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Oral History and the War

The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective


Piotr Filipkowski

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.

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1 Oral history and the war

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1Oral 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.

In oral history, accounts are analysable from two different viewpoints. To simplify and make the distinction more clear, one viewpoint can be named the ←17 | 18→historical and the other the sociological4 – although this by no means suggests that the former is the ‘property’ of historians and the latter of sociologists.

From the perspective of history (history as an academic discipline), oral history narratives are approached as additional, complementary historical sources of second rank to written texts. The less remote the period covered by the narrative, the greater its factual value. Such accounts are sometimes referred to in particular in studies on social history, research on the history of the everyday, and whenever one seeks knowledge on the past from ‘ordinary people’ – the witnesses and participants of the events investigated who may not have been offered other opportunities to share their experiences. Traditional historiography, built upon positivistic foundations, has a negative approach to oral history narratives: they are seen (indeed, quite rightly) as subjective, dependent on the circumstances in which they were created, irresolute, and distorting of the facts owing to their emotion-imbued assessments of the events reported upon. Although many of these charges are equally pertinent to other historical sources, it is oral history that is subject to severe criticism and is ranked last in the catalogue of legitimate methods employed to establish the facts.

From the perspective of sociology, an oral history narrative does not seek to answer ‘what it was like in reality’: its purpose is to determine what the interviewees have actually remembered and how they recount their memories, how do they assess or evaluate them, and what meaning(s) do they ascribe to the events or episodes they recall. The historian Michael Frisch says that oral history accounts cannot be put on a par with other historical sources and treated as raw data subject to critical analysis, in the same way that historians process all the other sources they analyse.5 For Alessandro Portelli, one of the pioneers of oral history, the interview is a subjective act of memory which may (and usually does) contain errors, factual inconsistencies, and erroneous interpretations that miss the facts. Yet, as he adds immediately, these errors, exaggerations, and myths can lead us beyond the facts and to the meanings ascribed to them by the interviewees, where they gain meaning through the stories they tell.6 This is why oral history is not primarily a search for new facts but, rather, an interpretive occurrence where the interviewee must compress his or her story into an account lasting a few hours, selecting the episodes of their story and deciding, more or less consciously, what to tell and how to tell it. An interview is a recollection in real time of a testimony of the past as it was inscribed in the interviewee’s memory. It is an act of memory ←18 | 19→that is dependent on the moment in which the interview is carried out as well as on the (hi)story it relates.

The interview develops each time in response to the specific person, the questions asked, and the subjects raised. At the same time, it should be restated, it also constitutes the interviewee’s reply to his or her internal need to add meaning, or sense, to his or her own experiences. Language conventions, beliefs or convictions, assessments and evaluations all play a role here. In reflecting the speaker’s state of consciousness and the cultural context in which he or she moves, it reveals his or her identity; what is more, it is, or can be, the identity of their testimony. Therefore, when analysing oral history interviews, one should seek not merely the recounted events but also – and, perhaps, foremost – who says it, what it is that he or she is saying, to whom, to what purpose, and in which circumstances.

Oral history thus comprehended may become a source for interdisciplinary research, and a source to be used in a variety of studies: historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological (especially, in the humanistic orientation). It could be claimed, somewhat magniloquently, that the multidimensional or multi-tier structure of the narratives collected as part of oral history stems in a way from, continues and is a consequence of the multidimensional nature of human fate and human experience. Hence, the difficulty perhaps in perceiving oral history unambiguously as a part of a single academic discipline, especially when understood as a narrow concept. But there comes yet another legitimate purpose for indulging in such an activity: an attempt to comprehend the human lot.

The audio or video recording of the interviewees’ accounts and the subsequent archiving of tapes with the sound and image that was recorded (‘tape’ being an increasingly conventional word, as recordings in a digital format or their subsequent digitisation is becoming a standard, and enables the data to be stored on a computer, CDs, DVDs and other modern carriers) is today a constitutive element of any reputable oral history project. Why does a reliable transcript of the account not suffice? What is the reason for the considerable investment (as opposed to the total costs and expenses of any oral history project) made to preserve the ‘source material’? Such questions may seem rhetorical. The conventional practice thus far in the delivery of most Polish sociology – and, more generally, social science – research projects of using cassette tapes containing the recorded interviews being removed (or, at least, not archived) once the material had been transcribed brings to mind the answers to these questions.

If we accept that accounts, or narratives, are recorded not just, or even primarily, in order to establish new facts, and if we concede that no less important are the interviewee’s own interpretations of these facts, the meanings they ascribe to them, the senses and meanings given to individual experiences within the perspective of their overall biographies, and the emotions surrounding the recollection and recounting of the events experienced, then the focus must (also) be on the very activity of telling, of recounting one’s own (and the others’) (hi)story. By being attentive when listening to the interviewee’s recorded voice or when watching a video-recorded account, we can better understand the non-verbal messages and ←19 | 20→take a more careful look at the structure of the narration and detect its supra-historical dimension.

Abandoning intertextual analysis is not the point here. Such analysis remains basic, as a good transcription enables us to pause at details which are difficult to grasp when listening to or watching an account. The point is, rather, to reach beyond the text, to hear and see what the text has not been able to render. One important reason for the failure to render everything is that the interviewee’s words form only a fragment, and not always the most important one, of the multilayered communication that has come about during the meeting between the interviewee and the record-taker, through which interactive process an oral testimony emerges. The tone or pitch, strength and intonation of the voice, the rhythm and pace of the speech, the pauses – all these are part of the communication, and bearers of meanings, which are not easy to render in a transcription.7

Video-recorded interviews, once archived, are of even greater value in the search for such extra- or supra-textual meanings. They ensure the best point of observation for the processes of recalling and interpreting occurrences or episodes (or ‘just’ stories of them which are ready-to-use, and have been tried and tested many times), constructing through their use a potentially coherent and communicable narrative of the past. And, much better than a written text, such interviews enable us to see the interactive character of oral history testimonies.

