Opportunities in Oral History Research: Guest Blog with Dr. Jane Judge

Have you ever asked a friend about “what happened!” on his/her latest date? Or listened to an interview with your favourite actor about their upcoming movie? Or asked your mother how on earth she baked her Yorkshire puddings so golden, puffy and gorgeous, while yours simply collapse in on themselves?

Believe it or not – so long as these events occurred in the past – then you’ve just conducted the impressive method of “oral history,” albeit very informally.

Oral history includes both the process of collecting testimony from living, breathing human beings, as well as the product itself, the narrative of past events.  

And although oral history, as both method and output, is the latest trend among historians, it can’t actually be confined to the study of history alone. Key witness testimonies in high-profile murder cases rely enormously on oral history.  Medical practitioners exploring the effects of new drugs, treatments and therapies rely enormously on oral history. Social workers and psychologists helping survivors of traumatic events often rely on the memories produced through oral history. As oral historian Lynn Abrams argues, “oral history has become a crossover methodology, an octopus with tentacles reaching into a wide range of disciplinary, practise-led and community enterprises” (Oral History Theory, 2010, p.2).

Although oral history is a vastly rewarding and highly deployable tool for nearly any discipline or purpose, it also comes at a cost. Professional scholars must often submit enormous ethics approval applications to their institutions or governments before even approaching a potential human subject for interview. Many aspects of interviewing can be volatile, emotional, and even dangerous (for example,  Dr. Erin Jessee’s fieldwork included gathering testimonies from Rwandans convicted of genocide while they were detained in Rwandan prisons!) And what happens to the interviewee if researchers ask unsettling questions – is there post-interview psychological support for the subjects (or even the interviewer) for example? These calculations of risk are absolutely essential to the ethical responsibility of any oral history project. And, of course, the goal is to cause minimal harm, which is often the general outcome (And for Dr. Jessee’s helpful tips about about managing risk, her advice here).

Despite some risks, oral history remains an invaluable tool.  Findings can influence new policies and initiatives, while researchers can harness its power as a versatile method to record history in action, bolster an organisation or government’s ethos and contribute to an initiative’s influence. In this sense, oral history can be one of the most dynamic instruments in a researcher’s arsenal, and profoundly utilised by multiple interdisciplinary stakeholders.

Dr. Jane Judge, a postdoctoral researcher in early modern history at the KU Leuven in Belgium, recently experienced the exhilarating power of oral history. Although the majority of Jane’s historical research has permitted her into fabulous dusty old libraries and national archives housing original sources with elaborate 18th Century handwriting, Jane has not been required to conduct interviews with real, living humans – until now!

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Dr. Jane Judge in her natural habitat of Leuven, Belgium.

Jane currently volunteers at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, which is an independent body that, along with the US Embassies to Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as the Belgian and Luxembourg governments, administers the US State Department’s  Fulbright Scholarship Programs for Belgians and Luxembourgers going to the US, as well as Americans coming to these two countries. Since 1948, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels has connected and supported over 4,000 students, researchers, and teachers, while promoting international educational exchange and mutual understanding. 

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The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually.  Approximately 370,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in the Program (over 4,000 through the Belgium Commission) since its inception in 1946. For more information, visit www.fulbright.be 

Recently, Jane has been tasked with gathering stories from alumni of the Fulbright Commission in order to record and promote the program’s overall mission for the 70th anniversary celebrations that will take place next year. The idea is to highlight that it is the people that make Fulbright what it is as they engage in immersive experiences abroad and make human connections. This means that she has met over 15 very interesting people–and plans to meet at least 15 or 20 more–who, at some point in their lives, benefited from a Fulbright grant and the program’s international networks, financial support and scholarly community. 

In Jane’s quest to gather data from real human beings, various unanticipated surprises allowed her to discover a few crucial things about oral history, interviewing techniques and the value of human input. After musings over some of her most interesting findings, we both thought it would be highly appropriate to share some of these gems in a guest blog! Here are Jane’s discerning observations about this often-tricky but fruitful research method:

Before you began interviewing, what perceptions did you have about oral history in general? 

