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August 19, 1994 - Image 123

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1994-08-19

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future became connected as we
sense that a great-grandson will
hear the stories, pass them on,
and continue to be adjoined to a
fading past, enfolded in the
sphere of jewish life.
Oral histories, be they
about immigration, the
Holocaust, life in Amer-
ica, or a host of other
subjects, offer such con-
nections by creating life
histories. Collections
of stories serve to com-
pose lives for the listen-
ers; a task of the utmost
importance. For some
sixty thousand years hu-
man beings have been
11. telling life stories to
their children and
grandchildren. Hu-
man cultures exist
and sustain continu-
ity through oral his-
tories which provide
links to the past. And
where those bonds grow thin
or disappear, the cultures soon
Jewish culture depends
on such linkage more vi-
tally than most others.
Written or spoken narra-
tives have carried para-
mount importance for Jews.
Stories about heroic men and
women—founders, mothers,
tricksters, martyrs, cre-


ation and dislocation that seem
Techniques of interviewing
to haunt modern Americans.
vary, of course, but would rec-
Frequently inaccurate, derived ommend a few ground rules.
from selective memory and indi-
1) Know something about the
vidual perspective, oral histories subject. For example, if an in-
are not necessarily equivalent to .-.rviewee comes for Munkacz or
factual sources. Often they do not Frankfurt, Toledo or New York,
correspond to written, textbook Shanghai or Buenos Aires, the
accounts of life in the past or to interviewer should be able to ask
information found in official intelligent questions about that
documents. But the purpose of place. Whether they arrive at El-
oral testimonies goes beyond lis Island or lived in Oak Park, a
historical recreation of facts. little knowledge about either lo-
They convey experiences, feel- cation will help.
ings, personal emotions, and the
2) Ask open or general ques-
warmth or fear, sadness or joy tions like: "What was your life
that comes only from personal like as a child in Detroit?" or
"What did you do before the
Holocaust testimonies, for ex- war?" The interviewee should
ample, cannot serve as substi- be allowed discursive freedom—
tutes for written documents or to be expansive and even ram-
more complete histories of the bling. If discussing such broad
catastrophe. However, where subject blocks an interviewee
else but in an interview can one should be prepared with specif-
hear the deep anguish and sad- ic questions: "What did you do
ness of the personal loss? And in school?" or "What did your fa-
where else gain a sense of the full- ther do?" or "What was a Friday
ness of life before the destruction? night like in your house?" or
Stories about life in small "What kind of fish did your
Shtetls or large cities in Europe, mother serve?" Even specific
about life on Hastings, Avalon or questions like "How many broth-
Delancey Streets, about Ellis Is- ers and sisters did you have?
land or the Warsaw Ghetto, con- can open to broad discourse, but
nect us to our past, reflect Jewish might also be followed with more
values as they played themselves specific questions like "what
out in Jewish life. History of this things did your sister do to make
sort grounds us; offers clues to you call her disagreeable?"
what Jewish life meant and
3) Try not to focus exclusively
means. To achieve such profound on negative issues; these are in-
terviews about Jewish life, part
of which probably included anti-
Semitism. But Jewish identity
did not and does not revolve
around anti-Semitism, and the
subject should not dominate the
4) Don't feel obligated to use
videotape; audiotape often makes
for a more relaxing situation and
perhaps can be followed by video-
tape another time.
5) If the interviewee makes an
obvious mistake, don't correct it.
An interviewer exists to ask ques-
tions and listen.


Generation To

Oral Histories Provide Vital Jewish Links.


came to America in 1914."
So begins Avalon, Barry
Levinson's story of a Jew-
ish immigrant family in
America. The final line of
the film, "He (the grandfa-
ther) came to america in
1914," converts a socio-eco-
nomic picture into a hu-
man, poignant and purposeful
story. In that moment, past and

ators have conveyed Jewish val-
ues and attitudes; exhorted Jews
to piety, morality, humor, love
and compassion. They have vir-
tually defined what comprised
Jewish life and helped retain a
remarkably distinct identity be-
cause of the consequential conti-
nuity. With such an ensemble of
function, oral histories may pro-
vide a means to reduce the alien-

results, the burden lies heavily
on the listener: he or she must
listen carefully, intently trying to
hear the nuances and significance
of a voice replete with legend,
legacy and identity.

For Interviewing

Reading about Jewish history
may yield some sense of Jewish
identity through understanding
the past. Hearing Jewish histo-
ry from a relative, from a living,
loved person may reap a rich har-
vest of personal Jewish identity
full of meaningful associations
that will fill us up, and give us
more substance. From such tes-
timonies will come legends,
myths and history with which we
may form an intimate relation-
ship as Jews have done for mil-
From generation to generation,
ancestral stories have served as
a source of survival, continuance
and connectedness. In the end
will be the stories—and from
them will come renewal and
more life.


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