|Filmmaker’s Experience with Oral History|
Much has been written about oral history and its importance, approaching and persuading survivors to talk, techniques of in-terviewing people deeply traumatized by the Holocaust and particularly about the reliability of personal testimonies. In the fol-lowing pages l will therefore refer purely to my personal experience interviewing scores of survivors (most of whom talked about their time spent in the camps and ghettos for the very first time). These interviews were conducted during work on a documentary film series depicting the fate of Czech Jews who survived little researched deportations to the East that took place at the end of 1941 and throughout the year 1942.
The idea to start with this film project ca-me about while researching the first deportations of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, Vienna and Upper Silesia to Nisko. l realized that Auschwitz as the most notorious annihilation factory became so synonymous with death that other theatres of Jewish disaster during the Second World War largely remain in its shadow. During the Holocaust, well over one third of Czech Jews perished in places other than the widely known Theresienstadt ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp, yet few have heard about the mass graves in Estonian Kalevi Liiva; the gas vans of Maly Trostinec in Belarus; Salaspils camp not far from the Riga ghetto in Lat-via or the "transit" ghettos of Piaski, Izbica, Rejowiec, Sawin or Zamosc near the killing centers of Sobibor, Majdanek and Belzec in the Lublin region of Poland... Our six hour documentary film series, which is now nearing completion, attempts to capture the memories of the remaining survivors from these deportation destinations and to fill in the white spots on the map of Czech Holocaust and Holocaust as such.
Our documentary is largely based on tes-timonies and people's personal stories. After several years of tracing and persuading survivors to talk, we have acquired almost 230 hours of Interviews, filmed in countries ranging from Australia and Austria, Germany and Israel, Britain and Venezuela, USA and Switzerland, Poland and Germany. Altoge-ther we managed to capture the memories and plight of close to seventy witnesses of the above mentioned camps and ghettos, where the survival rate of Czech Jews was sometimes as low as one in a hundred.
l took the decision to produce a film rather than another written study as l believe film to be an extremely important medium in helping to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. With eye-witnesses passing away quickly and the events of the Holocaust receding deep into history, the significance of personal testimonies captured on film is ever increasing äs it will be more and more difficultforthe general publicto comprehend and identify with its victims. There is a danger that the Holocaust will become more and more a domain of historians only. Books and footnoted studies reach only a relatively narrow and select public and writing can be somewhat one-dimensional äs quite often the Singular person becomes lost in the large amount of factual data. Compared with written words, film and the visual image in general have an added advantage of capturing and purveying the period atmos-phere and feelings of people who lived it, their behavior, faces and eyes, making their experiences and the past universally acces-sible and having a far stronger immediate impact.
l shall not speak more about the reasons for making the documentary and the film itself, which l hope will be available to audiences in the spring of next year, but will ratherfocus on three aspects l believe most crucial to interviewing survivors - on locating them, methods of interviewing them and on the important question to what extent can human memory be trusted...
In our quest to record and recount the history of the "forgotten" Czech transports and the people swept away with them, finding eyewitnesses proved to be the most arduous task. With only a handful having survived WWII altogether, close to fifty-five years later we could not expect more than a few to still be alive. In the end we discovered almost sixty, i.e. almost everybody, as we managed to confirm the passing of nearly all the remaining ones. The search commenced with wartime deportation lists, post-war Jewish community records and statistics put together by Theresienstadt Memorial and Institute of the Theresienstadt Initiative in particular. (l traced only people born in or after 1910, considering the Chance of coming across someone older statistically too slim - to our astonishment the oldest person we stumbled on in Australia was a very agile former Riga prisoner of 102). Most survivors left Czechoslovakia after 1945, many changed their names, women married. l inquired within Jewish communities, posted newspaper adds, inspected all available archives, perused available police records, checked the Internet and looked through phone books, often calling hundreds of people of a given surname in a number of countries. When the question "Were you in (...) during the war?" met with the answer of "Why do you ask?" instead of "What?", l knew l tracked down the person l was seeking.
