Too often, musical testimony from the Holocaust does not receive the sort of careful attention and openness that characterises the act of listening. For the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, listening (écouter) is to be distinguished from entendre, the latter having the dual meanings of to hear and to understand. This paper examines my own ethnographic project of 5 years, interviewing approximately one hundred Holocaust survivors, talking about individual musical experience and memory from time spent in ghettos, camps, in hiding and in partisan groups.
The kind of careful attention and openness that characterises the act of listening in Nancy's analysis is not the kind of attention that has been brought to bear on the place of music in Holocaust survivor narratives. Rather, the phenomenon of music in the Holocaust has too often been figured as a means to serve as an archival documentary function (or at worst, a 'garnish' for a historical narrative), where specific songs/music and their content are employed as a means through re-creations to come to (at best) an understanding of the truth of the Holocaust experience.
As I understand his writing, for Nancy the critical attention figured by listening (écouter) opens up a very different kind of attentive space in which objects of study can be approached differently. It's obviously suitable that a critical approach based on listening be used when talking about music, yet this is arguably not what has happened, especially in the field of Holocaust studies. Was there something in musical experience at that time that helped people create their own intimate spaces? If there was, then the listening critic has a place, rather than coming to such experiences from the perspective of a petrified structure (i.e. music was not functioning as a political record, so it cannot be accused of working as such). This is the crucial turning that I wish to bring to bear on this area - a different mode of sensibility so that the discourse is dislodged (albeit momentarily) from the aforementioned means (however important or inevitable it might be). Nancy expresses the current problem when he writes that “what truly betrays music and diverts or perverts the movement of its modern history is the extent to which it is indexed to a mode of signification and not to a mode of sensibility.” In re-examining my previous work through Nancy's concepts, I imagine the site of listening as an act of care within the scholarly space.