In his analysis of interviews with Holocaust survivors, James E. Young points to a further dimension, a cinematographic narrative that is created by the medium itself: a videotape that moves in one direction: “Implicit in the lateral movement of film and video is a sense of sequence, a linear causality that suggests explanations for events: underlying every testimony – in its beginning, middle, and end – is a particular understanding of events.” The witness’s video testimony becomes ‘a narrative within a narrative’, while “the tendency to slip from one narrative level to the other becomes a natural one”. Taking this a step further (and deeper), Young finds that three elements compose a video testimony: “the survivor’s story, the telling of the story, and the audiovisual taping of testimony”.8

A somewhat atypical example is some of the accounts videotaped by Claude Lanzmann for use in his documentary film Shoah. Particularly expressive from this perspective is, to my mind, the narrative of Jan Karski – his countenance and facial expression, mimicry and gestures, the tension in his voice, the movement of his whole body, his request to cut the shooting are all an integral part of the testimony he is giving. This example is atypical since nobody, I think, would call the Lanzmann film an oral history project. But I have no doubt that the way in which he made it, with some three hundred taped hours from which just nine were ←20 | 21→included in his well-known documentary, converges at a number of points with the path along which oral history projects tend to unfold, whenever the witness/ participant narrative is videotaped.

Yet, it is not just the method of recording and the form in which the interviewee’s story is taped that matters in terms of the testimony’s content (the differentiation of form and content is rather questionable in this case, as has been made apparent above). More important are the questions asked by the person doing the taping and the way he or she asks them. Oral history projects which intend to go beyond merely determining historical facts usually employ a narrative interview technique, which in most cases is biography-oriented. The point is for the interlocutor to be able to recount his story/biography without restraint and within it, by using his or her own categories, report on the events which are the actual reason as to why the interviewer is visiting him or her – as a participant or witness, survivor, observer, victim or more rarely, a perpetrator. The interviewee’s knowledge and our knowledge of the biographical events that are the cause of the meeting and the interview recording session obviously inform the content of the testimony.

The withdrawn position of the narrative leader (interviewer) is meant to help create a space for communication in which the individual telling their story builds their narration, and shapes the story, possibly without any support and without being asked questions. The person doing the recording is mainly tasked, in this first part of the conversation (it still is a conversation, after all), with preserving the openness of this space: staying open toward the witness and the topics that he or she appears willing or otherwise to raise or take up, the manner in which they are introduced and depicted, the shape of the story being built and discontinued. Questions are asked only when the narrator halts the narrative flow, awaiting an impulse from the outside, so that the narrative character of the interview may also be present during this question phase. It is recommended that the questions asked – first, those that follow the interviewee’s free narrative, which aim to extend and complement it, and afterwards those prepared by the interviewer on the subject matter being investigated – continue being open-ended, triggering the memory of the individual as they respond to and interpret their story and raising more and more images from their memory.9

We have now passed from individuals telling their own (hi)stories into the area of qualitative research methods and techniques in the social sciences. Indeed, the so-called biographical method is at many points convergent with oral history. In practice, the same research work is probably carried out under different labels. But it is not the label that matters: of importance is caring about what Florian Znaniecki called the humanistic coefficient – the conviction that every human being is an expert, the best connoisseur of their own universe, and it is to them that the floor should be given – in an attempt to move closer to comprehending this ←21 | 22→universe. Norman Denzin has formulated this same postulate in a more pragmatic fashion, stating that, “human behaviour must be examined and understood from the viewpoint of those that it concerns”.10 This conviction is shared by exponents of humanistic sociology as well as oral history. And, it takes – and must take – primacy, let us add, before a too scrupulously codified methodology.

One possible example of such a consistent codification of all the stages of the research process is Fritz Schütze’s biographical sociology, stemming from the interpretive orientation (which was chiefly, though not exclusively, inspired by symbolic interactionism).11 But Schütze is – seemingly, although this would not be admitted by his adversaries – far from putting forward a dogmatic demand to apply, each time and without exception, all the assumptions of the method he has developed for carrying out and analysing narrative interviews (the most important part of which is the interviewee’s unrestrained biographical story, undistorted by questions).

One of the largest oral history projects to be conducted is that of Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, featuring filmed interviews. The project’s methodology for collecting information is briefly yet succinctly summarised on its website:

The Archive’s interviewing methodology stresses the leadership role of the witness in structuring and telling his or her own story. Questions are primarily used to ascertain time and place, or elicit additional information about topics already mentioned, with an emphasis on open-ended questions that give the initiative to the witness. The witnesses are the experts in their own life story, and the interviewers are there to listen, to learn, and to clarify.12

Another, no less substantive, suggestion put forth by Denzin concerns the primacy of meaning for the method used in biographical analysis. It essentially touches upon ethical issues. With interviews with individuals who have had traumatic biographical experiences, this ethical (and therapeutic) dimension of the conversation tends to be particularly important – more important than the rigidly applied methodological assumptions employed in taping the interviews. Referring to her experience as an interviewer of Holocaust survivors, Barbara Engelking wrote:

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Many people, when they recall their sufferings, relive them; it would not be ethical in this situation to create a barrier and leave the narrator alone with revived memories of the past. Confronted by the other person’s suffering, the listener must at least attempt to participate in it, and must provide support, creating an atmosphere of trust and understanding. For these reasons, I believe that the only possible way of conducting the conversation is participation and involvement on the part of the researcher; to apply inflexible rules of research to auto-narration would be absurd and immoral, and would moreover make it impossible to obtain credible material.13

The narrative character of an account is assumed, I should think, in all oral history projects. The point is for the interviewer not to tell a story, or recount history, in general – what things were like – but what happened, or occurred, to him or her, and what he or she has actually experienced. Oral history interviews are not about telling the so-called objectivised, textbook-formatted history, which is far from the individual human experience: they are about the narrator interpreting his or her own experiences, through their narration.

