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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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2 Concentration camp experiences in Polish sociological analyses: State-of-the-art in research, methodological issues, and research perspective adopted in this study

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2Concentration camp experiences in Polish sociological analyses: State-of-the-art in research, methodological issues, and research perspective adopted in this study

This study is about concentration camp experiences as read in the histories of the narrators’ lives and analysed through their biographical narrations. These narratives were produced in interview situations and have been audio or video recorded, and subsequently transcribed. This is, I believe, a legitimate reminder: it is worth emphasising once again that my analysis does not focus primarily on an actually existing Nazi concentration camp, specifically Mauthausen, and its numerous subcamps. The present focus is neither on some generalised, abstracted totalitarian institution of the concentration camp (colloquially named ‘kacet’ in these narratives – from the German Konzentrationslager, abbr. KZ; an equivalent of the more international ‘Lager’), although I make a number of references to this (and other) categories constructed and used by Erving Goffman.

At the centre of my interest is the camp experience of each of my Interviewees as he or she has interpreted it and the way he or she evokes it in a (relatively) unrestrainedly constructed entire biographical story. On a par with experiences of the ‘there and then’, of significance to me are their interpretations as well as the narrative and situational context in which the memory of those experiences is harnessed for processing in the ‘here and now’.

There are countless camp experiences. Each Interviewee and every single prisoner had their own unique camp experiences (and today there are unique stories about them): unique, simply because they are their own, individual, unrepeatable, and have been (or still are) mulled over in their individual memories. Or, they have been pushed into oblivion. Of the several months or years of an individual’s time at the kacet, only some events are recalled on each occasion, although it also happens that every recollection recalls the same, strongly fixed images: either selected to be evoked in a given situation, or those that no one has chosen but which stubbornly reappear, albeit unwanted. Although there are a number of experiences and images, they tend to be consolidated within a single dominant interpretation.

This uniqueness and unrepeatability of individual camp experiences (and not just camp experiences) is perceptible from an existential perspective, so to speak. One cannot stop at this level, however, if we are to understand and interpret not only the fate of an individual but also certain social mechanisms with which it is entangled and within which individual and collective memory functions. But ←37 | 38→social things can be traced in two different ways. These two basic paths, two main paradigms, are quantitative and qualitative research.

My analyses are primarily based on narrative biographical interviews with former concentration camp inmates, which I recorded as part of the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project. My central empirical basis is the thirty accounts I recorded, each running several hours, along with selected interviews carried out by my colleagues. Reference is also made to a number of other interviews I did with former concentration camp inmates during my later involvement with the KARTA Centre, as part of its Oral History programme. My data are thus qualitative. This is true not only for the data: the qualitative and the interpretative approach, being the paradigm upon which my action is based:31 I seek the meanings and interpretations of the experiences related to imprisonment in the concentration camp, as related by former inmates in their oral autobiographical narrations constructed almost sixty years after they left the kacet.

In analysing these autobiographical accounts, my aim is never to ignore the underlying experience of the time in the camp. My Interviewees were indeed there – and spent a few months, a year or several years there. The places they were imprisoned and suffered in really did exist. The material traces of some still remain, whilst other have been completely effaced, their materiality annihilated. They only remain sites of memory or in memory, individual and collective. Why is this an important reminder for me? I navigate the audio and video recordings, and interview transcriptions, (being) produced ‘here and now’, and thus being narrative constructions. But these constructions are re-constructions at the same time, as they refer us back to the real experiences. This is not to say that I approach them as historical sources, enabling us to cognise the objective reality. It is to say, however, that I am interested not just in the text (voice/image) but also in the ‘off-the-text’ social reality, which is subjectively experienced, organised, and interpreted by my Interlocutors. I have no direct access to it; my access is mediated and filtered in multiple ways – by (inter alia) later experiences, collective memory, the interview as interaction and, perhaps most importantly, by language. In other words, my question concerns the story’s content – thus being ‘what’ of the story (what is being recounted?); and, the very action of telling the story, building the narration – the question of ‘how’ of the story (how is it recounted/interpreted?).

