Document Type


Creation Date

Spring 3-13-2014


agency, victimhood, Holocaust, comparative cultural study


This paper approaches the question of agency narratively, asking what agency looks and sounds like in victim testimony. Focusing on recollections of the victim-perpetrator encounter in Lithuanian Jewish testimony, I explore how survivors negotiate this matter in contrasting ways, related to contemporary cultural ethos, geographic positioning and language of narration. The analysis revolves around the questions: Does the witness portray his aggressor as a nameable subject? Does the witness attribute his or her suffering to the wicked acts of human beings, or to a systematic failure? Does the witness recall the ability to respond to this aggression in action or in speech? Is it ethical, according to the witness, to highlight agency in scenes of Holocaust violence? These questions are explored through the fabric of specific testimony scenes.

While summarizing my overall findings on the topic, this paper will contrast two cultural paradigms in which victim agency is similarly valued, but nonetheless defined differently: 1) In Yiddish-language testimonies delivered in Lithuania, survivors claim the ability to act on their aggressors by naming and accusing them as individuals. They envision physical vengeance or criminal justice as the ideal agentive acts. 2) By contrast, in Hebrew-language testimonies delivered in Israel, witnesses locate agency in the preservation of dignity, the ability to remain spiritually above individual aggressors. Revenge, or perpetrator confrontation, is not envisioned through physical encounters but on a national, historical score. In pointing out these two visions of victim-perpetrator interaction, I try to sharpen our definitions of agency and unpack how people, in different environments, articulate agentive strains in their memory.