Oral History and the War

The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective

by Piotr Filipkowski (Author)
©2019 Monographs 442 Pages
Open Access


This book is rooted in the author’s experience as an interviewer and researcher in the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project – the biggest European oral history project devoted to a single Nazi concentration camp system, realized in the years 2002/2003 at the University of Vienna. Over 850 Mauthausen survivors have been recorded worldwide, more than 160 of them in Poland, and over 30 by the author.
The work offers an in-depth analysis of Polish survivors’ accounts, sensitive to both, form and content of these stories, as well as their social and cultural framing. The analysis is accompanied by an interpretation of (Polish) camp experiences in a broader biographical and historical perspective. The book is an interpretive journey from camp experiences, through the survivors’ memories, to narratives recalling them − and backwards.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: The contexts
  • 1 Oral history and the war
  • 2 Concentration camp experiences in Polish sociological analyses: State-of-the-art in research, methodological issues, and research perspective adopted in this study
  • Part II: The accounts of former camp inmates: recognising the meanings
  • 3 The camp inmate experience seen through autobiographical narratives: a tentative ‘typology’
  • 3.1 ‘Low-numbers’
  • 3.2 Concentration camp as punishment and wartime ‘adventure’
  • 3.3 Varsovians
  • 4 Excursus: Mauthausen in female narratives
  • Part III: Case studies
  • I. Leon Ceglarz
  • II. Zygmunt Podhalański
  • III. Roman Strój
  • Concluding remarks
  • Bibliography


World War II is part of the past. It forms an increasingly distant sequence of events on the axis of measurable physical time. The memory of this war – the memory of its experience – belongs, in turn, to the present. Incessantly remembered and (re)interpreted, it continues to be profoundly vivid in the present. It remains an important, sometimes crucial, point of reference for a number of identities: the European identity that is under construction; the more soundly-constructed national identities; and, moreover, for a number of individual identities. There is a number of such memories of the experience of the war; similarly, there are many communities of memory comprised of different people who remember different things, or remember things in diverse ways. These memories tend to be mutually contradictory, conflicting, or competitive. This is nothing new, in terms of how memory works in general – and, it is not specific to World War II.

Nonetheless, there is something specific about the era in which we live as regards the memory of wartime experiences. The last eyewitnesses – those who had first-hand experience of World War II and who are able to tell us themselves about this experience – are passing away. They had often recounted pieces of this experience, when they had the opportunity to be listened to. But, they were not listened to everywhere and in all periods; indeed, some were not listened to at all. Today, however, there is much more of a willingness to hear them and the last of the living witnesses continue to tell their stories. For them, the war, with its extreme ordeals – the Holocaust, the concentration camps – forms part of their biographical experience: usually, the most special, central part of it, which is constitutive for their self-image, their self-definition. This element, even if concealed and denied, is also the key ‘episode’ in their autobiographical narratives.

Soon, these people will no longer be counted among the living, although their memoirs, accounts, stories and recorded interviews will remain. The archives of their memory and identity will survive. Many of these collections, such as the narrations that are known as oral history, have been created in recent years, inspired by the conviction that they are being produced at the very last moment, when it is almost too late. The archives containing the successful collection of recordings of thousands of individual voices and images are also a token of the culture of memory – or rather, the culture of remembering and commemorating – in which we live. These archives are often referred to as unique monuments, of a particular kind. This label is both meaningful and revealing. The same is true for the claim that we are witnessing the experiences of the war as they slip from communicable into cultural memory, the latter being produced without a direct reliance on the autobiographical memory of the ‘witnesses’.

Although the records of this autobiographical memory, which have been deposited in the archives, seem somehow to suspend or delay this moment, they cannot reverse it. The authors of these testimonies will never speak for themselves again. They will need to be exposed, read, reheard, watched – and, subsequently, interpreted, dressed with a sense, and given meanings that are relevant. This will from henceforth take place in the absence of their authors/narrators/‘witnesses’ – and at an increasing distance from them, in biographical, temporal, emotional, and identity terms.

This moment, which can be described as a passage of memory, strikes me as being particularly important. This book is a clear testament to this, and is itself marked by it. It is founded upon biographical accounts of ‘witnesses’ – former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. I have listened to, and recorded, the greater part of these stories myself. The remaining ones were taped in the same period and all the recordings were eventually stored in the archive, where they were made available for further research and subsequent, different interpretations. The stories have remained, whilst most of my Interviewees are now dead. I can remember the meetings with them well, and my memory of these encounters is also recorded herein, alongside their own autobiographical memory. Subsequent commentators, should there be any, will be free of my personal experience of these meetings. By re-reading/rehearing/watching these accounts, they might thus see more, and see it more emphatically. Yet, for the very same reason, they may remain blind to certain aspects of importance to me.