Such an approach to the collected research material suggests that I should take a different angle from that used by Anna Pawełczyńska in her study Wartości a przemoc. Zarys socjologicznej problematyki Oświęcimia [‘The values and violence. An outline of the sociological issues of Auschwitz’]. The fact that my Interlocutors were once imprisoned at Mauthausen and not Auschwitz is completely irrelevant ←38 | 39→here (incidentally, many were taken to Mauthausen after having earlier been interned at Auschwitz or Birkenau). The point is that the Pawełczyńska study shows the concentration camp universe as an objective social (and historical) reality. Pawełczyńska knows this all too well through her personal experience: she was a Birkenau inmate herself, who attentively observed the reality she had been thrown into. Her book’s central subject is the prisoner community, relations between the inmates, how they were differentiated and how unequal their chances of survival were, as well as, as the title heralds, the values and violence of the camp world. The construction of this study is very different from the numerous autobiographical stories of other former Auschwitz inmates, of either sex, including female camp mates32 – and this was a deliberate and thoroughly considered aim:

It took thirty years to gain a perspective. It is this historical distance, a long time in which to reflect, and the serenity of impending old age that have enabled me to view the concentration camp with unbiased categories. …

It is not an easy task to apply a scholarly apparatus to a difficult period of one’s own biography. I have endeavoured to select and put in order, in a perhaps impersonal manner, such phenomena and their regularity as could be helpful in explaining the mechanisms of the concentration camp. Both the mechanisms that led to the existence of the camps, in their specific form, as well as those that enabled some of the inmates to survive.33

In her selection and ordering of phenomena and their reciprocal regularities, Pawełczyńska does not refer to the memories or accounts of or interviews with former inmates. The footnotes contained in her study point, rather, to a number of essays, monographs and studies. These include articles and research papers by the Krakow-based psychiatric team directed by Professor Antoni Kępiński. Pawełczyńska consistently avoids the subjective and evoking survivors’ narratives. She makes a great effort to maintain a distance and stay objective. This is also true for her camp experiences, to which she makes no direct reference, although they must have been the main, or at least an important, incentive behind her study.

Pawełczyńska’s book is perhaps the best and best-known sociological study on concentration camps in Polish scholarly literature.34 Among the lesser known and ←39 | 40→rarer quoted works that aim to describe the psychological mechanisms of the camp universe, two doctoral theses are worth mentioning: Marek Tadeusz Frankowski’s Socjologiczne aspekty funkcjonowania hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych 1939-1945 [‘The sociological aspects of the functioning of Nazi concentration camps, 1939–45’], published in 1996 by the Central Commission for Research on Crimes Against the Polish Nation – the Institute of National Remembrance;35 and Kazimierz Godorowski’s Psychologia i psychopatia hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych. Próba analizy postaw i zachowań w warunkach ekstremalnych obciążeń [‘The psychology and psychopathy of Nazi concentration camps. An attempt at analysis of the attitudes and behaviours under extreme charge conditions’], published by the Academy of Catholic Theology (Akademia Teologii Katolickiej), Warsaw, in 1985. Both authors willingly refer to Anna Pawełczyńska’s book – not only directly, through the quotations in the footnotes, but also indirectly, by assuming a similar, objectivising approach. This is particularly apparent in Frankowski’s study, where we read in the introduction:

Objectivism is indispensable, for tendencies have surfaced that disseminate delusory and consciously false ideas. …

It is the author’s intent that this study presents a sociological profile of the concentration camp community, multi-plane structure, mechanisms of functioning, as well as the interdependencies and social engineering techniques applied with respect to the inmates.

In contrast with a number of valuable publications, where the perception of the camp is that of the individual prisoner – a victim crammed onto the wheels of violence – the task of this study is to show the problems related to the concentration camp as an element of the system:

(i)from the standpoint of the purposes, strivings, and targets of those who developed the camps;

(ii)from the standpoint of the victims – a specific community, with graspable interdependencies and internal structure … .

