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Bridging Past and Present through Oral History

August 23, 2010

Oral history as a mode of research in the historical profession has only been in vogue since the end of the Second World War. What once was considered a largely unreliable means of collecting information (Marc Bloch remarked, “there are no good witnesses, for no deposition is accurate in all its parts”), not to mention odd activity of talking to common people or even worse, uneducated ones (gasp!), has undergone massive shift over the past sixty years, and even more so in the last thirty due to Holocaust research. One scholar has labelled our current position in the timeline of the history of social science as the “Era of the Witness,” to describe the importance and “turn” towards testimony (in various forms) in our focus and research methodology.

Josef Řepík (left) with his sister in Český Malín, 1941. His sister and mother were killed in the Nazi anti-partisan reprisal in 1943. (Credit: Author's archive)

What exactly is oral history? Oral history can be summarized as:

…a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record.

As you can tell by this definition, the scope and meaning of oral history certainly has a wide berth, so to speak. Clearly, you don’t need to be a professional historian to do oral history, nor does the subject need to be of notable fame. As many know, school students around the world often have projects where they interview their family members and write up the results – this is, in fact, oral history! The interviews can take many forms, such as “a history lecture, a confessional, a verbal sparring match, an exercise in nostalgia, or any other of the dozens of ways people talk about their experiences.” To quote again from a wonderful synopsis, oral history is above all about a “dialogue“:

…questions of the interviewer, deriving from a particular frame of reference or historical interest, elicit certain responses from the narrator, deriving from that person’s frame of reference, that person’s sense of what is important or what he or she thinks is important to tell the interviewer.

Many young historians in training will utilize interviews if possible for their dissertations on a wide range of topics. It’s generally believed if there is someone living who related to work on the Soviet Union you might as well interview them for dissertation (that is to say I’ve never said heard of anyone who was advised by their advisor to not do interviews)! Though, of course, like many aspects of our apprencticeship, we are often given very little training in how to do these interviews, especially if the focus of our work is archival related. In the end, the best way to figure out how do oral history is…to do it!

I myself have had two main research experiences/encounters with oral history to date. Armed only with a preparatory day-long session at UCLA by the oral history center, I decamped from Los Angeles two summers ago into the forests of Polessia to do interviews with Ukrainian Jews (that, of course, is a blog post or two in and of itself). My second experience occurred this past July in Prague, where I was speaking with former Czechs from Volhynia (a region in western Ukraine) and their progeny. Over the course of three days I completed roughly 10 hours of interview with four different people.

One of the biggest pitfalls when first practicing oral history is to have high expectations that your subjects will provide you smoking gun-like answers to all your unanswered questions or in general, will simply provide the answers you’re looking for (you are of course the one asking the questions), yet it often times does not work out like this at all. You can find out that your subjects know lots about things you don’t need to know about, they’re reluctant to answer questions that are important to you, or even that much of the infomation provided is factually incorrect. And then at other times, like my recent experience in Prague, everything works out wonderfully. You meet amazing people, have great interviews, learn a lot, and gain valuable information for your project that you might not have found elsewhere.

The most extensive interview I did was with Josef Řepík, a former resident of the Volhynian Czech village of Český Malín. I have been writing about Malín for close to ten years now, ever since it became a topic for senior thesis as an undergraduate. Malín was destroyed in an anti-partisan reprisal in the summer of 1943 by a German detachment. Almost all of its habitants were shot or burned alive in the village’s buildings. Řepík, age 7 at the time, survived the reprisal, since he was on trip away from the village with father during that day. He and his father returned home to see their entire village wiped out and nearly everyone they knew dead. He lived in Malín until 1947, when he and all the other Volhynian Czechs were forcibly emigrated to Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) where he has lived since. We did roughly 5 hours of interviews, took a trip to Lidice, and even enjoyed a few yummy Czech meals together. It was a moving experience to finally meet someone from this village about which I have read and wrote so much.

Josef Řepík and I in Prague, July 2010 (Credit: Author)

Another source on oral history notes that:

Oral history, well done, gives one a sense of accomplishment. Collecting oral history, we have a sense of catching and holding something valuable from the receding tide of the past.

It does give a sense of accomplishment, but what I’d also add is that it can also allow closer contact to our projects than we’re given through the administrative documents and grainy photographs, we’re so often forced to work through. Oral history, for all its imperfections and problems (which I’d argue also accompany archival research too), allows for a human dimension that, at least, for me makes my work easier to understand and more bluntly, simply better. Oral history can create and serve as a bridge between the worlds we know and inhabit and those of the past that we’re trying to reach. My interviews with Josef Řepík acted as such a bridge — one which he walked me, the American kid from the suburbs of New Jersey, across almost a hundred years of time and space to small agrarian village in middle of the Eastern European borderlands. I can only hope my work reflects what I saw when I was there with him.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. SLClare permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:49 pm

    Hi, I just read your blog post about oral history with some interest and would like to respond to something you wrote:

    One of the biggest pitfalls when first practicing oral history is to have high expectations that your subjects will provide you smoking gun-like answers to all your unanswered questions or in general, will simply provide the answers you’re looking for (you are of course the one asking the questions), yet it often times does not work out like this at all. You can find out that your subjets know lots about things you don’t need to know about, they’re reluctant to answer questions that are important to you, or even that much of the infomation provided is factually incorrect.

    The problem here may be that you’re approaching oral history perhaps too much like journalism. Journalists want the sound-bite, the “smoking gun” as you say, to get the angle they need for their story. The beauty of oral history is in allowing the narrator, in a sense, guide you with their insights and memories of whatever event/moment in time/issues you’re asking about. If you’re listening carefully, there is something to be said as well in their silences and reluctance, and a trained oral historian can read that, and then learn how to follow up in a way that make help them open up more. The problem is giong into an interview with expectations, or as you state “simply provide the answers you’re looking for.” The solution would be to go into the interview not expecting but hoping, and leaving the door open for any and all possibilities.

  2. SLClare permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:51 pm

    Also, if you’re interested, I have a blog on oral history called storiedlives.wordpress.com

  3. August 23, 2010 2:10 pm

    Hi SL Clare – Thanks so much for reading, your comments, and blog reference. I’m in complete agreement with you regarding your comments. In that paragraph, I wasn’t speaking directly to a particular instance in my own work, just simply in general to tendencies I see in the field or concerns I hear from peers struggling with their own oral history work. I admit sometimes I feel those pangs myself going into an interview – whether someone will help me figure out a problem with which I’m struggling and trying to remember the big picture when doing the interview. I felt I had much better results on my second attempt than the first. I think what you said about listening to the sliences and reluctance and learning how to respond to them is really important in oral history. And this is what should seperate us from journalists (thank god!).

    I look forward to checking out your blog. I’ll be posting more on oral history in the near future as well. Best wishes.

  4. August 24, 2010 9:18 am

    Your response makes complete sense—and agree with you. I’ll send or post some good resources on “reading” and rseponding to silence!

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