to help them survive,' says Cole, 'but their stories show how complex and varied their relationships with the natural world were.'

Of particular significance is the way survivors tell these stories, and the imagery and tropes they use to evoke the reality of their experiences. Some accounts stress the benign aspects of the forests – bushes that break their fall, vegetation that conceals them, creatures that 'teach' them how to survive – while others highlight the harshness of an environment in which they struggled to stay alive, sometimes for several years, and describe their 'descent' into an animal state.

'The rise of environmental history is forcing historians to expand their focus beyond human actors, which gives us new perspectives,' says Cole. 'I think there's a real value, for example, in thinking about mud, and its different meanings for different people.'

One survivor describes hiding with his father in a hole dug into the soil of a rye field, while heavy rain fell for days; their skin began to peel, but, he recalls, the mud and rye 'worked as an adhesive keeping intact drying process'. He goes further, to suggest a breaking down of the division between man and earth, giving his account, Cole suggests, 'an Old Testament quality, as if they're being remade out of the mud.'

Mud often had a very different connotation for survivors of the camps, such as a woman whose narrative uses the opposing motifs of mud and soap to chart her journey.

'She tells the story in terms of the points where she was able to wash and where she wasn't,' says Cole. 'At Auschwitz she could wash, but after she was moved to Belsen she couldn't – she describes almost being submerged by the mud, because things have broken down to such an extent. For her, the moment of liberation is when she's washed by the British for the first time. The imagery that she and other survivors use when they retell these stories sheds a light on their own subjective experience, and says something about how cultural memory is formed.'

Dark places

Cole and his Bristol colleague, Dr Joanna Michlic, recently launched the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which will be at the forefront of efforts to study the vast number of oral histories collected in recent years by groups like the Shoah Foundation. 'I really believe that Holocaust remembrance and education must maintain a close link with new research,' Cole says. 'Good research shines a new light on things, which I want to keep doing, both as an academic and as someone talking to a public audience.'

But it goes without saying that writing about the Holocaust is not a project for the fainthearted; Cole himself is not immune to the effects of working on such dark subject matter.

'The place that I find hardest to write about is the cattle car,' he says. 'It's a difficult space to enter imaginatively: they were extremely overcrowded and profoundly claustrophobic. Survivors tend to talk about the cattle cars as the closest thing to the gas chambers that they escaped. After I work on that chapter, I need a few days off.

'I want to do justice to those stories, but I don't always know how far to take the reader into a dark place,' he adds. 'For those of us who work on the darker side of humanity, it's hard to know if you've got your own narrative voice right. That's another layer of subjectivity – I'm not just a historian, I'm a human being with my own sensibilities.'

Roads and remembrance

In tandem with his book, Cole has written a series of companion pieces about how these landscapes, and the events that occurred there, are remembered now – what he calls 'the performance of memory'. Besides the purpose-built killing sites such as the camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka, some of the more 'ordinary' landscapes have also had their history retraced. Various groups memorialise the death marches by re-walking the roads in question: survivors and their families, groups of young Jews, as well as 'charismatic' Christians, artists and film-makers.

Anthropology can shed light on the importance of ritual in these acts of memory. The man who took a taxi to Auschwitz is not an isolated figure: 'There are many stories of survivors doing similar things,' says Cole. 'Some of them go to touch the barbed wire that's no longer electrified, and take photographs of themselves holding it, or walking out of the gateway. They're enacting these performances of liberation, even of victory over the Nazis, especially when they take their children and grandchildren: they're saying "Look, I'm still alive and I've got all of these descendants to prove it".'

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Further information

The first feature on the legacy of the world wars was published in the autumn 2014 issue of Nonesuch, and focuses on a Bristol researcher contributing to a more complete picture of the First World War with a ten-year archaeological study of a region on one of its less familiar fronts: the Middle East. 

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