This study is, as may be expected, an opportunity to show a panoramic view of the concentration camp, its various hierarchical levels, interdependencies, and structures.36

←40 | 41→

The author’s declared objectivism, his systemic and ‘panoramic view’, are confirmed by the bibliography and footnotes. Among the several hundred references to scholarly studies, published prisoners’ reminiscences are rare. In most cases where quotes from prisoners do appear, the authors comment as researchers in the camp area: in a ‘scientific’, ‘objective’ fashion. Hence, there is no trace of an interview with a survivor (or of a survivor having been interviewed). Sociological aspects of the camp’s functioning are described without using redundant, subjective, emotional elements. The author has been able to maintain the desired distance. As we read the subsequent chapters, our view of the kacet becomes increasingly ‘panoramic’, its image growing increasingly distant. Having waded through the numerous breakdowns, calculations, divisions and classifications, all meant to describe and clarify the various camp mechanisms, structures, and hierarchies, we close the book finding ourselves enriched with new knowledge but convinced that there is nothing that links us with the social universe of the kacet, a detailed description of which we have just read, and the rules governing it having little to do with those known to us from our daily experiences. This monograph reassures our sense of security and reinforces the comfortable presumption that the concentration camp is a very distant island, full of people unlike ourselves and of inhuman beasts.

Kazimierz Godorowski has analysed the attitudes and behaviours of concentration camp prisoners from a psychological perspective, specifically from the viewpoint of social psychology. This author also endeavours to create an objective picture of the reality he describes. However, he is much more cautious in constructing his classifications, breakdowns and typologies and far less convinced that his effort to render the truth of the kacet has produced a satisfactory result. In any case, he acknowledges that he must face certain important methodological questions:

One should, however, talk of the psychology of an inmate, rather than inmates, since it seems that referring globally to an ‘inmate psychology’ in concentration camps risks dangerously simplifying the issue. The thing is, there were various categories of camp ….

All this means that the living conditions were quite varied between individual camps and for the different categories of inmates. Reducing them to a common denominator of ‘inmate psychology’ would be erroneous. Below, I will try and propose a classification of attitudes and responses to the camp reality. I am well aware of the ensuing difficulties, be it in the methodological aspects.37

The cautiousness shown by this author in formulating statements on the psychological and sociological rights of the camp reality is related to the empirical ←41 | 42→approach upon which Godorowski based his analyses. He writes of the methods used in his work thus:

This study is based on:

  1. An analysis of the reminiscences of former inmates of concentration camps.
  2. Documents and publications comprising and discussing the basic assumptions of the Hitlerist system … .
  3. An analysis of the existing scholarly studies concerning the specified aspects of living in the camps, including psychological, sociological, medical, historical, and ethical aspects.
  4. The author’s participant observation from the period of his stay at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp and its affiliated unit of Landshut (today, Kamienna-Góra).38

The first and the last item are especially worth noting. It is significant that the reading of camp memoirs and the author’s own personal camp experience somehow inhibit his self-confidence when it comes to formulating generalised statements, rather than eliciting statements claiming the need to remain unbiased. Instead of distance and a ‘panoramic view’, we face here a multitude of psychological and social processes occurring in the camp reality.

In spite of the substantial differences, the two studies have much in common. Although not to the same extent, both are ultimately part of the current of objectivising, scholarly analyses of the camp universe. The kacet world is approached as a certain harsh reality which proves to be cognisable and describable. Similarly to most historical studies, the problems of presenting and representing, the complex and unobvious interdependencies between reality and how it is narrated, are for the most part neglected. Jerzy Topolski has written many times about this shortcoming, his remarks referring specifically to studies by historians. They also appear to apply to researchers of social reality in general:

Is it not the case, perhaps, that there is the past (though long gone), on the one hand, whilst on the other, there are all those, historians included, who are willing to say or write something about that past, and so they do. Such has been the belief over the centuries, and has remained so in many cases. But the reality … is otherwise, because historians do not investigate the past as something external to them, ready to be examined, or waiting for them; instead, when researching the past, they create its narrative image from the very beginning. It is not, however, a portrayal of something that is at least partly known in its original shape, but a construction of the metaphorical image, which is controlled through knowledge of the method and, first of all, through the other narrative images.39

When reading these concentration camp studies, my attention is drawn to something other than the blurred distinction between reality and its narrative image, ←42 | 43→although it is strictly correlated with it. In this objectivising, positivistic, or normative take of a social reality – even if its image emerges from the accounts of its participants – there is little (if any) room left for acquainting the reader with the accounts of people who contributed to that reality: who brought it into being, participated in its various dimensions, interpreted it, and accorded senses and meanings to it. If the perspective of the social actors – as sociologists sometimes call the individuals involved – is taken into account in these works, then it is done mainly with an illustrative purpose, if not an explicitly decorative one, to strengthen the scholarly arguments of the expert researcher and to make the study easier and more pleasant to read.

