Stanford scholar investigates the mysterious force behind falsified Holocaust accounts

Literary academic and Stanford Humanities Center fellow Benjamin Paloff explores how fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust and other traumatic memoirs simultaneously undermine and support cultural memory.

Hoover Archives at Stanford Warsaw Ghetto

A barbed wire fence surrounds the Warsaw Ghetto in this photo from the Jan Karski collection at the Hoover Archives.

In first-person stories about the time he spent in Nazi concentration camps, influential Polish author and journalist Tadeusz Borowski portrays himself as a cynical and opportunistic prisoner who, among other transgressions, steals the confiscated belongings of other prisoners.

The stories, which Borowski composed about his time at Auschwitz, portray him as "at best indifferent, at worst, complicit," according to Stanford Humanities Center fellow Benjamin Paloff.  

But there is no historical evidence that Borowski was anything like the way he portrays himself in his stories, and even he was irritated that readers found his self-portrait so convincing.

Even with everything we know about the brutality of life in concentration camps, Borowski's stories continue to shock and disturb readers because of the detached and matter-of-fact way that the fictional version of himself describes the atrocities happening around him. 

According to Paloff, Borowski's less-than-realistic accounts are hardly anomalies. It wasn't uncommon for writers in the post-World War II era to publish fictionalized accounts of their actual experiences.

Through an examination of modern Eastern European literature, Paloff has discovered that fictionalized accounts "can be morally troubling at times but also have the potential to jolt us out of a naïve approach to understanding history."

Many authors of the era are known to have written completely fictional stories, while others wrote detailed factual accounts. But Paloff is interested in the gray zone – works like Borowski's where traditional categories of fiction and non-fiction no longer apply.

During his yearlong fellowship at Stanford, Paloff is studying the strange phenomenon of fictionalized historical memoir. An assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Paloff is particularly interested in "the ethics of representation" – the moral implications of an author's unfaithful self-portrayal.

By deliberately using certain authorial techniques, such as dramatizing an anecdote through an invented character, Paloff said some of the authors he is studying wanted to "help get readers closer to the experience than they would with an accurate reporting of the facts."

Literature about the Holocaust is an excellent example because it is widely studied and people generally feel a powerful connection to its events.  So, as Paloff said, if a writer claims that, despite the vast amount of historical documentation, the Holocaust never happened, "Our entire sense of the world starts to collapse."  

By the same token, Paloff argued, "If someone comes along and says, yes, it did happen and this is part of that story, and it turns out that it wasn't, it trivializes all of the other information."

Borowski's work is an ideal case in point because, as Paloff said, it's an incredibly powerful ethical project: he lies to readers in order to get them to truly understand what he experienced.

By manipulating point-of-view and painting himself as an anti-hero, Borowski "makes you feel conflicted," just as he felt while he was in the concentration camp, where he struggled with the reality that "something absolutely horrifying was becoming unremarkable or the norm," Paloff said.

Paloff, whose research interests span modernism in Eastern Europe, philosophy in literature, and translation, said his current investigation is "a provocation to those who think they already have a grasp on things like 'historical truth.' "

The search for deceit

Paloff has found rich source material for his research in the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford, which holds the personal archive of Polish author Jan Karski, who published an incredible factual account about the investigative role he played during the Holocaust.

As part of his fact-finding work for the Polish government, Karski smuggled himself in and out of concentration camps and ghettos on multiple occasions. In 1945 he published a book in English as a plea to the West to intervene on behalf of the victims of genocide and called it "Story of a Secret State."

Paloff knew Karski's papers were held at Hoover and was eager to see if the collection contained source materials that would help him better understand the "process by which Karski's documentary evidence became a narrative representation."

Karski's papers, which include photos he took on spy missions, diaries, and documents he wrote for the Polish government, verify the details in his book.

With confirmation of things such as what Karski witnessed in the Warsaw Ghetto, Paloff said the corroborating information is helping him "separate fact from embellishment in other accounts."

Paloff is drawing on Karski's report and later reflections on the Ghetto for his forthcoming book project, "Worlds Apart: Real-Life Fictions of Concentration Camps, Ghettos, and Besieged Cities."

The vast array of materials related to the Warsaw Ghetto and concentration camps, such as very rare newsletters, correspondence and photographs, at the Hoover Archives are helping Paloff better understand "how our ideas of these lost spaces have been formed."

"In Eastern European literature, it is often acceptable for the author to embellish facts if doing so will convey something that the facts alone do not," Paloff said. "Archival materials help sort out how these narratives are then received in the United States, where the line between fiction and nonfiction is much sharper."

The Stanford community has also turned out to be an invaluable resource for Paloff, who notes the intellectually supportive and insightful discussions he has had with other scholars at the Stanford Humanities Center. "The Humanities Center is the best intellectual resource I've had in a long time," he said.

Filling a void

Paloff's study of fictionalized literature has led him to consider how we understand the spaces where the atrocities actually occurred, which he discovered helps to answer the big "why" behind the survivor's urge to fictionalize history.

"This literature describes life in places that no longer exist, and that were always supposed to be temporary," Paloff noted. "Even a ruin can give a sense of what life there had been like. For most of us, there is no analogy to life in a besieged city or ghetto."

The Warsaw Ghetto, Paloff said, is a prime example. Although Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, its historic downtown has been meticulously reconstructed, and plaques and monuments all over the city allow residents to think about the history of specific buildings and sites. Not so with the Ghetto, which has left almost no architectural traces; even the streets have been moved. According to Paloff, this creates a void that authors feel the need to fill with narrative detail.

"Photographs, figures, and personal testimony can provide a clear picture of places that have disappeared," Paloff said, "but these authors don't want us to come away thinking of these places clearly. How do you convey not just terror, but being bored with your own terror? How do you make the reader feel a semblance of the author's confusion and inner conflict? This is where artistic techniques come into play. They get at experiences that disappear behind the historical evidence."

Leah Stark writes about the humanities at Stanford.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,