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Dagi Knellessen

Junior Fellow (10/2019–06/2020)


The Paradoxes of Bearing Witness. Jewish Survivors in the Federal German Sobibor Trials, 1949–1989


KNELLESSENThis long-term study systematically analyses the witness testimony of more than forty Jewish survivors of the Sobibor extermination camp given during the course of five Federal German trials between 1949 and 1989. The project reconstructs the origins, process, and concrete circumstances of the witness testimonies, with a particular focus on three aspects:

1) the initiatives, activities, and transnational relations of the survivors as well as their motives and strategies for testifying;
2) the worldwide participation of Jewish organisations such as the World Jewish Congress and individuals like Simon Wiesenthal; and
3) the demands and respective contemporary constitution of the Federal German judiciary context, the course of the respective trials, and the judicial evaluation of the credibility of these witnesses by the state prosecutors and judges.


The overall picture reveals that Sobibor survivors testified repeatedly over a period of four decades as witnesses in West German courts. Due to the special circumstances of the crimes, this placed them in a vulnerable and precarious position. They were moreover confronted by a judicial system that regarded them with ever increasing distrust and made increasingly paradoxical demands on them. In this special case, the development of a form of bearing witness becomes evident that clearly contradicts the general history of German perceptions of and engagements with the Holocaust after 1945.


Dagi Knellessen has been a doctoral candidate at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow in Leipzig since 2015. She completed a Magister in educational studies, political science, and psychology at the Technical University of Berlin in 2001. From 2001 to 2005, she was a research associate at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt am Main, where she collaborated on the creation of an exhibition on the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial. From 2005 to 2015, she worked as a freelance educational studies scholar in Berlin, contributing to research and educational projects on the history of the perception of and judicial reckoning with the Holocaust after 1945, on forms of bearing witness among victims of Nazi persecution and Jewish survivors, as well as in oral history projects, topics on which she has also published.


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June 2024
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