Fortunately, a parallel current is flowing through the social sciences which allows these social actors to speak and, moreover, for their voices to form the basis for any further analyses. The uniqueness of this current is its mediatory status, which is often strongly emphasised: we have no access to the social reality other than through the meanings given to this reality by its actors.

This qualitative and interpretative current has a strong tradition in Polish sociology, while, in turn, it makes copious references to Polish sociology and, especially, the work of Florian Znaniecki and his humanistic coefficient concept. Nonetheless, this current is not limited to sociological tradition but is today also superbly represented in areas such as biographical studies. These studies – as if naturally, by the power of history – often refer to wartime experiences, in particular, the extreme experiences of those who survived the Holocaust. The studies of Małgorzata Melchior and Barbara Engelking are particularly important examples of this research current.

However, within the interpretative approach, there has been no observant, close-up focus on the experience of imprisonment in concentration camps. The immensity of Lager-related literature, including scholarly studies such as the representative examples I have mentioned, along with the hundreds of published volumes of memoirs (as well as analyses of these memoirs as historical sources or literary texts40), appear to have long ago exhausted the matter. Its overuse, if not ←43 | 44→wear-and-tear, in Polish historiography before 1989 is also a contributing factor. It is no surprise, therefore, that other subjects (and other biographies) – particularly the ‘neglected’ ones, of which there were quite a number before 1989 – now tend more strongly to attract the attention of researchers who apply a qualitative/ interpretative approach.

Nonetheless, I would like to do justice to the study by Alicja Rokuszewska-Pawełek, Chaos iprzymus. Trajektorie wojenne Polaków – analiza biograficzna [‘Chaos and coercion. The wartime trajectories of Poles: a biographical analysis’], to which I have already referred several times. In her analysis of various wartime trajectories, this author takes account of the camp experience of necessity. However, in a study wherein one half consists of theoretical considerations and the empirical section of which covers a number of diverse Occupation-time experiences, she was able to dedicate only a few pages to it (about 15, out of 200 pages), remarking only on its major traits. Her general conclusions are based on just three biographical interviews with former inmates.

Similarly, Barbara Engelking’s Holocaust and Memory, a book about Shoah survivors, merely touches upon the camp experience, although it was shared by as many as six of the twenty-two of her interviewees. Hers is a considered and well-grounded research strategy:

The third model of wartime experience that I have distinguished is that of the concentration camp. Even though this theme is probably the best-known and interpreted exemplum of totalitarianism, it remains one of the greatest intellectual challenges of our century.

I will not discuss the issue of camps in detail. This problem is outside of my areas of interest, and this for several reasons – one being the fact that it has already been profoundly recognised and described. I have not asked my Interlocutors (those who had been there) to describe in a detailed manner their experiences in the concentration camps.41

Krzysztof Konecki’s important article Jaźń w totalnej instytucji obozu koncentracyjnego [‘The self in the totalitarian institution of concentration camp’]42 should be mentioned here. This important essay describes camp experiences using the categories proposed by Goffman, particularly in his essays on totalitarian institutions published in Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. The author points to a few important features that distinguish the camp experience from the experience of other totalitarian institutions. The singularity of the camp is emphasised very strongly: “In his concept of totalitarian institutions, E. Goffman loses the ‘unique specificity’ of existence of the self in concentration camp institutions. According to Goffman, the various totalitarian ←44 | 45→institutions, for instance, monasteries and prisons, offer similar interactive patterns. Our present argument for the ‘unique specificity’ of the existence of the self concerns each particular totalitarian institution”. Konecki dwells on what has completely escaped Goffman’s notice: an analysis of the situation of transference from one camp to another. Unfortunately, this essay has remained an initial effort; neither its author nor any other author has undertaken to follow it up and add to it. All the same, it offers a significant approach by qualitative sociology (in its symbolist-interactionist version) to the concentration camp reality, one that proposes a completely different view on the issue, when compared to the version dominant in the studies of Pawełczyńska or Frankowski. This perspective is close to my own, and is an important inspiration for me. Yet, there is one important point where my epistemological assumptions divert from those taken by Konecki.