However, the interviewer’s focus on his or her individual fate does not make an account biographical. Moreover, such an assumption is not always made; accounts are usually recorded because of an individual’s specific experience, an episode in his or her life, sometimes a single occurrence or some aspect of their biography. But the demand to biographise the narrative – with the interviewer (re)constructing the interviewee’s biography and inserting into it, as one among the many, the fragments that we or the interviewer consider particularly important – is also valid with thematic interviews. It is to be expected that in an autobiographical narrative of this kind, only certain selected images are produced from the speaker’s memory: ones that prove to be important, for some reason or another. More than in the colloquial meaning, biography here means a construction developed by the interlocutor in response to the impulse given by the inquiring/recording interviewer. But such a construction is not completely freeform: it is built from the memory of the experiences and from the meanings ascribed to them. And, from the interpretations assumed by the interviewee – be they on the level of the language with which he or she communicates his or her experience. What is, then, the rationale behind, and in favour of, the biographical method in oral history?

The first, and most basic, argument is that when requesting the interviewee for an autobiographical story, a clear message is given that researcher is interested in more than just the events he or she witnessed or participated in, and they are instead also interested in the individual and his or her unique experience. The ←23 | 24→interviewee thus gains a greater space for unrestrained narration about this particular experience. As already remarked, discovering hitherto unknown facts is not the main reason behind oral history. For memory is not a depositary of facts but an active process of giving meaning. Hence, there are no ‘false’ oral testimonies: all are psychologically ‘true’ and their truth may be no less crucial than a reliable factual source.14 In biographical accounts, such subjective truth may be expressed in a less restrained way, while for us the listeners it appears in a context that facilitates the understanding of its meanings. Biographical accounts offer the interviewee more space for the stories they are willing to tell.

Referring to empirical examples from his own investigations, Paul Thompson, author of The Voice of the Past – possibly the best-known book on oral history, first published in 1978 in the United Kingdom and reprinted several times afterwards – argues that we can benefit more from biographical accounts because they enable subsequent scholars to ask new questions. For this reason, he encourages the recording of biographical accounts, even if we are only interested in a fragment of the interviewee’s life or in his or her specific experience(s). Thompson’s arguments became even more salient if we bear in mind that he helped develop the main British qualitative data archive, Qualidata, and is a theoretician and practitioner of the reanalysis of qualitative data gathered by the social sciences.15


The position occupied by wartime experiences in oral history accounts is worth considering, especially given that, as a rule, for many interviewees these experiences form their key biographical experience. They not infrequently prove to have been a turning point in their biographies and, to a crucial degree, have shaped their whole subsequent post-war life. Memory of war forms an essential part of identity. In one’s later years, when one’s main daily physical activities are in decline, these memories are strongly revived. In an account recorded almost sixty years after the war’s end, one former prisoner of Auschwitz and, subsequently, Mauthausen said the following about the working of his memory:

In the beginning, you wanted to be as distant as possible from all that – from the camp. But no, this is coming back now, by itself. Now that I am retired, the reminiscences are constantly recurring. I cannot get away from it. There are moments when I’m at a social meeting when I can detach myself from that reality, but when I’m on my own, then the thoughts come over me, they’re coming over me all the time. This is what you cannot forget.16

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This quotation does not relate to one specific event; rather, it is a generalised reminiscence of a certain experience and psychical state and, moreover, a reflection upon it, an auto-interpretation. Yet, it is long-term event-related memory that forms the core content of narrated accounts. The experiences that occurred during the course of the war were often unexpected and unique to the interviewees – and, as has been said, key for their biographies and identities. They involved strong emotions. In a number of cases, the traumatic wartime experience is so central to the biography that is being (re)constructed, in a history of one’s life that is recounted without restraint, that anything which occurred before or after it is reduced to a generalisation. A number of questions are thus required from the interviewer in order for the rest of the life story to be elaborated upon. This cannot be explained completely by what the interviewee may believe that they should be talking about when narrating, in response to their projected expectations of the interviewer doing the recording. Reverse situations also occur, however, where the traumatic war experiences are omitted or neglected in the account – not because they have been erased from the memory but, more frequently, because they are a painful part of the memory, which is better left untouched. The refusal to meet and talk protects these individuals from deepening the trauma of their wartime experiences. This is why the empathy and tact of the interviewer making the recording, his or her openness and ability to provide psychological support is so important. Some oral history projects, particularly those involving Holocaust survivors, specifically recommend that the recordings be made by psychologists.

Nonetheless, it is also often the case that it is the very act of speaking (and only when this opportunity arises) that brings relief and helps an individual who has been seriously affected by the war rebuild a sense of dignity. In this case, the opportunity provided by the interview responds to the basic human need to communicate, to be heard and accepted. The interviewee’s conviction that they and their individual history is important for others, that it will be recorded and archived and thus become a ‘testimony’, reinforces the sense of acceptance and boosts the confidence of a fair number of interviewees. The opportunity to meet another individual in order to recount one’s personal history builds a relationship of trust and intimacy, thus giving the interviewee a feeling of safety. This feeling of safety is potentially reinforced by the fact that there is no direct, family relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer, as they are two individuals who have no permanent connection but simply part after the meeting, each return to his or her own world. It is often the case that the interviewee entrusts the interviewer with their traumatic stories, rather than saddling their close relatives with them. A person from the world they do not experience on a daily basis is emotionally a safer and ‘easier’ listener.