Jane: My perception of oral history generally was that it was messy, fraught with ethics issues and required intensive training to do well. As far as the Fulbright project itself, I didn’t have much choice in doing interviews. Because of the many stakeholders in this Fulbright Commission (there are commissions around the world implementing the Fulbright program in their locations), the office here already knew they wanted to focus on alumni and not the nuts and bolts history of the program. So, I didn’t really chose oral history, it chose me. That being said, the archives here are very rich, containing midterm and final reports from every grantee, as well as commentary from the offices here on American grantees that came to Belgium and Luxembourg until the 1980s. The project could have been done by just going through these and piecing together stories, pulling out interesting anecdotes. Given my background, that was much more in my wheelhouse and so I was a little apprehensive about doing interviews, especially with my rather negative preconceived notions about oral history. But I decided to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge–an opportunity to learn and enact a new methodology, to travel throughout Belgium, and to meet lots of new people in new fields!”

Can you comment about the interview process – who, where, when, how?

Jane: Sure. The who should be fairly obvious at this point—Fulbright alumni! (Haha.) The first thing I did was go through the archive of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 alumni that past interns have digitized and picked out people who had dynamic profiles, represented diverse backgrounds, fields of study, and programs (undergraduates, graduates, research scholars, teachers, visiting professors, and newer summer programs). To the list that I compiled, we also added some notable alumni and some who had volunteered or been quite active as alums in the past. These included people from walks of life as diverse as being Deputy Prime Minister for Belgium or a Spanish Linguistics teacher. We have been in touch with alumni from every decade of Fulbright’s 70 years so far, so that’s quite exciting.  

As for the interviewing itself, I started with in-person interviews with people here in Belgium. Funnily enough, the first interview was actually an American alumna and her husband who happened to be here on holiday, but the others have all been Belgians that had Fulbrights to the States at one time or another. I go to them, meeting them either at their homes, offices, or a quiet comfortable cafe they know, at a time that’s mutually convenient. I record the audio of our conversations with my phone, so that part’s pretty straightforward, easy, and compact! We set the interviews up by first having either the Executive Director or the Program Director for Students get in touch via email, explaining the anniversary and the project, and then I follow up with an email about logistics. If they are up for being interviewed, I take it from there as far as setting up a time and place. For the Americans and Luxembourgers (and one very busy Belgian), I will and have done the interviews by phone or internet call. The interviews themselves are pretty organic. We want to cover their personal experience, how Fulbright has impacted their lives, and what they think the program can continue to offer. So I start by just asking them to introduce themselves and explain their relationship to the program (how are they “a Fulbrighter”?) and then I really let them go, guiding them if there’s dips or when we need to get back on track.

Were there any challenges in the interview itself that you had not predicted? If yes, how did you overcome them? 

Jane: I wouldn’t say there were challenges in the interview, as such. Everyone’s pretty enthusiastic and already very willing to talk about their experiences. The only things I could think of would be technical. One of the interviews took place over lunch, for example, so I worried that it wouldn’t record clearly in the cafe–this didn’t end up being a problem though, and the recording is crystal clear. I have had some trouble with the recordings of Skype interviews, but that’s, again, technical. With those interviews it’s also harder to have an official start and end of the recorded interview, since people feel like they’re chatting with me and so sometimes they start asking me questions about my experiences!

In your opinion, what was the best thing about interviewing your subjects?

Jane: Oh, by far hearing first-hand stories. I love the narrative that comes out of it. In much of my past work, I’ve had to piece together the story from snippets I’ve found in the archives. Here, I get to ask a question and then sit back and listen to a whole answer.

What would your top tips be to anyone about to conduct an interview?

Jane: Definitely get in touch with a modern historian (if you’re not one yourself), preferably someone who is already a trained oral historian. Check out the wonderful (credible!) resources available online, especially the Oral History Association and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill. You were my first port of call, Chelsea, as a trained historian who was a member of the OHA, and you came through with aplomb. Definitely the best decision I made before embarking on this research adventure.

Would you ever volunteer to do it again?

Jane: Absolutely. I’ve had a complete blast doing these interviews. Even the transcriptions, though sometimes tedious and always time consuming, are fun. Since these people have fascinating stories to tell about travel, research, and all kinds of different experiences, it’s a pleasure to interview them and even to then relive that through transcription.

Finally, as a historian, what do you think that oral history achieves that archival research cannot? 