The source material used for the present analyses consists of memoirs of concentration camp prisoners, published in this country. … The memoirs, as the source for our present analyses, have been accepted without much objection, as far as the veracity of the facts they contain is concerned. The concrete facts, occurrences, situations are of interest to us owing not to their ‘historical authenticity’ but in terms of typicality, that is, repeatability, of certain strategies of action as shown in a number of memoirist accounts. The repeatability of certain strategies of action may testify to their social significance.43

The basic difference does not lie in the fact that Konecki analyses memoirs (or rather, quotes and uses them to illustrate his argument) whereas I am concerned with oral narratives. The point is that Konecki is not interested in story-constructing processes, narrative strategies, ways of presenting things or – quite obviously, since his argument is based on published memories – the interaction inherent in the interview/account/testimony process. The texts he analyses refer him directly to the kacet’s social reality as mirrored in the selves of the inmates. “In presenting the typical techniques of an individual’s operation, this article shows the ways in which the ‘rank-and-file’ concentration-camp prisoner negotiated his self-concepts.” Contrary to Konecki, I attempt to recognise and take into account at least some of the filters separating me (and my Interviewees) from the ‘there-and-then’ of the camp. This important difference is probably also rooted in the fact I have been strongly personally involved in making the recordings of the narratives (or, evoking the sources, in the terminology of historians). My intense memory of my own participation in the interviews, understood as interaction, and, thereby, of my own contribution to the stories, focuses my attention also on the construction processes neglected by Konecki.


In addition to these works, Antoni Kępiński’s essays on camp issues, first published as articles in the medical journal Przegląd Lekarski and elsewhere and then ←45 | 46→collected and edited as Rytm życia (several reprints; last ed.: Kraków, 2007) and Refleksje oświęcimskie (Kraków, 2005), hold a special position. A psychiatrist by profession, Kępiński had been a prisoner at a little-known concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro in Spain, modelled after the Nazi KZs. This is a little-known fact, as he rarely mentioned it. Still, his works on the subject are neither highly specialised medical studies nor the personal recollections of a survivor. They are, rather, essays written by a humanist who, disregarding the conventional borders of scholarly disciplines, touches upon philosophical, anthropological, sociological, ethical and – as we might expect – psychological and psychiatric problems related to the functioning of camps. What he proposes is not really a reflection on the concentration camp but on the situation of the ‘man thrown into the camp’, and his internal and external experience there; his camp ‘hell’ as well as ‘heaven’ (both metaphors were used by Kępiński). And, on the deep effects of this experience, which are again seen as manifold and human: psychiatric, psychological, social, … .

Some of the best-known studies by Kępiński are on the ‘KZ syndrome’, which he approached as a separate disease. He initiated research into this area, which was continued by Krakow-based psychiatrists and other specialists for a number of years. Their studies have made a major contribution to the annual special edition of the journal Przegląd Lekarski, titled Oświęcim and published between 1962 and 1991 (with thirty-one volumes in total). Examinations of former Auschwitz inmates, along with personal meetings with them, formed the basis for the interdisciplinary studies.

Along with Pawełczyńska’s study, Kępiński’s publications, hard to classify unambiguously, are, in a sense, the classic works of Polish scholarly literature on KZ issues. They have also been an important inspiration for me in writing this book. Not so much on the level of detailed analysis but, rather, as a way of seeing the camp experiences of survivors, and the related interpretative direction they offer. Instead, therefore, of individual footnotes referring to specific works by Kępiński, let me quote just a single fragment, which sets the direction for my work.

He who entered the camp had to be destroyed and had to cease being the person he had been before then. He became a number, but then took on some tiny function in that enormous camp apparatus. It seems to me that, in a sense, everybody was a functional prisoner, even if one’s activities were confined to tidying the camp, moving the stones, he still performed some function in the camp, was included in its total apparatus. I do not consider that a sharp distinction between the ‘functional’ and ‘non-functional’ is correct.44


If my observation that there is no in-depth interpretive study on the concentration camp experience is legitimate, then, with the research material at my disposal, ←46 | 47→I should make the effort to fill the gap. However, a difficult question immediately arises, one that it apparent to any qualitative researcher: How is it to be done? This question appears particularly acute to those researchers who, like me, work alone. How to cope with the thousands of pieces of paper with the transcribed texts of interviews? And how, later, to master the dozens of hours of audio and video recordings which, for me, are the actual research material, the transcriptions merely being guides to them?