There is yet another instance of the slide – or shift – of memory, of which this book is a token. Although strictly connected with the aforementioned phenomenon, it is specific to and very much embedded in the local Polish context. After all, the concentration camp experience was recounted in Poland long ago – narrated, in the first place, by surviving inmates. It was they who wrote memoirs, submitted testimonies and reported on their experiences. And, it was they, primarily, who wrote historical studies and contributed to the development of sites of memory in former camp locations. They also formed an important group that, to a significant extent, helped shaped what is known today in Poland as history-based politics. This group was also, incidentally, one the most prone to political manipulation. One method by which this was done was through the construction of a narrative of the Lager (as the camps were known in German) experience that excluded the annihilation of Jews. Although Holocaust victims were taken into account when it came to calculating the statistics of victims, this was done in such a way that, while remaining silent about the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the camps, it allowed for its dilution among the ‘millions of victims of various nationalities’, with Poles at the fore.

Today, those distortions are fortunately, at least to a considerable degree, part of the history of the collective memory (and collective oblivion). The Holocaust experience has since been clearly articulated, reported and recounted. Moreover, this has been done not only by the few remaining survivors, although many of them have told their stories and also as part of oral history projects. A further contribution has been made by those who interpret their stories, including younger scholars using a contemporary language. Long denied, marginalised, and falsified, the story of the extermination of the Jews is today beginning to take on a distinct, comprehensible, and attainable shape – to those, naturally, who are willing to hear it.

Meanwhile, the story of the non-Jewish, other-than-Holocaust camp-related experience – of concentration camps, rather than extermination camps, to use the symbolic and simplified, but important, differentiation – remains an ‘old narrative’, one that dates back to ‘those years’, namely the early years of the post-war period. This story, once told by political prisoners, was set within a different culture of memory. It is rather awkward to listen to today and the language those narrators were accustomed to is now little understood. It all seems rather well known, exhausted in scholarly terms, unattractive in terms of research, or out of fashion. Hence, few are willing to contemplate this particular camp experience, even briefly. Even fewer are prepared to try and retell it anew, using a more contemporary and, perhaps, more comprehensible language.


The starting point for this present study is, therefore, my own involvement as an interviewer for the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project (MSDP) and other oral history projects. I emphasise this point in order to highlight two important aspects.

First, the central point of reference in all my analyses are the meetings held with former Lager inmates and their autobiographical stories, which I listened to (and, subsequently, read the transcripts, reheard the sound recordings, watched the video recordings). These meetings and stories come before any analysis. Therefore, I endeavour, to the extent that I am capable, to acknowledge and respect the subjectivity of my Interviewees, and their ability to interpret and give sense and meaning to their own experiences. Any of my own interpretations, with similarities and differences acknowledged and generalisations constructed, are built upon those primary interpretations, as referred to in the quoted fragments of the accounts.

Second, all the accounts I have analysed (including those whose authors I have never met in person but which were recorded instead by my colleagues) have been audio- or video-recorded, the copies being kept in the archives of the KARTA Centre and the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Austria. Some are also held by the Institute of History and Biography in Lüdenscheid, Germany. Copies of almost all these recordings can also be found in the personal archives of my Interviewees (or, more and more frequently, of members of their families). In all these locations, the recordings are identifiable under the narrators’ real names, to which they consented in writing. They also agreed that their accounts, whether as extracts or in whole, may be used in scholarly and educational work. Why do I mention this? Because I wish to emphasise the specific nature of the ‘qualitative data’ I analyse. Contrary to the usual practice of social researchers and many oral historians, I cite my Interviewers under their full personal details. My point is that it is legitimate in this case; what is more, it emphasises the subjectivity of the individuals researched. I mention the archiving procedure as a reminder that these accounts are not my property: once put in the archive, they are made available to other scholars and researchers, open to further readings and interpretations, including those done from completely different research perspectives – within the confines of sociology, and beyond. Even beyond the limits of the social sciences.

A number of oral history projects, and all those I have participated in and contributed to, are of a documentary, rather than a research, nature. Yet, they remain open to research, and encourage further research; in particular, qualitative research.