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Psychologists studying the human memory and memorisation processes are unable to answer exactly what this memory is, what it is that we remember, and how we actually do this. Instead of precise medical data, they offer a series of vivid metaphors.17 A selective and socially determined human memory is the most obvious element. This is also true for biographical accounts featuring the war – perhaps even more so than for other accounts. Hardly any past occurrence has left in the collective memory a trace as distinct as World War II has. Its memory, incessantly maintained, renewed, and negotiated, is an essential element of national identity. We have recently witnessed a revival of this memory (given that we are in the final phase of being able to seek the individual memory of its still living conscious participants, victims, witnesses, and perpetrators). Written biographical testimonies, oral family messages, accounts collected as part of oral history projects, all make an essential contribution to the collective memory. But the reverse influence is no less powerful: generic narratives and images shaping the collective memory inform the design of individual narrative biographies, their interpretation, assessment and evaluation, and the meanings given to one’s own experiences. Oral history interviews are perfectly designed for recognising the dominant narrative patterns – the so-called master narratives – within which various collective wartime experiences are arranged.

Another feature of accounts related to the war is that the psychological rules of recounting the history of one’s life are attenuated. The narrator’s ordinary need (and language habit) to place themselves at the centre of events, ascribing their actions or agency to themselves, maintaining the illusion of an autonomous shaping of the biography – all this collides in these accounts with the coercive force of external circumstances, restriction, annihilation of the potential to plan one’s own life (or, sometimes, simply to plan the very next day), or to make any choices whatsoever. Such external circumstances are characteristic of wartime. Instead of the ‘ordinary’ control of one’s own fate, what is dominant in these stories is the sense of disorganisation and suffering. Such a message is strongest in the accounts of individuals who during the war were enclosed in ghettoes, prisons or concentration camps, or stayed in hiding. In his typology of biographical processes, Fritz Schütze calls this state of having lost control of one’s own life a trajectory.18

Silence, moments of discontinued narration caused by the inability to talk, express, and articulate the memory and its accompanying emotions are not instances of broken communication. On the contrary, they convey an essential message, one that is full of meanings, and this is particularly true for oral history ←26 | 27→accounts of wartime experiences. With these, it is worth listening even more attentively to the silences, rather than confining oneself to reading transcripts with dotted lines. The interviewee’s broken voice, the moments of silence and affection accompanying it – the breakdown of defensive mechanisms under the onslaught of afflicting recollections – these unveil the interviewee, making them defenceless against us for a while. This (for a sensitive researcher) may create an ethical bond, a moral obligation – easier to bear if we can, as it were, take the witness’s side; but also hard, when therapeutic action is needed, whenever we want to or must stand up to the interviewee, such as in interviews with perpetrators.19

It is generally accepted that the first oral history project (in the sense given at the beginning) was conducted by the American historian Allan Nevins. In 1948, at Columbia University, he initiated the systematic and disciplined taping, archiving and disclosure, for further research, of accounts given by ‘witnesses of history’. Nevins was working on a biography of President Grover Cleveland and had recorded accounts of the individuals who had surrounded the president. Such was the beginning of the first research centre for oral history, the Columbia Oral History Research Office. Today, the archive houses some 8,000 interviews.

Interest in elites, the people representing political and major business circles, characterised the origins of oral history in the United States. Also characteristic was the conviction that oral history was, in the first place, an archival activity: gathering oral accounts to be used by historians as a complement to traditional written sources. It was strongly emphasised that no deviation from historiographical rules were possible, as objectivity remained the most important criterion.20

Yet, from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, oral history has been associated with completely different purposes and subject matters – documenting people who until then were particularly underrepresented in historiography, or present in it only indirectly, as they did not produce the traditional types of sources that historians usually investigated. Social researchers, including historians, first began recording interviews with ‘ordinary people’ from a variety of social strata and ←27 | 28→regions, including representatives of various minorities. The aim, however, was not simply to investigate new subjects: it was to write a new history ‘from below’. Of crucial importance to this reorientation were leftist political stance of western (European) oral historians. In Europe, oral history has always served social history. In the mid-1970s, a British team headed by Paul Thompson recorded several hundred accounts with interviewees born between 1870 and 1906. These interviews formed the basis of Thompson’s well-known book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (New York, 1975).

The subsequent stage in the development of oral history was the refocus from the subject matter recounted to the witnesses themselves, with an increasing interest in their personal lives. The focus on biography, on the history of the narrator’s life, meant a closer association with qualitative sociology, and it assumed two forms. Representatives of the more traditional current, represented, for instance, by Paul Thompson and, in France, by Daniel Bertaux, strive to reconstruct an objective reality that is hidden behind the interviewee’s account, to elucidate the social processes that define his or her biography; to understand the subjective dimensions of (the) life, and to determine the interrelations between (the) life and social structure and social change.

Advocates of this more recent direction, which today exists in parallel with the older one, focus on the interpretive procedures that contribute to the biography and co-produce the life story. There is a stronger emphasis on the narration itself, which is no longer approached as a neutral medium or a gateway to a reality but as a construction. This current, sometimes called narratology by its detractors, has mostly been developed in Germany, where oral history today appears primarily to be developing into a form of biographical studies (for example in the work of Gabriele Rosenthal, Fritz Schütze, or – to some extent – Alexander von Plato).

