‘We Can’t Save Syrians Anymore, But We Can Save the Truth’


An ambitious oral history project will determine how the war in Syria is remembered.

By Daniela Blei | December 27, 2018

In the final days of World War II, amid Europe’s smoldering ruins, some survivors turned to the task of documenting what had just happened. They set out to preserve what Isaac Schneersohn, a French rabbi and industrialist, called “the materials of truth”: personal correspondence and oral histories collected by newly formed commissions and documentation centers. Schneersohn built an archive in Paris, filled with evidence that French prosecutors used in the Nuremberg trials.

In Amsterdam, officials took to newspapers and the radio, asking the public to donate diaries, letters, and photo albums to record what life was like under German occupation. These sources found a home at the State Institute for War Documentation—what is today the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. The idea was that Dutch scholars could mine these archives to write the history of the war, but questions of justice and retribution were also at stake. Like everywhere in Europe, local collaborators in the Netherlands had abetted Nazi crimes. Tens of thousands of documents held in the archives were used by prosecutors in 1945 and 1946, and the institute would shape the collective memory of the war and its aftermath—from Dutch society’s treatment of Jews to political purges of Nazi sympathizers.

Today, Ugur Umit Ungor, a historian at Utrecht University, is trying to do the same thing for the war in Syria, with the Dutch institute’s support.

The goal of the Syria Oral History Project, which Ungor founded earlier this year, is to gather as many testimonies as possible, for the sake of historical memory. They could also come to bear on prosecutions: In the Netherlands, as in Germany, Sweden, and France, universal jurisdiction gives national courts the authority to charge anyone with crimes against humanity.

The project is the work of an academic historian seeking to collect a first draft of history. It will define how the Syrian war is understood by future generations and potentially influence efforts to achieve justice and accountability. There is no official process for coming to terms with the civil war, now grinding toward its ninth year. Ungor’s project offers a stand-in.

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‘We Can’t Save Syrians Anymore, But We Can Save the Truth’

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