It seems that Hanna Palska is right in calling the categories of humanistic coefficient and qualitative analysis of content, so willingly evoked by qualitative sociologists, the key notions and spells which we do not, however, find quite so helpful for resolving ‘methodological uncertainty’. This task we have to handle on our own, “each time defining our own procedures of text interpretation and seeking a strong theoretical basis, as is done in many cases”. If these proposed solutions are not quite applicable, or it is not certain that they (these particular solutions) should be applied, we have no alternative but to define our own path between the extremes: a postmodernist methodological anarchism, on the one hand, and the rigorousness and formalism of certain concepts classed as symbolic interactionism.45

This methodological self-determination is not exclusively a rational choice. It is something more, at least on certain occasions: a research intuition, which is hard to name precisely. This is especially so when the researcher who has contributed to the material – having entered into direct, subjective relationships with the individuals being studied – is also the one who interprets the empirical material he or she has collected. This is my situation. To deal later with interview transcripts and, subsequently, fragments of them, may facilitate finding a solution to the ‘problem’ and gaining the necessary distance. Yet, the ‘problem’ is a stubbornly recurring one – each time we hear the voice of our interlocutors (and our own voice) recorded on an audiotape or CD. This reappearance is even more powerful when we can see their faces on video or DVD. As Daniel Bertaux, the sophisticated biographical researcher, says: “When [the sociologist] has a say in the selection of method, the decision will depend more on deep inclinations rather than rational considerations. And this is very good, for in order to execute decent research work, you should first be willing to do so. Passion is the engine of discovery.”46

If I had studied the history of the concentration camp of Mauthausen, or written a sociological analysis of the KZ as an external, closed and distant reality – as Anna Pawełczyńska once excellently did, her imitators having been much less excellent – I would probably have found it easier to escape the state of ‘methodological ←47 | 48→uncertainty’; provided, that is, that I had experienced it. Conceivably, I would have found any methodological issues so transparent that I would not have paid the slightest attention to them. But this is not the case; my perspective is different. Not only do I take into consideration the interpretations of the persons being examined but I actually place these interpretations at the centre of my investigation. And it is only through them, to the extent that it is feasible, that I endeavour to perceive the reality of my Interlocutors’ experiences. I do believe this reality exists. I do not believe it might be attainable outside of their interpretation. These interpretations are not offered to me directly but through the language, in the interview situation, through interaction.

When referring to the metaphysics of presence, Norman Denzin states that there is no clean window through which one might see into a man’s internal life, as our vision is always filtered by the language, signs, and meaning-giving processes. Language, be it written or oral, always proves unstable, open-ended, built from traces of other signs, of symbols (this being particularly true for its oral form). Having noticed this, Denzin immediately emphasises his attachment to the position whereby interpretative sociologists and anthropologists research into real people who have real-life experiences in a social world.47 Denzin further adds that the central demand in the biographical method (and in his own book) is the assumption that a real person exists ‘somewhere out there, outside’, and lives his or her real life. Such a real individual was once born and might now be dead, but they have left a trace in the lives of other people, and may have deeply felt and experienced human emotions: shame, love, hatred, anger, despair. This sensing, thinking, breathing person stands at the centre of the biographical method.48

The interviews I have recorded are narrative and biographical. It is important to me that both these traits do not disappear from my interpretations and analyses, and that they are always placed at their centre. How is this achieved? This is not an easy task at all. When discussing his research experience during a large oral history project which resulted, among many other things, in his important book The Edwardians, based on 100 (of 450) interviews, Paul Thompson speaks of the conflict the researcher is faced with. He calls it a conflict between cross-analysis and entire stories. “Once you knew a whole interview, somehow you wanted to have that whole person there [in the text], that you always feel”.49 He extricated himself from this by inserting in the book, which was meant to tell the social history of England in the Edwardian period, analyses of entire biographical accounts, quoting from them extensively. He included, moreover, analyses of a few portraits of his interviewees and their families. In his best known study, The Voice of the Past, ←48 | 49→Thompson discerns four basic methods for interpreting the recorded interviews: (i) presenting a single biographical story and analysing it in a broader historical and social context; (ii) presenting a collection of stories and grouping them around specified topics. As an excellent example of this approach, Thompson mentions Oscar Lewis’s study The Children of Sanchez, in which juxtaposed narratives of parents and children from one family help build a multidimensional picture; (iii) narrative analysis, extending in most cases to a single interview or, in some cases, a group of interviews. The researcher focuses on the interview/account (narrative) itself, as a spoken text, the language, subjects touched upon, repetitions, concealments, silence; the focus is on what the narrator has experienced, remembered, and how they have recounted it. This analysis rarely aims at showing a typicality of the narrator or their experiences; (iv) reconstructing cross-analysis, approaching oral accounts as the basis for constructing an argument on the patterns of behaviours, developments, and processes in the past. Thompson also remarks that it is possible within one book to merge his own expanded analyses with a presentation of fuller biographical stories.50 The Edwardians is an example of such a combination, after all.

