Author Interview: Childhood Narratives of World War 2 on the Home Front

Frances Davey and Joanna Salapska-Gelleri answered a few of our questions about their OHR article, “’We Hung around the Radio with Great Interest’: Accessing Childhood Recollections of World War II through Interdisciplinarity” published in the brand new issue, 47.1.

Tell us about the Childhood Narratives of World War II on the Home Front project.

Childhood Narratives is an interdisciplinary, transnational project focused on the stories of individuals who were children (between the ages of 5 and 18) on the home front during World War II. The goal is to collect roughly 200 interviews from around the globe. Currently, we have interviews from approximately 65 people who grew up in the U.S., U.K., and Eastern and Central Europe. Our students form the backbone of this project, as they perform most of the interviews and a good amount of the recruiting. We have archived some of the oral histories with the National Home Front Project. We plan to continue growing this collection as well as co-archive it at Florida Gulf Coast University, our home institution.

Tell us how and why an oral historian and a cognitive psychologist teamed up for this project. 

This project was born out of frequent conversations we had about our respective projects, research methods and processes, and our cultural backgrounds. Frances was born and raised in New England, while Joanna grew up in Poland and Hungary before she emigrated to the U.S. as an asylum seeker in the mid-1980s. Both of us are focused on the recollections of others and study memory, but from very different perspectives. Frances’ training and experience is in women’s history, public history/material culture, and oral history. Joanna is a cognitive scientist who studies human memory from its most basic stages that include working (short-term) memory to the life-long duration of autobiographical memories. We found our two approaches to be complementary.

What were the benefits and challenges of this cross-disciplinary collaboration and the methodology you developed together?

Benefits and challenges are different sides of the same coin. The benefit of combining oral history and cognitive processing methodologies is that we have been able to chip away at metanarratives to get closer to the stories beneath. The methodology that we use explains and contributes to many aspects of human autobiographical memories that have not been the focus of prior oral history studies. Additionally, we have crafted protocols that we are happy to share with those interested in designing their own oral history projects, especially those focused on older adults. Small or large, such projects would be a great way to uncover and save stories for researchers as well as future generations.

The challenge is rooted in the inability to fully break through metanarratives to access the everyday realities of childhood on the home front in a a completely unfettered way. This was never our goal. But to access visceral, variegated childhood memories, an interviewer must ask thoughtful, often on-the-spot followup questions, and be attuned to the subtleties of the narrator’s  communication style. These are skills that interviewers develop over time which, when working with undergraduates over one semester, we generally do not have. That being said, most of our student interviewers have demonstrated some instinctual understanding of these skills. 

What is “metanarrative” and how does that play into the project?  How do the interviewers work around the overarching metanarrative to dig deeper into an individual’s memories?

We define metanarrative as an overarching, often morally-weighted narrative framework into which individuals fit their stories. These frameworks all offer narratives an internal logic, directing the listener to consider the facts in a particular light. At the same time, metanarratives operate in different ways. They can be tricky, as Alessandro Portelli points out in The Text and the Voice (1994), as it draws attention to particular language while downplaying its own role in staging the purportedly real narrative.

We navigate the metanarrative by differentiating it from the often-forgotten realities that it glosses over, and then doing a deep dive into those realities. This requires close attention to the narrator’s speech patterns and body language, and drilling down on details that may seem irrelevant to the metanarrative of what Americans might call “the good war.” 

Since the project aims to incorporate narratives from various countries affected by World War II, are there any generalized differences in the stories the interviewees have shared based on their location during the war?

There seem to be differences in the types of recollections that narrators share when they have been in the presence of or experienced direct physical combat, such as in Eastern and Central Europe and the U.K. versus those who were in the U.S. What is similar is that these individuals all reported fear and anxiety about their futures. In the U.S., the discomfort was of a more abstract nature with children fearing that the ‘war’ would come to their towns, although the specifics they were afraid of mimicked closely the narratives they experienced via the radio or news reels they watched as part of their movie-going experiences. But possibly because of the passage of time and the flattening of emotion that occurs to everyone over time, even the stories of direct bombings and narrow escapes were often told in a calm manner and with matter-of-fact tone. 

Stay tuned for another guest post from Davey and Salapska-Gelleri, connecting their findings to the crises we face today.

Frances Davey is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida. Her teaching and research interests focus on U.S. women’s history of the 19th and 20th century, oral history, material culture, and public history. Her current research includes oral histories of childhood during World War II and stories of abortion and reproductive rights. Her work has appeared in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and Oral History and Education: Theories, Dilemmas, and Practices. She is currently working on a manuscript titled “Strong and Sure as Well as Fair and Soft”: Physical Education, Athletics, and the Roots of Women’s Physical Activism

Joanna Salapska-Gelleri is Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida. She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Experimental Psychology from the Cognitive and Brain Sciences program at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is interested in the fallibility of memories and the processes and factors that distort as well as enhance them. She studies how language affects the consolidation and recall of autobiographical information. Her broad research interests include the nature of the multilingual brain and how culture and context influence the memory systems of bilingual speakers. She continues to investigate the role that intuition plays in human decision making and ways to enhance intuitive processes. Her forthcoming book titled Mind, Brain, and Artificial Intelligence (Taylor & Francis) explores the relationship between cognition, neuroscience, and machine intelligence.

Featured image: Fenno Jacobs, “Southington, Connecticut. Southington school children staging a patriotic demonstration,” May 1942. Office of War Information, Library of Congress