The Project of Memory: Life Writing the Holocaust
Peterson, Margaret Polizos
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This phenomenological study explores the lived experience of life writing the Holocaust. Life writing is the term used to describe personal biographical and autobiographical accounts in many genres (Jolly, 2001). As research concerned with how personal writing of the Holocaust is experienced by the writers themselves, this work explores the ways in which memory, narrative and history intersect in the writing processes of each writer. What insights might we gain about personal writing as a tool for helping to understand the past? What might we learn about historical events, such as the Holocaust, from crafted writing made by eyewitnesses? What does it mean for these writers to do this work? What may we learn about personal writing as a mode of learning? This research is done in the tradition of hermeneutic phenomenology and draws on the work of philosophers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty, and particularly Levinas, as foundational grounding for this study. The work of David Carr, who describes our understanding of experience and history as narrative in nature helped to guide this research as well. Van Manen provides a systematic process by which research employing hermeneutic phenomenological philosophy can be done. Through engagement with the literature surrounding the existential phenomenon; research on writing after trauma; literature and research on survivor testimony; philosophical and psychological research concerning the nature of memory and critical analysis of historical consciousness and historiology, I formed questions that guided my conversations with participants. I recruited twelve participants, members of The Memory Project, a writing group of Holocaust survivors at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for this study. My phenomenological data suggests that life writing the Holocaust acts as a mode of seeking coherence for these writers. The narrative structure of memory, as pre-writing for life writing, is employed as a tool for greater self understanding and communication of a self by these writers. In addition, multiple communities are called upon by these writers as they craft and revise the texts they make. Conversations with historians of the Holocaust, dialogue with family members and the interactions within our group guide the remembering and writing of these writers and help add to a sense of their own "narrative coherence" described by Carr (1986). Drawing from insights gained from my participants, I suggest that the lived experience of life writing the Holocaust is a pedagogical process. This process is one in which narrative memory, expanding historical consciousness and writing as impetus and mode of questioning engage these survivors in ongoing discovery and communication of their own life stories. Additionally, I offer an understanding of life writing, memory and history conceived differently than in an objectivist tradition as transformative to a pedagogical sense of engaging in processes of memory, historical consciousness and writing.