It is worth pointing out that alongside what we can call, to simplify, the academic current of oral history, there is another one at play, which, again, for the sake of simplification, I call the popular-educational current. This consists, among other things, of youth workshops and competitions, popular handbooks that provide a basic knowledge and encourage the user to record interviews with the older members of their families and their neighbours as well as to document local history. It would be unfair to reduce these activities – which are widespread today – to a sentimental game. The recordings collected as part of such local projects run for young people often remain the only record of their interviewees’ memory; therefore, it is right that they be archived (as is increasingly the case). This form of oral history activity is also popular in Poland.21

In parallel with these diverse documentary projects, oral history archives are also developing. A few dozen are associated with American universities, those at Yale ←28 | 29→and Columbia having already been mentioned. The archive of the Visual History Foundation in Los Angeles, with its over 50,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors, is incomparable to any other in terms of size. This collection has recently been made available in Europe too, including at Berlin’s Freie Universität and Charles University in Prague. Other oral history collections in Western Europe are much more modest in terms of the number of recordings stored. Two important centres are Essex University in the United Kingdom, with its Qualidata archive, initiated by Paul Thompson, and the Deutsches Gedächtnis archive in Lūdenscheid, Germany.

Moreover, oral history accounts are also being recorded and archived by a number of modern history museums, and even libraries. In these cases, the scholarly current coincides with the popularisation trend. Proactive in acquiring witness accounts are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the British Library Sound Archive, for instance. A special group of museums and archives is that of the memory sites set up in the spaces of former concentration camps. Fragments of audio and video interviews with witnesses/participants of history are, with increasing frequency, being included in museum presentations, films and documentaries and radio broadcasts. In Germany and Austria, a number of memory sites located in former concentration camps have recently been completely redeveloped (such as at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Gusen). Sound recordings and filmed accounts of former inmates have been made part of the display.

January 2009 saw the opening at the Freie Universität in Berlin (where Shoah Visual History Foundation accounts are available) of an archive belonging to the International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project. As part of this project, some six hundred interviews have been recorded with former forced labourers as well as concentration camp inmates and Holocaust survivors across Europe, in the United States, Israel, and South Africa. The uniqueness of this archive lies in the fact that, unlike its peers, it is available online in its entirety. With internet access, anyone can listen to and watch several hundred audio and video accounts, in their entirety, and read their transcripts in one of the almost thirty languages in which they have been conducted, without leaving home. There are some eighty narratives to be found in Polish, but there are many more ‘Polish’ ones, in a broader sense (featuring Polish Jews who did not return home or migrated after the war, or Poles ‘in the West’). Such access to a large archive of biographical interviews offers completely new research opportunities. This online archive may mark an important moment in the development of oral history, and of biographical studies as part of the social sciences: something much more than merely greater access to the sources.


The term ‘oral history’ has not been fully ‘naturalised’ in the Polish academic context – even though a lot has changed in this respect the last couple of years.22 This ←29 | 30→is because oral history does not have a long-established history in the country. For many years there was no established culture of the planned collection of responses from people who may be ready to tell their stories, and the audio and video recording, archiving, analysing, and interpreting of such interviews had – until recently – no chance to develop in Poland. As a direct consequence of this deficit, there have been no much methodological or substantial discussions within academic historiography on the potentials (and limitations) offered by the recording and storing of testimonies of memory that have been recorded with the use of audiotape or videotape (which are increasingly being replaced by digital technologies).

The soliciting and collecting of oral history sources was not – and basically is still not – facilitated by the attitude of most historians, who were sceptical towards the inclusion of (not to say, giving equal rights to) oral history sources in historical research and studies. In contrast with countries that have developed oral history cultures, there have also been no – with a few important exceptions that appeared only in the 1980s – non-academic milieus in Poland that, regardless of any potential criticism from traditional historiographers, would have been able to record, on a broader scale, the memories of the witnesses to/participants of history, as evoked in their autobiographical stories. In those cases were such documentation did take place, it was mostly on the initiative of sociologists who took recordings of in-depth interviews and biographical accounts as part of specific research projects. Once a project was completed and its outcome published, the source material usually fell into oblivion. Unfortunately, it was rarely, if at all, considered that such recordings should be archived, for them to be reanalysed (in a broader manner, or from a different perspective by future researchers) and reused for the purpose of further study. Even less consideration was given to their possible reuse by researchers in other disciplines. Even if someone had contemplated such an option, it was difficult to know what to do with these resources, which archive to place the recordings in, and where to seek assistance for this. But in most cases, it was methodological rigidity and the attachment of scholars to their own research disciplines that prevented them from considering the possibility that an account, especially if biographical, may provide research material for a historian, a sociologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, … .

Still, the strongest restraints towards a more animated development of oral history were, at a deeper level and of a systemic nature. The People’s Republic of Poland was not a state that cared about documenting and nurturing individual memory. On the contrary: a strict watch was kept on those potentially obstructing the efforts for a top-down projection of collective consciousness. To deliver such a project, the silent and obedient stones of physical monuments proved a much better fit than some inconsistent human stories. But monuments were made not only of stone: human (hi)stories were also made use of, as they were squeezed into a heroic-martyrological pattern of ‘commemorating’ events of a specified sort, and their ready-made interpretations. This was a safe scheme (and one that gave a ←30 | 31→sense of safety), as it was distant from the authentic experiences to which it allegedly referred. A typical example of such pacification, reforging, and channelling by the state of individual memories of the war was, for many years, the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD), particularly in the first years of its activity.23 This central, politically manipulated, commemorative organisation embraced – among many other groups of victims – also the concentration camp survivors.