My reading of the narrative autobiographical interviews with former prisoners may be classed as a qualitative analysis of content. Such analysis refers to several research perspectives, none of which I approach in a dogmatic fashion, while I shun a completely consistent application of the recommendations of any of them. My main inspirations are rooted in two sources. The first is the biographical sociology of Norman Denzin and Fritz Schütze. In particular, I take advantage of Schütze’s concept of trajectory, as one of the main biographical processes. The others is theoretical reflexion as part of the oral history concept, especially in ‘the most sociological’ concept of oral history, as represented, for example, by Michael Frisch, Paul Thompson, Daniel Bertaux and, especially, Michael Pollak, an author virtually unknown in Poland. With the oral autobiographies under analysis, I pose the questions of what is recounted, and how is it recounted. Thus, I refer to the known distinction proposed by Ingeborg Helling: biography as a means versus biography as a topic, whilst not espousing either option in this polarity. Rather, I attempt to combine both of these approaches.

I am interested in the experience of my Interviewees’ time in the concentration camp, as seen through their autobiographical accounts, the (hi)stories of their lives. My assumption is that the only access we have to their camp experiences of ‘there and then’ is (inter)mediated by the narrative here-and-now. Yet, the latter is not a simple representation of the bygone; on the contrary, it becomes embroiled in multiple contexts of social relevance, such as (but not only): the context of individual and collective/group memory; the context of identity; defining the interview situation by those questioned (and by the researcher himself/herself); and, the very course of the interaction. In analysing the autobiographical situations of former inmates, I attempt to recognise these contexts. Thus, the core of this study is based on attentive reading, listening and watching of the stories told by my Interviewees.


The book is structured into three sections. The first section covers theoretical (as well as practical) contexts of relevance to my core research work, which I have grouped into two chapters.

The first chapter briefly explains the tradition of oral history through its European and American developments, tracing its relationship to qualitative sociology. I note a Polish specificity: a strong memoirist tradition on the one hand, against a very weak current of typical oral history research and studies on the other. The latter observation is true also for the experience of war, the key biographical experience researchable in this manner. I discuss the major documentary projects carried out within this trend over recent years, with a special focus on the venture I have participated in, the aforementioned MSDP, with the interviews done in this context forming the basis of most of my further empirical analyses.

Chapter 1 can be read as a separate text, independent of the study as a whole. It had, in fact, been published as such, in a slightly different version, before the Polish edition of this book appeared1. When read in the context of the whole book, however, I consider it a fairly good introduction to the detailed analyses that later unfold. It forms a framework for them, a substantive point of anchoring and reference.

The following chapter, still within the first section, is an essay on the current state of Lager research in the Polish social sciences. Aside from the discussion of the relevant studies, I have attempted to clearly define my own research perspective, against the background of, and in critical reference to, the existing approaches. There, obviously, are elements of positive inspiration, not necessarily Polish, among which in-depth analyses of concrete, single autobiographical interviews occupy a significant position. These are, simultaneously, important studies in the social sciences pursued in close association with historical research.

I attempt such an analysis in the second section of this study. Chapter 3 discusses my reading (including audio and visual records) of the over thirty biographical interviews I have recorded with former inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp. My analysis extends to selected interviews, amounting to over twenty, recorded by my colleagues as part of the same documentation project. This is a kind of ‘crosswise’ reading, a form of cross-analysis. I endeavour here to identify what is common, shared, and characteristic to almost all the stories of the former prisoners, as well as what is distinctive to just some of them, which can be grouped together. The recognisable similarities and differences led me to the construction of a peculiar typology of camp narratives and experiences. I discern three types of Lager experience, although my focus is not on ‘pure’ experiences but their processed autobiographical and narrative versions, access to which was given to me by their narrators. These processed narrative experiences are not free but strictly correlated with memory – and, through memory, with experience. This approach is close to phenomenological takes and Gestalt psychology; in the field of biographical sociology, it has perhaps been most fully described by Gabriele Rosenthal.