Still traumatized, dispersed all over the world and with experiences exceptionally unusual and rare, most of these survivors were never contacted by or chose to evade interviewing programs organized by the Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, Holocaust museums and like. Getting in touch with a witness did not automatically mean consent to film him or her. Being granted such permission took in some cases up to two years of gradually building a relationship of trust and understanding. People who resisted an interview the longest usually in the end intuited testifying most therapeutic. Persuading people who never shared the inner-most secrets of their lives requires using a variety of time-exacting techniques - such as be-friending all of their acquaintances. Having gained the trust of people they trusted, we finally managed to gain their consent. Many times it was only through our footage that children of people with the most rare of recollections at last learned of their parents' wartime fate, as my experience shows that it is often easier for the survivor to talk to a stranger than to a family member.
My interviewing method is to first allow the survivors to teil their story the way they want, with few interruptions and relatively few guiding questions relating to basic topics, i.e. transport conditions, food, work, housing, executions etc. etc. (Basically not too different from the questions asked by the Shoa Foundation and other interviewing projects, for example, except that l do not focus on the pre and post-war experience much). Knowing they will be interviewed, people tend to prepare a general story line in advance and often subconsciously decide to repress some memories and even willfully select not to talk about certain events. l find most useful to follow this relatively free-wheeling stage of an interview with a barrage of very specific questions (and here good preparation and knowledge of all available sources of relevant information are key), but seemingly placed without any order. Breaking up the chronological sequence of the survivor's story and focusing in depth on a particular issue or event usually brings out a surprisingly large amount of information not mentioned by the survivor in the initial stage. Finally l proceed to asking questions that are more or less rephrased inquiries from the second "stage". Basically, playing a bit dumb l ask: "Sorry, l did not quite under-stand what you said about...can you repeat it?" Since some of the questions spark long suppressed memories, the answers tend to be fragmented, but once survivors rever-berate them, additional associations arise and the survivors express their memories better.
The scope of this article does not allow me to delve into the topic of how different survivors respond to different questions and therefore l would like to address a difficult yet most relevant question: To what extent can we trust oral testimonies, especially those recorded close to sixty years after the events described took place. Being myself a historian by training, l am well aware of the distrust historians generally display towards oral testimony, and in many cases rightly so. Human memory is flawed and certainly doesn't get better with time. Nevertheless l would argue that the problem of people stating "incorrect" facts is particularly acute with former inmates of Auschwitz and other "better known" camps, but not with survivors on the whole. Wide generalizations cannot be made, as memory and its quality and susceptibility to outside influences are highly individual, but l often encounter the issue of what l would term "memory pollution". Talking to survivors of the 1942 deportations to Auschwitz, upon asking: "Where did you disembark?", l was in several cases given an answer, after a moment of hesitation: "On the ramp ?!" The ramp was not built yet, but since the vast majority of survivors (who arrived in 1944) rightly claim to have gotten off the trains there, the interviewees no longer trusted their own memories and adopted the "majority" view of things. Even more striking example is the recollection of Mengele - most Auschwitz survivors will claim that he was in Charge of their selection (on the ramp...). Mengele was just one of a number of SS men carrying out this grizzly task and did not introduce himself to his victims. Nevertheless even people who spent only a day or two in the camp and had close to no Chance of meeting him personally assert to remember him vividly.