It is no surprise, then, that documentary activities, which we would today call oral history projects, were so scarce in the People’s Poland. Those projects that did occur – all of them coming late, without the ‘oral history’ label and without being embedded in such a tradition – were usually counter-systemic. In his 1990 essay quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Jerzy Holzer wrote that the Polish experience of oral history was dominated by political themes or, at least, had been shaped by political developments.24 Among such examples, he mentions journalistic books based on recorded accounts: Teresa Torańska’s Oni (Warszawa, 1985); Jacek Trznadel’s Hańba domowa. Rozmowy z pisarzami (Warszawa, 1986); and Jarosław Maciejewski and Zofia Trojanowicz’s Poznański Czerwiec 1956 (Poznań, 1981). Holzer also points to the activity of the Gdańsk-based Social Studies Centre, which during the era of the Solidarity trade union was legalised for the first time (1980–1) and collected interviews on the December 1970 events in the Polish coastal area (Grudzień 1970, Paris 1986). This initiative was cut short when martial law was imposed in December 1981. More than the fact that these are mostly journalism-based studies, more important for our present purpose is that none of them concerns World War II – the key biographical experience of the generation in question.

The only oral history project (in the strict sense, which encompasses recording and archiving the accounts of the ‘witnesses of history’, regardless of the name then used) covering wartime experiences mentioned in Holzer’s essay is the documentation of the fate of the Poles who were subject to repression in the East (inmates of Soviet lagers, deportees). This was initiated in 1987 by the KARTA (then still an illegal underground organisation) under the name ‘Eastern Archive’ (Archiwum Wschodnie). This later became one of the pillars of the now legal KARTA Centre (Ośrodek KARTA), with a collection of over 1,200 audio accounts from across Poland.

It is interesting to note that, when writing of the meagre, almost negligible, oral history tradition in communist Poland, Holzer neglected to mention the interviews and accounts that had been collected by the memorial museums, sites of memory located in the areas of the former concentration camps. The fact is that almost ←31 | 32→all of these institutions, although each on a different scale, collected and are still collecting such documentation. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the museums of Majdanek, Gross-Rosen, and Stutthof have together collected several thousand accounts. Since Holzer did not mention them in a study on oral history, can we classify this as an omission? Not necessarily, because most of these testimonies should be classified – according to Michael Pollak’s important typology – as statements that were submitted to historical committees, rather than oral history interviews. They are closer to statements given to a court than to unrestrained narratives about one’s life. The conditions in which the interviews were done are completely different in both cases.25 Or, at least, they used to be, as contemporary documentation of this (oral) kind as collected by these memorial museums is methodologically much closer to the standards accepted in oral history.


In the past ten or so years, there has been another outburst of interest, no longer constrained by the State, in recording, popularising, and researching accounts of the ‘witnesses of history’ (including historic heroes and victims) in which the war is an essential, sometimes the key, experience. Biographical interviews in which World War II is the central subject have become the basis for several important research projects in the Polish social sciences (and the basis for their ‘qualitative paradigm’).26 The authors of most of these projects often cite the tradition of Polish biographical sociology, specifically the work of Florian Znaniecki. One important example is the project Biography and National Identity, conducted in the mid-1990s by the Chair of Cultural Sociology at the University of Łódź. Several dozen biographical interviews were recorded with individuals who had survived the Occupation in central Poland and the Eastern Borderland area. The comparison of various wartime experiences and an analysis of the ways in which they are reported as part of the biographical narrative, during the interview, have formed the basis for a number of publications.27 Holocaust studies today also tend to analyse the individual experiences of survivors based on their biographical interviews; important examples of such analyses are the works by Barbara Engelking and Małgorzata Melchior mentioned above.

Characteristic to all the research discussed so far is an interest focused not quite (and, certainly, not only) on the events or episodes being recounted but primarily ←32 | 33→on the meanings given to them by the interviewees in their stories and biographies, their (auto-)interpretations. The interviews are not meant to determine a ‘historical truth’ but are instead an attempt at understanding the individual truth of each interviewee. This is why the word ‘identity’ appears so frequently. These testimonies were not called oral history, although this name may well have been applied had it been more common in Poland.

There is yet one more publication of accounts and interviews that is in effect an oral history of the war. This is the series of conversations with Warsaw Ghetto soldiers held (and recorded) by Anka Grupińska. In his introduction to the transcribed conversations, Paweł Szapiro rightly calls them a ‘Holocaust oral history’.28 This book well shows the essence of telling one’s own stories, of recording the ‘memory of those who remember’. The conversations and stories contained in it are also expressive because they are plainspoken, free of commentary, and free of any categories drawn from outside the world being recounted.

The publications mentioned above are just a few select examples, of which there are not many in Poland. Yet, it is no coincidence that, recently, more have started to appear. It is not by chance that so many interviews, accounts, conversations, and recordings with people who can remember World War II, and who consciously experienced it, have been appearing more and more in recent times. In a few years, it will be too late to create an oral history out of that particular experience. It is the sense that once the ‘witnesses’ have gone then we will irretrievably lose something very important, not only in terms of historical knowledge, that has inspired so many oral history projects. The largest, already mentioned, is Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the University of Sothern California (USC) Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education, carried out between 1994 and 1999, within which 52,000 accounts were video-recorded in fifty-six countries and in thirty-two languages (some 1,500 were made in Poland). The interviewees were primarily Jews, Holocaust survivors, and alongside them, the Romani people, former concentration camp inmates, witnesses in the war crimes trials of the postwar years, and American soldiers who liberated the camps. Today, the Spielberg Foundation strives for the dissemination of these testimonies for educational purposes in the countries where the recordings were originally done. The motivation is, quite rightly, that the witness’s voice and face can tell something more than a textbook can. Learning imbued with emotion promises to be more efficient.