Thompson’s third option is the one closest to my own approach (although I come to it through the fourth). Approaching the biographical story as a narrative rather than a reconstruction best harmonises with this approach. This is an initial self-determination, worth developing and complementing. All the more so given that Thompson’s argument is devised as an introduction and incentive to use oral history narratives for historians, rather than sociologists.51

The narrative approach to biographical accounts is a common term used for various interpretive practices. These include traditional literary criticism and thoughts on autobiography as a literary genre, which shed light on the interrelations between the form and the content of the story; between the way the narrative is built and its actual content. Alessandro Portelli, the classic author of oral history quoted by Thompson and who tends toward a more interpretative current, states outright that oral accounts not only comprise a variety of literary genres but themselves constitute a separate genre which we should comprehend: “The life story as a full, coherent oral narrative does not exist in nature; it is a synthetic product of social science—but no less precious for that.”52 This offers an important complement to Philippe Lejeune’s studies on the various genres and forms of autobiography. Luisa Passerini’s studies, analysing interviews with workers of the Fiat factory in Turin, offer her own literary specialist – or, more specifically, ‘genre specialist’ – considerations. Comparing the various autobiographical (and biographical) narratives of a single individual, which have been compiled at different times and under different circumstances, is an interesting variation of such an analysis. ←49 | 50→The study entitled Sprechen als Last und Befreiung by Friedrich Boll, a professor of modern history at the University of Bonn, is a good example of this kind of study.53

In qualitative sociology, an interpretative – or, narrative – approach to biographical accounts is represented by scholars such as Fritz Schütze, Catherine Riessman, and Gabriele Rosenthal. In criticising this biographical research current, Daniel Bertaux calls it a ‘narrativist current’ and sets it against his own, realistic approach, which, to his mind, is predominant among French scholars, who tend to focus on the socio-historical and macro-social reality that exists independently of the subjects being investigated. Negating these charges, G. Rosenthal emphasises that subjective meanings are not purely individual and psychological but are always socially constituted and form part of the constitution of the social universe – the fact Bertaux neglects, in Rosenthal’s opinion.54

Although I am more sympathetic to the German than the French school, I feel such a strong contraposition of the two stances is overly exaggerated. Paul Thompson presents a less strict juxtaposition. This representative of the realistic approach (which he prefers to describe as ‘reconstructive’55) admits that he has many constructivist inspirations, which have modified his positivist stance although he has never wavered from it. This evolution can be seen in the three consecutive editions of his The Voice of the Past; particularly conspicuous is the difference between the first edition of 1978 and the second edition, which came out ten years later. It can immediately be seen in the Table of Contents, where there is an extensive chapter on ‘Memory and the Self’, on memory and identity. The third edition discusses at much more length the various narrativist approaches. Thompson is perfectly aware of how he has developed.56

←50 | 51→

I agree with a number of the assumptions of symbolic interactionism, and make use of the analytical categories elaborated along the lines of this approach, finding especially useful those proposed by Fritz Schütze’s biographistic sociology. I also conduct narrative interviews in a manner that is close to what this method proposes. Having said this, I find myself unable to completely follow the direction it suggests. The main reason is that the consecutive, increasingly formalised and complicated steps of the analytical procedure, based on a well-established theory, call for an intense group effort. It is impossible to individually and within a reasonable timeframe analyse several dozen biographical interviews and bring the analysis to a conclusion – one where a theoretical model of the phenomenon under examination, or models explaining its development, are constructed.57

However, it is not the excess of the amassed material that discourages me from consistently applying this analytical procedure in its entirety. I am not quite convinced that such an intense effort is necessary (there is no doubt about its being intense). I believe that comparable conclusions are attainable without applying such formalised procedures. Clearly, however, such ‘softer’ methods are less resistant to scholarly criticism, and less subject to sound and reliable verification. This is not to say that they are to be excluded, although I am not willing to abandon interactionist references.