Jane: Follow up questions! This is by far my favorite part of oral history to this point. When you’re working in an archive, you can pose pointed questions, go searching through piles of papers people might never have wanted to see the light of day, and uncover secrets unabashedly. However, you cannot ask a single follow-up question or check with your subjects/sources that you are interpreting them correctly. In my own research into 18th-century revolutionaries, this means that there’s never any certainty that the way I interpret how some reacted to a given decree, for example, is the way they actually felt about it. With oral history, I can follow up when someone says or writes something that’s not entirely clear. I can ask them to connect dots and even answer an explicit question, rather than trying to figure out what they were implying later when I’m trying to write my analysis.

So what?

Jane touches on a great many qualities of oral history research that traditional archival research does not possess: listening to the “whole answer” rather than piecing together small fragments of history from a dusty archive, or understanding some of the emotional reactions behind certain people’s experiences, or verifying your own analyses of history by asking follow up questions, or even anticipating and minimising risks when interviewing in a café – these diverse observations demonstrate what we can gain from oral history and the multiple opportunities oral history presents to those wanting to learn from people who experienced the past.

How about a round of applause for Dr. Jane Judge’s perceptive analysis of her oral history experience? Many thanks, Jane!

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Surely Belgium’s world famous frites (or frieten in Flemish) are one of the best reasons for Fulbrighters to study in Belgium?

 

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the authors, and does not reflect any official opinion of Fulbright, EdUSA, or the US State Department or other groups or individuals).

Remembering Food in the Concentration Camps: Interviews with Holocaust Survivors

A few months ago, I came across a second-hand copy of the Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust (Ebury Press, 2005). This is a remarkable compilation of interview excerpts from the survivors of the largest genocide in modern history. Collected by Lyn Smith over decades of work at the Imperial War Museum in London, these testimonies reveal some of the darkest and degrading experiences that victims suffered under Nazi rule and imprisonment. But many excerpts also acknowledge the instances of mutual support, goodness and acts of reciprocity that also characterised life during the Holocaust.

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As a Second World War historian, I have read abundantly on my topic, but very rarely does a book disturb me. In fact, I was so surprised by some of the themes I discovered in its pages, that I contacted a Holocaust archive in London and immediately offered to contribute to their weekly blog. (See my blog “Dignity in the Holocaust: Themes of Resistance in Oral History Testimonies” on the Weiner Library‘s website).

 

The way this book conveys survivors’ experiences of the Holocaust is compelling. Although Lyn Smith has grouped the testimonies together in mostly chronological order (and a thematic chapter on “resistance”), hardly any historical or geographic context is granted. We simply learn the survivor’s name (i.e. Anna Bergman), her/his background (ie. Czech Jewish university student) and where s/he are discussing (ie. Prague). This lack of superfluous information actually strengthens the words on the pages, they become vastly more poignant.

Some interviews reinforced many well-known facts about the Holocaust – the severe hunger, the bitter cold, the rampant disease, the brutal, nonsensical violence. And death, death all the time. But then some things surprised me, such as the uses and attitudes to food in the concentration camps.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of happiness (1954) argues that the most basic level of needs must be met before an individual will strongly desire higher level needs.

If we assume Maslow’s pyramid to be true, then the basic physical needs of a person must be met in order to feel safe, secure. Once achieved, then humans can begin to feel love and belonging, eventually reaching the top of the pyramid to become self-actualized, in whatever way he/she believes.  Without the most basic need satisfied, then people  struggle to progress, develop and grow. Food, clothing and shelter are the basic needs we all require in order to “move up” to the pyramid of human happiness.

When someone was sent to a concentration camp, food, clothing and shelter were those basic necessities that were immediately confiscated. Upon arrival, inmates were abruptly stripped naked, their heads were shaved, and their possessions were seized. One naked inmate, Zdenka Ehrlich, who had successfully passed through Dr. Mengele’s selection process at Auschwitz-Birkenau recalled:

“They put us in a huge room… Straight afterwards a woman with a whip chased us into the next room, there were mountains, but mountains of rags. Clothing that you had never seen, not even in theatrical wardrobes – Fellini would be pleased to have the imagination to put together the things we saw. Behind each mountain of these rags was a guard, a woman guard, always with a whip. We had to run in front of it, she grabbed something and threw it at you. The next pile were shoes, men’s, women’s, everything together. A pair was grabbed and flung at you. So I finished up with (the) most extraordinary outfit you can imagine: I got an olive green ball gown of light material with pearls on it and an irregular hemline – it was like something from a Chekhov or Dostoyevsky play – and a short coat which had probably belonged to a ten-year-old girl, and shoes which saved my life. They were a pair of men’s ballroom black patent shoes, huge. In this outfit I left the building and in this outfit I survived the war.”  (Zdenka Ehrlich, young Czech woman)

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Although this photo was taken in 2011, over 65 years after Auschwitz was liberated, it is evident that shoes on such terrain would have been critical to inmates’ survival (and comfort).

