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September 18, 1987 - Image 62

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-09-18

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A Major Problem
With Oral Histories


everal new Jewish oral
history projects have
recently been in-
augurated in the Washington-
Baltimore area. There are
now a considerable number of
such attempts to get into tape
the reminiscenses of Holo-
caust survivors, or to record
for posterity what elderly
members of Jewish families
remember about their early
days in the land of their


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60 , FRIDAY, SEPT _18, 1987

The American Jewish Com-
mittee has a well-endowed
Oral History Library which
houses more than 1,700 com-
pleted memoirs on tape and is
responsible for the publica-
tion of a highly acclaimed
book, A Special Legacy,
which is based on 176 inter-
views; 500 hours of tape;
18,000 pages of trans-
The subject of an oral
history interview is general-
ly told that he may say what
he pleases about any events
about which he is cognizant
and about any people with
whom he was ever in contact.
He is generally told that his
statements will not be ques-
tioned; that the tapes will not
be edited; that he may listen
to the tapes and remake any
that, on second thought, he
wishes to revise, and finally
that the tapes will be buried
away in the files, carefully
labelled that the contents are
not to be made public until
whatever date the subject
chooses, or not until x
number of years after his-own
death or after the death of his
I have several Baltimore-
Washington friends, one a
former CIA agent, who are
part-time oral historians.
They tell me that the sub-
jects rarely need any prompt-
ing, although sometimes they
need to be "put back on
Even if the interviewer
hears the subject make what
he knows is a gross distor-
tion, the distortion remains
on the tape and goes into the
What is so disturbing is
that once-famous people, like
other mortals, in their old age
are inclined to do a bit of fan-
cifying about past events.
I well remember something
that happened in 1916 in the
Oak Park and River Forest
Township High School in
suburban Chicago. Each
Memorial Day a Civil War

veteran (there were still a few
of them around) would be in-
vited to address the students
during an assembly period.
On this occasion the veter-
an was the uncle of a
schoolmate of mine, whom we
knew as "the Major." Bran-
dishing a long silver-plated
sword, he was telling, with
consummate forensic skill,
"how we took Hill No. 127."
At this climactic point a
crackly voice came from the
balcony of the large
"You're a liar!"
The Major let the sword
fall to the stage floor and
stared up at his interrupter.
Several thousand students
turned in their seats and
looked up at the balcony. In
the first row stood an aged
man in Union Army uniform,
his chest a rainbow of
"You're a damn liar. You
weren't even there. I know
because I was there."
Then the balcony veteran
began to recount how he, vir-

What is so
disturbing is that
people in their old
age are inclined
to do a bit of
fancifying about
past events.

tually single-handed, won
that battle on Hill No. 127. In
fact, there were other battles
he would like to tell about. He
went on and on, while the Ma-
jor, on the platform, recover-
ing from his first shock,
resumed his own act. It was
like a two-ring circus for some
Ever since then I have had
suspicions about old men's
stories. Often they make
fascinating reading or listen-
ing, but as for facts, the
truth .. .
It is understandable that
Jewish as well as non-Jewish
posterity will be keenly in-
terested in the personal ac-
counts of Jews who lived in
Europe in the pre-Hitler
days, or Jews who witnessed
or were victims of the Nazi
insanity, or Jews who went to
Palestine in the Second
Aliyah (a few are still alive)
and took part in the founding
of the first Jewish state in
2,000 years.
However, there are dangers
in letting history be written
this way. One sponsor of an
oral history project ecstati-
cally said to me:
"Think what a gold mine

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