These three types of experience consist of: (i) stories of long-term prisoners, most of whom were pre-war intellectuals, with considerable seniority as inmates. They spent almost the entire war in the Lager, became most familiarised with the rules of the camp universe, best assimilated them, and best cognised (and experienced) the social practices and ‘laws’ governing the place; (ii) stories of prisoners who were put in the Lager during the war years ‘as a punishment’ – in most cases, for participation in conspiracies or escape from forced labour. Before being taken to the camp, they would be held in custody or prison, interrogated, sometimes tortured; in many cases, they were put in several consecutive camps. For them, the camp was a trajectorial wartime experience, although not necessarily the central one. Many of these people faced repression after the war for their activities with the Home Army (AK), which has affected, in one way or another, their identity-related identifications as once-inmates; and, (iii) narratives of the youngest prisoners, taken to the Lager in their teens in autumn 1944 and who thus faced the final, tragic phase of the camp’s operation. I focus particularly on those who found themselves in the camp, as civilians, during the Warsaw Uprising (August to early October 1944). While they spent a ‘mere’ few months behind the barbed wire, their stories not infrequently bear traces of the severest trauma. The Uprising had snatched them from their everyday routines under the Occupation and, all of a sudden, threw them into the concentration camp hell. This marked a sharp biographical incision, which many of these Interviewees have not yet managed to patch together and integrate with the remainder of their autobiographies. It is hard to make such experiences sensible or meaningful. This particular group of former inmates, the youngest representatives of their community, guard the collective memory of these experiences the most actively, participating in the commemorative rituals.

The fourth chapter stands out against the structure of the book –a deliberate strategy, as emphasised by the chapter’s title, that refers to the narratives of female survivors of Mauthausen. I consider these narratives for a while. At the MSDP, we have recorded only three accounts in Poland of former women prisoners. None of these recordings was conducted by me personally. All these female Interviewees were sent to the camp as part of the so-called Warsaw transports, deported during the Uprising. Thus, their stories can be seen as part of the third specified group. By singling them out, my intent is to expose the specificity of the female experience of the camp, and of women’s autobiographical narratives. The reason behind this digression is not just a ‘gendered’ reading of these accounts, building on the category of cultural gender. The biological sex is no less important, as the women particularly suffered sexual violence when in the camp and very soon after the liberation. Allow me to inoffensively uphold this differentiation, though I do realise it is not always obvious.

The typology outlined above forms, intentionally, an introduction to the crucial, third section of this study. Here I analyse three biographical interviews, interspersing my interpretive commentaries throughout with extensive extracts (transcripts). Each of these narratives belongs to one of the three types noted above, but the case studies do not illustrate a preceding argument, nor are they meant to. Instead, they are, or, in any case, ought to be, self-contained research studies intended to reveal the diverse mechanisms for the construction of autobiographical narratives by my Interviewees (in a sense, together with me, as these accounts have developed in a situation of conversation, interaction, and exchange). These mechanisms range from the macro-social through to the interactional.

I have selected three out of some thirty interviews for my analytical purposes. That each of them belongs to one of the three types I have recognised answers the question as to why I selected three stories, but it does not yet tell why just those particular ones. This choice is not easy to rationalise: the researcher’s intuition has prevailed over a strict analytical procedure. Still, the choice is not completely random. The three interviews are not the ‘best’ of all those I have conducted with former Mauthausen prisoners. Nor are these accounts the longest or particularly ‘favourite’ ones. Yet, they do seem characteristic to me, typical and representative, to an extent – needless to say, in terms of so-called phenomenological, rather than statistical, representativeness. Having read several dozen transcripts, I eventually found these to be relatively ‘dense’, not just in terms of the number of episodes evoked and the multiplicity of biographical experiences, but also on the level of their interpretation, the richness of the meanings given to them by the narrators. This is not to say that these particular accounts offer, in a condensed form, all the elements that are dispersed across the other ones. The fact is, though, that much can be found in them.

My endeavours are centred on exposing, zooming in and commenting on the fragments of the narratives which answer the question of what the Interviewees actually remember and how they remember it. Moreover, how they interpret it, and what are the values, convictions and vision of the world that make up their frames of reference. The key motif that reoccurs across all the analyses, not just of the three specified case studies, is the attempt to recognise the position and importance of the camp experience within the context of the ‘full’ biographical story. This, in turn, encourages questions about the ways in which the narrators cope with this experience, about how it is integrated within the remainder of the autobiography, about its interpretation and the biographical sense and meaning added to it – or meanings added to it by different Interlocutors, or by one Interlocutor at different moments within the story.

Another important characteristic of these analyses is that I discuss not only the interview transcripts as recorded in writing but also the audio and, occasionally, video recordings. Exploring beyond the area delineated by the written text broadens the spectrum of the meanings analysed. The other broadening factors are the elements of participant observation, which give a clearer idea of the interview situation and of the circumstances accompanying its formation: the making of a ‘witness’ and his (or her) ‘testimony’. Furthermore, the analytical scope is expanded to include the specific moments within the accounts – including moments of interrupted narration and moments when silence falls. This focus on the narrative ‘here-and-now’ is not just a trace of my interactionistic inspiration; it also comes as a consequence of the aforementioned methodological choices. Indeed, methodological issues are the recurring thread in multiple moments throughout the three case studies researched.