Such unusual experiences epitomize the chaos of the Nazis concentration camp system. Although SS guards generally reinforced strict routines, the inconsistencies mentioned above, combined with disproportionate and cruel punishments, fostered a somewhat surreal environment for victims.

When reading Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, one of the most repetitive topics raised is food. Understandably, the severe hunger and malnutrition was not only an enormous threat to one’s life, but protecting one’s rations or gaining more food was a massive daily challenge for the inmates. The critical need to get food, eat food, steal food…many of the survivors discuss this at great length.

What did concentration camp inmates eat?

Prisoners’ rations varied between concentration camps. At Auschwitz, the largest labour and death camp, inmates were fed three meals a day. The goal of these rations was not to healthily sustain the inmates, but to exploit them for labour with the minimal provisions possible. According to the Auschwitz website:

Breakfast: Half a liter of “coffee” (imitation coffee or Ersatz coffee), which was boiled water with a grain-based coffee substitute, or “tea”—a herbal brew, unsweetened.

Lunch: About a liter of soup, the main ingredients of which were potatoes, rutabaga (turnip), and small amounts of groats, rye flour, and Avo food extract. Considered unappetizing, most newly arrived prisoners were often unable to eat it, or could do so only in disgust.

Dinner: 300 grams of black bread, served with about 25 grams of sausage, or margarine, or a tablespoon of marmalade or cheese. This bread was meant to cover the needs of the following morning as well, although the famished prisoners usually consumed the whole portion at once.

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This crude representation of Ersatz Coffee, cabbage soup, and 300g of bread exemplifies how small the rations were at Auschwitz.

This food ration at Auschwitz was extremely minimal, containing almost no protein, hardly any vitamins or fats, and often caused diarrhea. This entire ration contained roughly 800 calories to 1500 calories per day.

Dr. Rudolf Vitek, imprisoned in Auschwitz III (Monowitz) from November 1942 until February 1943, estimated that during that period a prisoner in a heavy-labor detachment had a deficit of approximately 1,100 to 1,200 calories per day. This rate of depletion meant a weight loss of 2 to 4 kilos (4.4 to 8.8 pounds) per week: “the normally nourished prisoner at Buna could make up for the deficiency by his own body for a period of three months.” (By comparison, guards received 1500 calories per day, which is equivalent to what most working adults today will consume with moderate exercise).

The chief problem was that these meagre rations, over time, destroyed the health of the inmates. They then became more susceptible to various diseases and infections. It remained the common goal of all inmates to avoid starvation. As one survivor remarked:

“Hunger and fear are the most fantastic weapons which Hitler was a master of. To be hungry slowly – not just to miss breakfast or to have the day of fast, but to really hungry, to have less and less, day by day, month by month; so that at the end you only think about one thing: to get something to eat.” (Adam Adams, Polish Jewish survivor, UK)

Survival, Commodity and Fantasy

When reading these oral history testimonies, it is clear that survivors remember food in multiple ways. Naturally it’s emphasized as the key to survival. And because of its precious value, food also became a chief commodity on the camps’ black markets (half a ration of bread for a needle and thread, for example). And finally, it also acts as an objectified dream or fantasy. I’ll let the survivors do the talking:

Food as Survival

 “Every four people had a loaf of bread and this had to be divided. We had no knives, only spoons with one side sharpened on stones for cutting. It was always very difficult to divide the bread equally – always quarrels, fighting and screaming. Suddenly I had this idea: a simple, wooden stick arrangement with strings to weigh the bread equally. Everybody used it and things became very calm and quiet. A few weeks later, two SS men came in and asked me if I had made it. I said, yes. I thought they would give me more food because it was such a very wonderful thing. But I had such a beating with a rubber cable, even to this day it still hurts. But the idea was transferred from one camp to another, all the camps used it; it was so simple, anyone could make it.” (Ignacz Rüb, Hungarian Jewish electrician, Buna-Monowitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

“Really, it became the law of the jungle, you couldn’t afford to be nice to others. I remember coming across three Greek Jewish brothers and they used to pinch each others’ bread ration. There were no standards; no right and wrong, you just looked after yourself if you could.” (Alfred Huberman, Polish Jewish youth, Skarzysko-Kamienna)