The largest European oral history project covering one Nazi concentration camp system was the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project. Initiated and funded by the Austrian Ministry for the Interior, it was managed by the University of Vienna and the Vienna-based Conflict Research Institute. In 2002–3, a total of 860 biographical accounts (10 per cent of which were video recorded) of former inmates of the Mauthausen camps were recorded in nineteen European countries ←33 | 34→as well as in Argentina, Canada, Israel and the United States. In Poland, the project was run by the KARTA Centre, which recorded 164 interviews (including 17 videos). These are now available in audio form in the Oral History Archive maintained by KARTA and the History Meeting House.29 The same location also houses the collection of accounts from the Eastern Archives, along with interviews with former female inmates of Ravensbrück, with Polish and German pre-war dwellers of the Kashubian commune of Stara Kiszewa/Alt Kischau (where the war experience is central), and with Polish and German inhabitants of Krzyż Wielkopolski (until 1945, the German town of Kreuz). The Oral History Archive also contains interviews with prisoners of ‘forgotten’ concentration camps – those that are absent in the collective memory – as well as with Poles living in the Kresy, the Eastern Borderland area, which was formerly the eastern region of Poland and is today divided up between Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia. In 2005–6, the Polish contribution to the aforementioned International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project was carried out by KARTA. The above is a general indication of the centre’s main projects over the last few years.

In addition to the KARTA Centre and the History Meeting House, there are several other institutions in Poland that are active in collecting and archiving oral testimonies. The most important are: Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN of Lublin; the Pogranicze Centre in Sejny; the Lublin Radio Oral History Studio; the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising; the EFKA Foundation of Krakow; the Polish branch office of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Centropa (i.e. the Central Europe Centre for Research and Documentation), an initiative that aims to document the history of Central European Jewry through oral history accounts. Recently, a number of new institutions have joined the list, such as the Centre for Civic Education (accounts of Poles who rescued Jews during the German Occupation, recorded by young people); the Christian Association of Auschwitz Families (the Auschwitz Memento project, with video accounts of former Polish inmates of Auschwitz); the Museum of the History of Polish Jews; and the Museum of the Warsaw Borough of Praga. The National Remembrance Institute (IPN) also films oral history interviews. Again, the list is incomplete; it would be impossible to compile a full one, as it is continuously expanding, almost month-by-month, with a number of initiatives being only at a local or niche level.


In November 2007, a conference focused entirely on oral history, entitled ‘Oral History – the Art of Dialogue’, was held for the first time in Poland. The organisers ←34 | 35→included: the Institute of History of the Faculty of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow; the scholarly periodical Historyka. Studia Metodologiczne; and the Artefakty Association. This institutional, strongly history-oriented context can be somewhat misleading, as traditional historians were definitely a minority at the conference. Papers were delivered by sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, political scientists, and psychologists. Alessandro Portelli and Charles Hardy were the special guests. Thus, openness and an interdisciplinary character were the event’s great assets. The term ‘oral history’ enabled scholars from various disciplines, scientific fields and countries to meet, talk, and understand one another.

The next step towards the institutionalisation of oral history in Poland was the establishment in 2009 of the Polish Oral History Association, in an attempt to integrate individuals and institutions active in the field, and to create a space for the exchange of knowledge, experiences and ideas. The Association organises annual conferences as well as various workshops and training in oral history interviewing techniques. Since 2011, the Wrocław-based ‘Memory and Future’ Centre (Ośrodek „Pamięć i Przyszłość“) has published the peer-reviewed scholarly periodical Wrocławski Rocznik Historii Mówionej, which is gradually becoming the most important publishing platform for Polish scholars using the method – and not only, or even not primarily, historians.

In autumn 2014 the Genealogies of Memory30 conference took place in Warsaw for the fourth time. This key annual academic event East-Central Europe in the field of memory studies, broadly understood, was this time subtitled ‘Collective vs. Collected Memories. 1989–91 from an Oral History Perspective’. German oral historians were strongly represented at this event – conference participants could listen to Dorothee Wierling, Alexander von Plato, and the special conference quest, Lutz Niethammer. All these names need no explanation for anyone familiar with the European oral history tradition. I mention them just to show that we are ‘part of the game’.

Less than a year later, in late summer 2015, the Polish Oral History Association together with the Institute of Sociology of the University of Łódź – the leading academic institution in Poland for biographical research in the social sciences – organised an international conference entitled ‘Oral History in Central-Eastern Europe: Current Research Areas, Challenges and Specificity’, which gathered almost seventy scholars, mostly from Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, but also with representatives from Belarus, Germany, the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands. Keynote lectures were given by Alexander von Plato and Miroslav Vaněk, both former Presidents of the International Oral History Association.

←35 | 36→

These are just few of the most visible examples indicating the increasing popularity and importance of oral history in Poland – and Polish academia in particular. Still, however, despite all this undeniable successes, and despite the increasing number of academic and popular publications based on this research method, oral history is hardly accepted as a fully legitimate research method within the historical profession.

2 J. Holzer, ‘Oral history in Poland’, BIOS – Zeitschrift fūr Biographieforschung, Oral History and Lebensverlaufsanalysen, special issue: 1990, p. 41.

3 Cf. L. Shopes, Making sense of oral history, available at:, pp. 2–3. [Accessed 2.09.2015.]

4 M. Melchior, Zagłada a tożsamość. Polscy Żydzi ocaleni na aryjskich papierach. Analiza doświadczenia biograficznego, Warszawa, 2004, pp. 16–17.

