By Henry Greenspan
A few months ago, we asked you to tell us about the work you’re doing. Many of you responded, so for the last few months, we’ve been publishing reflections, stories, and difficulties faced by fellow oral historians. This week, we bring you another post in this series, in which Henry Greenspan offers a compelling assessment of the life stories approach to oral history. We encourage you to engage with these posts by leaving comments on here or on social media, or by reaching out directly to the authors. If you’d like to submit your own work, check out the guidelines. Enjoy! – Andrew Shaffer
Oral historians differ on the utility of retrieving participants’ full life stories, but we agree that “full” is a relative term. There is always much unsaid in any life’s retelling, and for a wide range reasons. Drawing on forty years of interviewing Holocaust survivors, I emphasize here that what is unsaid in early interviews often emerges in later ones. Indeed, later interviews may even become counter narratives to earlier recounting—a way for participants to tell us not to “peg” them too easily or too soon.
For example, simply by inviting someone to speak “as a Holocaust survivor” foregrounds the Holocaust as cause and much of the rest a survivor may have to retell as some version of effect. Such attributions of causality may or may not be true. What is beyond dispute is that attributions in any life are complex, that survivors themselves wonder about them all the time, and that their answers change over sustained conversation. When one goes beyond single survivor “testimonies” to multiple interviews with survivors, which has been my own approach, this happens commonly.
Victor, a survivor of Treblinka, initially explained two critical choices of his—working in a factory and marrying a non-Jewish woman after the war—as direct results of the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that was its foundation. Regarding the former, he reflected:
I wasn’t in business. I went to work in a factory. Do you know for what reason? Because I was sick and tired of Polish people saying that Jews are always in business. “The Jews are always in business.”…This pierced my heart. I was one Jew in a factory of a thousand people.
While it evokes more evident conflict, his marrying a non-Jewish woman—“going out of the line,” as he calls it—is similarly explained:
At that time, there was the feeling to get away from all that happened. And, in the future, to keep it away from those who come after me. Because there was the feeling that no one can stop another wave of that.
History can repeat itself. I don’t want that my children should suffer the way I did. I don’t want to have on my conscience that I lead them to another Holocaust.
Victor has specific memories of some who did curse their ancestry in the midst of the destruction. They are part of what informs these reflections.
It came as a surprise, then, that several months into our conversations Victor offered additional—and quite different—explanations for his choices. Regarding factory work, Victor recalled that this was his preference and that choosing it over business was not reducible to Polish anti-Semitism. Indeed, many years before the war, Victor’s preference for working in a factory had been a source of conflict with his father, who was himself a successful businessman.
My father didn’t want me to work in a factory. He wanted me to be a businessman. To do the same thing he does.
(HG: He said that’s what he wanted?) Yeah. He criticized me. That nobody in the family should work in a factory. And I work in a factory….I liked work in the factory. I liked it. My father didn’t like it. But I did like it.
Here, a fully normal father-son conflict was recalled, revealing a choice not attributed to hatred or the Holocaust.
While Victor’s readiness to marry a Catholic woman may well have been conditioned by the destruction, there were also far more affirmative reasons why he married the particular woman he did. Choosing for love and against business were, in fact, related, as he explained regarding his briefly working in in the jewelry business with a surviving brother when he first came to the United States in 1950.
I started with my brother in the business. But then I went back to Italy after three months because I left my heart over there.
(HG: You “left your heart”?) I fall in love in Rome. So I make three trips there and back. I was already here three months, and I go back to Italy. Where I stayed six months with my wife.
I even read, every month there is a Jewish newspaper. And in it they write about some woman, her husband died, and they are looking for someone to marry her and take him into the business. This was Jewish people. I read it. I paid no attention. I was in love with her. You understand?
The word “love” was startling in our conversations because of its complete absence up until that point. As Victor surrendered to the thrall of these memories, his description of his relationship with his son—embattled because of his son’s own romantic relationship (reflecting the cost of phone calls, not faith)—took on an entirely different tone.
I was the same. When I was in love, I was the same. Ardent. An ardent lover. I see me in him. I see, when I look back, I see where I was. Three times, three times I went back over to Italy!…I was also in love. I was also crazy.
What began as an interview with a Holocaust survivor became a kind of “guy talk”—much of which I won’t repeat here, both out of respect for Victor’s privacy and that of all “ardent lovers.”
We are not used to imagining a Treblinka survivor and a crazy, ardent lover as the same person. We almost always assume that having endured the Holocaust or another mass “trauma” must be the axis around which the rest of a life turns, and that presumption tends to be confirmed in single testimonies precisely because they are based on only single interviews. But we will have to move beyond such assumptions if we are to avoid mistaking the “life stories” generated in our projects—and especially those generated early in our projects—for the far more complex ways in which lives are actually lived and, given the opportunity, recounted, whether the lives of Holocaust survivors or of anyone else.
Image Credit: “Embrace Sculpture” by Eric Kilby. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.