It is a paradox, but by working to spread information about the Holocaust and ma-king it widely available through books, TV and other media, we are in fact tarnishing one of the sources of that knowledge. The survivors are of course absorbing this lore, sometimes losing the ability to distinguish between their own memories and facts they learned in the post war period, particularly äs that acquired information often helps them Interpret, place and identify events and people from their own recollections (the nameless SS man on the ramp responsible for the death of the survivor's family suddenly gains an identity).
l have however found that the testimonies of survivors from the little researched places tend to be exceptionally accurate, as for somebody who is one of a thousand to
outlast a death transport, there isn't anyone to confabulate recollections with. Complete-ly isolated, often not even knowing that there might be fellow survivors from their particular deportation destination, these men and women in absolute majority of cases do not suffer from Integration of post-survival knowledge into their memory. Mostly there are very few survivors left from the same place of imprisonment or even the same region, they live far apart and no readily accessible materials or testaments exist to influence their minds. They only tell what they remember and answer many questions with "l don't know", or consciously refer to the knowledge they acquired by means of comparison: "It wasn't done like in Auschwitz where l was, it was done so and so..."). This is often not the case with survivors who can learn about their places of internment - they frequently respond to a question by describing a Situation, with best intentions to help the interviewer which they clearly couldn't have lived through themselves.
While taking into considerations the inadequacies of human memory, clearly much effort must be taken to scrutinize each interview, comparing it to the testimonies by other survivors and using all available sources of information, especially archival material of various sorts. However giving the "paper trau" too much credence and over-relying on written documents might be just äs grave of a mistake äs overly underestimating the value of personal recollections. l believe this is an error many historians make. Written documents can be just as flawed as human memories and sometimes are outright false and here testimonies can be the only tool of proving them wrong. To provide an example, l closely followed a discussion concerning the number of deportees to Nisko (first war-time deportation scheme in which
Czech Jews were taken to the East). Transport lists of Jews from Mährisch Ostrau are available, but there are slight discrepancies in the total numbers and attempts were made by historians to explain them, based on other extant German documents. Thanks to personal testimonies, l was able to find out that both the original lists and their explications are entirely distorted. l tried to trace the fate of every listed deportee and locate all the available survivors. In close to two dozen cases, l was able find the people whose names and birth dates matched those on the lists but who claimed never to have been deported. Most of them left Ostrau, which is on the border with Poland, already during the summer of 1939, when the Polish territory was still unoccupied. There is only one Interpretation why their names showed up on the lists - the German administration made it easy for itself. Rather than to have to search for these missing, unaccounted for people, their names were added to the list of deportees and "order" was made in the Jewish personal files. Statistically, the number of these "virtual" deportees must have been much higher, as l was of course able to talk only to those who survived the war, were alive 50-60 years after and l managed to find. There are several other instances, where testimonies helped me to disprove "facts" stated on official German documents.
The opportunity to interview survivors is quickly coming to an end, as most are unfortunately passing away. There are of course still child survivors of camps and ghettos and hidden children, but my experience is that while talks with them are very valuable for their emotional impact, they contain relatively little hard, factual information historians are seeking. With the vast amount of hours of Interviews recorded by the various interviewing schemes, the most
crucial task now lying ahead is making transcripts and Computer programs that would enable quick searches by keywords, linking data from different collections and careful study, analysis and comparison of the con-tent of the Interviews, l am quite optimistic that oral history will become far more appreciated by historians in the coming years than has been the case up to now, as there are relatively few archives that remain unopened and while the possibility of locating "paper" documents of great value of course remains, the frequency of such important finds will most likely decrease. However, it will be possible to compare and contrast the "paper" and "oral" data, helping to put the missing pieces of the puzzle into the larger picture of the Holocaust. It will also be possible to draw more precise conclusions on the nature of human memory and the way it deals with traumatic events, as we will be able to put next to each other Interviews with people whose recollections most likely could not be influenced by outside information (taken immediately after the war, from under-researched locations, etc.) and those whose memories could have been effected (and who were for example interviewed a number of times - seeing whether or how their recollections changed from one interview to the next). This will in turn help us to examine which Interviews can be trusted the most and make use of the precious information these Interviews contain. Such information has all too often been neglected by historians but l am certain this Situation will change soon as we will learn to appreciate (and slightly distrust) both oral history and written documents.
Historiker und Filmemacher, lebt in Prag