5 M. Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, Albany, 1990, pp. 159–160.

6 A. Portelli, Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, Albany, 1991, p. 2.

7 Ibidem, pp. 46–47.

8 J. E. Young, ‘Holocaust Video and Cinematographic Testimony. Documenting the Witness’, in Writing and Rewriting the Holocuast. Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988, p. 158.

9 Cf., for instance, F.-J. Brüggemeier, D. Wierling, Einführung in die Oral History. Kurseinheit 2: Das Intterview, Hagen, 1986, pp. 20 ff.

10 N.K. Denzin, ‘Reinterpretacja metody biograficznej w socjologii: znaczenie a metoda w analizie biograficznej’, in J. Włodarek, M. Ziółkowski (eds.), Metoda biograficzna w socjologii, Warszawa, 1990, p. 53.

11 F. Schütze, ‘Biographieforschung und narratives Interview’, Neue Praxis, 1983, no. 3. For the most exhaustive coverage of Fritz Schütze’s biographistic sociology concept in Polish literature, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, Chaos i przymus. Trajektorie wojenne Polaków – analiza biograficzna, Łódź, 2002.

12 [sect.: About the Archive/Introduction]. [Accessed 2.09.2015.]

13 B. Engelking (ed. by G.S. Paulson), Holocaust and Memory. The Experience of the Holocaust and Its Consequences: An Investigation Based on Personal Narratives, transl. from the Polish by Emma Harris, Leicester University Press, London, New York, 2002 [first published in Polish as Zagłada i pamięć. Doświadczenia Holocaustu i jego konsekwencje opisane na podstawie relacji autobiograficznych, IFiS PAN 1994, 2nd ed. 2001], pp. 7–8.

14 A. Portelli, op. cit., p. 51.

15 P. Thompson, ‘Re-using Qualitative Research Data: A Personal Account’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Research [On-line Journal], 1(3), December 2000,

16 From the account of Jan Wojciech Topolewski, former Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen inmate, recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner, as part of the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project; available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_021.

17 Cf. A. Hankała, Wybiórczość ludzkiej pamięci, Warszawa, 2001; T. Maruszewski, Pamięć autobiograficzna, Gdańsk, 2005.

18 F. Schütze, ‘Biographieforschung und narratives interview’, Neue Praxis, vol. 13, 1983; F. Schütze, Prozeßstrukturen des Lebensablaufs, in J. Matthes, A. Pfeifenberger, M. Stosberg (eds.), Biographie in handlungswissenschaftlicher Perspektive, Nürnberg, 1981, pp. 67–156. For the most complete presentation of this concept available to the Polish reader, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 75–88.

19 Interviews and research of this kind have been pursued intensively in recent years by historians, sociologists and psychologists in Germany and Austria. This obviously arouses considerable emotion and animated discussions, which not infrequently go beyond the confines of specialist periodicals, or even beyond a strictly scholarly framework. In Germany, this trend includes, for example, the studies by Gabriele Rosenthal and, more recently, Harald Welzer in particular. Welzer edited the famous book Opa war kein Nazi (Frankfurt am Main, 2002), and also authored a more recent one: Täter. Wie aus ganz normalen Menschen Massenmörder warden (Frankfurt am Main, 2005). Among the Austrian scholars, Gerhard Botz (and his students) deserves a mention in this context, in particular for the book he edited, Schweigen und Reden einer Generation. Erinnerungsgespräche mit Opfern, Täter und Mitläufern des Nationalsozialismus (Wien, 2007).

20 R.J. Grele, ‘Oral History in the United States’, BIOS – Zeitschrift fūr Biographieforschung, Oral History and Lebensverlaufsanalysen, special issue: 1990, p. 5.

21 This can be seen in the ‘Historia bliska’ [‘My Near-History’] series of youth history competitions, held since 1996 by the KARTA Centre and the Stefan Batory Foundation. The competition archive nearly 8,000 items at present.

22 The term is usually rendered into Polish as historia mówiona [roughly, ‘spoken history’] or historia ustna/oralna [‘oral history’]; the original English term is in use as well.

23 See J. Wawrzyniak, ‘Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację – ewolucja ideologii a więź grupowa’, in D. Stola, P. Osęka (eds.), Trwanie i zmiana, Warszawa, 2003.

24 J. Holzer, op. cit., pp. 45–46.

25 M. Pollak, Die Grenzen des Sagbaren: Lebensgeschichte von KZ-Überlebenden als Augenzeugenberichte und als Indentitätsarbeit, Frankfurt am Main–New York, 1988, pp. 95–112; M. Czyżewski, A. Piotrowski, A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek (eds.), Biografia a tożsamość narodowa, Łódź, 1997.

26 One example being the aforementioned study by B. Engelking, op. cit.; or, that by M. Melchior, op. cit.

27 The major ones being: K. Kaźmierska, Doświadczenie wojenne Polaków a kształtowanie tożsamości etnicznej. Analiza narracji kresowych, Warszawa, 1999; and, A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit.

28 A. Grupińska, Ciągle po kole. Rozmowy z żołnierzami getta warszawskiego, Warszawa, 2000 (foreword by P. Szapiro).

29 The Oral History Archive (Archiwum Historii Mówionej) is a joint venture between two institutions: KARTA, a non-governmental organisation, and the History Meeting House (DSH), a cultural institution run by the Capital City of Warsaw. Today, some 5,000 biographical interviews are housed in the Archive. The Archive’s emblem is the website

30 The conference Genealogies of Memory has been organised yearly since 2011 by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity and the Institute of Sociology, Warsaw University in cooperation with the Bundesinstitut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa and Freie Universität Berlin.