Let me make one more, concluding remark. The purpose of the analyses proposed in this book is not to validate some earlier-formulated research hypotheses, or to explain or clarify the mechanics of concentration camp as a special social universe. This is not a necessary purpose of qualitative research. Instead, I offer a report from the process of a penetrating, ‘dense’ reading of my Interviewees’ stories – and, a guide to these stories. A reading of this sort helps, hopefully, to understand their Lager experience somewhat better: an experience that always remains entangled in the interactive social contexts within which the Interviewees construct their narratives, and in which we seek to read and interpret them.


This study would have never been written if not for our Interviewees, the former prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp system, whose stories we have recorded. I thank all of them – not only for the cordiality and openness with which they received our inquiring presence but also for the great effort of memory that they deigned to make in order to tell us about their experiences, especially the toughest, camp-related ones. There is no doubt that for most of them this involved an enormous and, in many cases, deliberate effort.

‘Our’, not ‘my’ Interviewees, I have deliberately said although the present analyses are basically based upon the recordings I personally made, I have also used and quoted the interviews carried out by my colleagues from the KARTA Centre, with whom I worked on the MSDP project. I have taken advantage of their efforts and not only in a direct manner, by quoting extracts from the interviews they recorded or transcribed. No less important and inspiring for me, though more difficult to grasp, were the discussions we had after the recording sessions, during which we shared our experiences from our meetings with the Mauthausen survivors. I thank them for this collaboration. A special word of thanks is due to Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner, who has supported me in my efforts since the first recorded account.

I owe especial thanks also to Professor Hanna Palska, the supervisor of my doctoral thesis, which formed the basis for this study, for unremittingly upholding my conviction that I should be following my own experience and researcher’s intuition, rather than any codified research method. Without her invaluable support and confidence, I would have found myself even more embroiled in methodological doubts – rather than following the voices of the subjects researched, and recounting my own experience of this venture.

1 ‘Historia mówiona i wojna’, in S. Buryła, P. Rodak (eds.), Wojna – doświadczenie i zapis. Nowe źródła, problemy, metody badawcze, Kraków 2006.

1 Oral history and the war

It is banal to state that oral narration was the original form of storytelling, and of history-telling. Some stories were listened to attentively, their narrators being given the status of oral codifiers of the tradition. In stories told long ago, war must certainly have had an important position – just as it did in informal family, neighbourly and discussions about the past, those of old and of today. Both these forms of narration are sometimes called ‘oral history’. On certain occasions in Poland, the term is also used to refer to collections of written accounts of the past, compiled ‘on commission’. The commissioning party, or rather, those seeking to create such sources, are researchers of social life, usually social historians or sociologists. In his article Oral history in Poland, Jerzy Holzer illustrated such practices through the rich Polish tradition of biographical studies, which first emerged in this country in the 1930s in a number of memoir-writing competitions featuring memoirs or recollections of the unemployed, peasants, and emigrants.2

When it comes to the oral history of today, it usually focuses on recording, archiving, and analysing interviews with and accounts of the participants and witnesses to various events and developments. A somewhat stricter definition may be given of oral history as a self-aware conversation, subject to a certain discipline, between two individuals, on certain aspects of the (experienced) past that are considered historically important, with the purpose of being recorded. This assumes that the form of the account, or narrative, of such communication is a dialogue, its form and content dependant on a series of driving forces: the questions being asked (which, in turn, are based on the contexts the interviewer operates within), the interviewee’s conviction regarding what is important or crucial, the interviewee’s interpretive resources, and the actual context (or contexts, for the interviewee). The interview meeting is, thus, a dynamic interaction.3

This definition of oral history, one of the many possible suggested definitions, does not specify whether those recording the interviewee’s accounts and, in particular, those analysing them (often the same person), are interested more in the historical facts recounted or, rather, in the meanings and senses that are conferred upon these facts in the present time, i.e. at the moment when the account is given and from the perspective of the (auto)biography being reconstructed.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (April)
narrative analysis biographical memory concentration camp experience survivors‘ testimonies Polish political prisoners World War Two
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 439 pp.

Biographical notes

Piotr Filipkowski (Author)

Piotr Filipkowski is a sociologist and oral historian, who works as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is co-founder of the biggest Polish Oral History Archive at the History Meeting House in Warsaw. He currently publishes mainly on oral history theory and practice, as well as on qualitative methods in social sciences.


Title: Oral History and the War