Food as a Commodity

“The organizing of food was the most important thing, I learned a lot from the Polish Jews who were the best organisers in the camp. There was a sort of black market where we exchanged things. I sold a slice of bread for a bowl of soup. With that bowl of soup I went somewhere else and said, “Come on, give me two slices of bread for this.” And somehow or other we organized ourselves in this way.” (Freddie Knoller, Austrian Jewish youth, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

“The cooks would dole out the soup from barrels and as you got to the bottom of the barrel, the soup got thicker; people would play these strategic games to position themselves in the line in order to get the soup at the bottom of the barrel. You then came back with your soup: was it thick or was it thin? How many pieces of meat did you find? Now some orthodox Jews would take out the pieces of meat and give them, or trade them, with somebody else; from the kosher (ritually clean) point of view it made no sense because the fact that meat had entered the soup meant it was no longer kosher.” (Kurt Klappholz, Polish Jewish youth, Blechhammer)

Food as a Fantasy

“I would take the crunched up paper from the mattress we had, and smooth it out and draw on it. And I would draw a plate of food and someone would say, ‘Oh, can you draw nice sliced bread?’ They were going crazy for food. It was always in your mind. Or an apple, I would draw that if they wanted. We were constantly thinking about food.” (Clare Parker, Hungarian Jewish child, Mauthausen)

“In Czechowice there was a man, a Czech, and he and I got to be very good friends and we would be talking about food and why we wanted to survive. And my brother and I would be making recipes. I said, ‘Well, when I survive, we’ll cut a skinny slice of bread with a huge piece of butter, and we’ll have breakfast and cook eggs and ham…’ And he would scream, ‘For Christ’s sake, stop talking about food, I can’t stand it any longer.’ But I said, ‘But we have to talk about something, a dream, something we will have when we get back from this horrible camp.’ And we did it day after day until he said, ‘I can’t take it any more, I don’t want to live.’ And he just dropped dead. And I tell you, it’s the will to live that kept you alive, it really was that fragile.” (George Hartman, Czech Jewish youth, Czechowice)

The Fate of the Muselmann:

The concentration camps created their own vernacular and vocabulary. It was often a combination of Polish, Yiddish and German. One of the terms invented at Auschwitz that spread to other camps was Muselmann which was used to describe someone on the verge of death. But it was not simply used for those who were weak or emaciated (as so many were). Instead, this term also meant that that person was hopeless, or accepting of their fate. Those who failed to tie their shoe, or wear a cap, or clean their food bowl were considered Muselmann:

“After typhoid fever, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t hear, I was really just bones – bones and boils. I knew I was muselmann. I didn’t wash, the place where we could wash was far away and I had those ten toes with chilblains full of pus. I used to pee in the same bowl I ate from. How did I do that! I didn’t kill the lice anymore, there were too many. I was a muselmann. It would have been a blessing if I could have gone.” (Helen Stone, young Polish Jewish woman, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

These testimonies demonstrate that beyond the obvious connection between food and survival, food was also used to survive. Obviously, inmates consumed the food as nourishment for their bodies, but they also traded and bartered it as an substitute for currency in the camps. Even discussing food as a fantasy, an ultimate wish for a better future, became so essential to their survival that the absence of that hope, that dream, was to become muselmann, the precursor of death.

So what? 

Let us return to Maslow’s pyramid.  If food, clothing and shelter are the absolute basic necessities to gaining the higher level of happiness, then how these inmates survived was truly remarkable. The pain from prolonged hunger must have been overwhelming. But the fact that some Holocaust survivors could fantasise about food to such an extent as to will themselves to live. In this sense, food thus transforms from being a basic physical necessity into a meaningful representation of hope.

In the Epilogue of the Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, one woman’s respect and adoration of food summarises many of these ideas:

“For me bread is the most important thing, still is. Bread is Holy. Do you know, if I drop bread on the floor, I pick it up and kiss it. It is like a religious Jew: if you drop a prayer book you kiss it. For me it is the bread I kiss if I drop it. I will cross the road if I see on the other pavement a piece of bread. I will pick it up and put it on the fence so that birds can have it, so that people can’t walk over the bread. Bread is Holy.” (Helen Stone, Polish Jewish survivor, UK)

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Auschwitz, 2011.