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Alexander Williams MA

PhD candidate


Area(s) of interest: Memory Studies, Modern & Contemporary History, Oral History & Life Writing, War & Conflict

Cohort/Start PhD: 2021-2022

Testimonies from the Forgotten East: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Holocaust Victim Experience through the Literary Testimonies of the Aktion Reinhard Extermination Camps

University of Groningen
Promotor(es): Prof. dr. D.J. Wolffram, dr. L.K. Vermeer
Start from: September 2021

Space and time, or ‘spacetime,’ are foundational elements of human experience – conjointly enabling conceptualization and perception of the world and changes therein. Although Holocaust studies has increasingly occupied itself with the experience of space vis-à-vis the functioning of traumatic memory, the role of time has hitherto been perpetually overlooked. Whilst space is granted the careful and intricate analysis it rightly deserves, time is frequently reduced to a static horizon against which space is viewed to merely unfold itself. This oversimplified notion of temporality is especially problematic in the context of the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps – Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka – where more than 1.4 million people perished between March 1942 and November 1943. To facilitate their operation, the German SS employed small contingents of Jewish prisoners whose presence was necessary to ensure the camps’ functioning. These inmates, of whom approximately 100 survived the war, lived in a space which defies the common imagination – not only did they witness the daily extermination and cremation of thousands of innocent victims but, moreover, they themselves were aware that they could join the ranks of the dead at any point. A small number of these survivors wrote post-war testimonies detailing their imprisonment in these ontologically peripheral spaces. Yet how was such an incarceration experienced? What was it like to inhabit a space where death and perdition were, quite literally, omnipresent and how did this affect the manner in which prisoners viewed both the space in which this occurred and the time in which it happened? These questions have, until the present, been left unanswered as historians have only treated these rare ego-documents as sources solely containing ‘hard’ facts – not as the personal life narratives they represent. Therefore, to both do justice to the experience of these victims and to attain a clearer understanding of what imprisonment within these extermination camps entailed, this study explores the unexplored relationship between space and time – ‘spacetime’ – within the extant extermination camp narratives and the subsequent ramifications this interplay has upon victim experience.