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Rachel Auerbach, Cultural Genocide and a New Conception of Victims’ Testimonies

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Since the 1990s, international criminal law has struggled to find the proper role for victims in mass atrocities trials. It has gradually moved from viewing victims instrumentally, as supplying eyewitness testimonies for the prosecution, towards recognizing the agency of victims and seeing them as active participants in such trials. In this lecture Prof. Bilsky returns to the forgotten contribution of a Jewish woman, Rachel Auerbach, an historian, writer and holocaust survivor, to the development of victim-centered trials in the wake of WWII . Auerbach developed her ideas on victims’ testimonies and cultural genocide as part of a group of Jewish activists in Warsaw ghetto who, under the leadership of historian Immanuel Ringelblum, formed a secret archive, known as The Oneg Shabbes archive. After the war, Aurebach who was one of three survivors of the archive’s group, went on to translate these ideas into a new praxis of collecting victims’ testimonies, first in the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland (CZKH), and later after her emigration to Israel, as director of the testimony unit of Yad Vashem. In anticipation of the Eichmann trial in 1961 Auerbach promoted a new conception of a victims’ centered trial, which the Israeli prosecution partly adopted. However, her ideas and legacy have largely been forgotten and did not receive recognition in the annals of international law. This talk recovers Rachel Auerbach’s early efforts to re-imagine the role of the victims in Holocaust trials by putting forward a new conception of testimony as resistance to cultural genocide. The talk will also shed light on why women’s contributions to international law are largely forgotten or marginalized, and why even the ‘historical turn’ of international law, and the growing research on the unique contribution of Jewish émigré-lawyers to the development of international law, did not help recover their legacy.

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This talk is part of the Wolfson College Humanities Society series.

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