Paul Thompson, whom I have referred to many times thus far, has not joined this current but remains open to its influence. He summarises his presentation of the various methods of narrative analysis thus:

Despite the variety of forms of narrative analysis, ranging from the literary to the sociological, from the formal to the poetic, from the inclusion to the exclusion of the interviewer, some possible to combine and others incompatible, they have one crucial quality in common. They force the reader to slow down and look closely at both the whole text and its details, its images, forms of language, themes, its manifest and latent meanings. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest strength of narrative analysis, whatever its precise form, is to encourage an acuter and more sensitive listening.58

I consider this view sober, distanced, and wise. I would like my own analytical effort to be an example of such acute and sensitive listening, looking and reading – one where, following Denzin’s recommendation, the meaning and/or sense will take primacy before the method, and, moreover, the meaning/sense and the method become one.59 Such an analysis would not necessarily lead to building or verifying any specific theory. But, it does not have to set such a purpose for itself. Biographical studies can assume other forms as well. Apart from a comparative analysis of life stories, the purpose of which is to elaborate an established ←51 | 52→theory, Denzin identifies two other purposes: “(i) researching into narratives of a single life history; (ii) collecting life stories grouped around shared themes”.60 Fritz Schütze also emphasises the possibility and the sense of presenting such typical biographies, on the grounds of his own analytical concept.61 Schütze is not narrow-minded: he allows for open-ended, incomplete, and selective use of the analytical procedures he proposes.

As part of his own approach, which he himself calls ‘ethnosociology’, Daniel Bertaux opts for biographical research based upon a ‘saturated’ set of (auto)biographies rather than individual cases. At the same time, he focuses on such instances, making a number of references to Oscar Lewis’s study (which he uses as a model):

First and foremost, once you have taken the trouble, you can find a whole repository of thoughts in autobiographical statements. What I naturally mean is the bright ‘strokes’ against the dark background of narration. Nonetheless, it often happens that, with such strokes as the point of departure, a sociological treatise is built. It can afterwards be elaborated in not a single way but in at least two ways. The first and classic way consists in assimilating such strokes and translating them into the language of sociology, thus blurring their origin; the researcher remains the only one to know where they have drawn their ideas from. The other way, more rarely frequented, consists, in contrast, in elaborating the entire narrative, the form of a story (the concrete pieces of the content must remain intact), so as to highlight the new pieces of information concerning the social phenomena. The interaction with the interviewee can provide the opportunity.

He quickly adds,

Why resort to such evasions, if one could write a regular tract? The simple answer is, due to the specific powerfulness of autobiographical story. … Finally, an autobiography is a whole, which any sociological treatise focused on a given milieu ought to be.62

Interestingly, Denzin also refers to Oscar Lewis, and classifies his classic The children of Sanchez as one of the varieties of the interpretive format in biographical studies, describing this variety as ‘from the subject point of view’. The other two interpretive approaches, in his concept, are: the sociological, psychological, anthropological interpretation of subject-produced autobiographies (without the researcher’s contribution); and making sense of an individual’s life. It is within this latter approach that he situates his own research on Alcoholics Anonymous. Denzin sets these interpretive ways against various objectivising approaches. Interestingly, he includes in the latter category both Bertaux’s ‘ethnosociology’ and ‘objective ←52 | 53→hermeneutics’ with its various versions (Oevermann’s and Schütze’s), although noting the specificities of each.63

Thus, modern qualitative sociology does offer theoretical support for an analysis of individual autobiographies – particularly those resulting from the unrestrained narrative work of the individuals being researched. It is no longer necessary to refer each time to the autobiographies of Władek Wiśniewski or Władek Berkan, as included by Znaniecki and Thomas in their pioneering study and thereby introduced into the sociological literature. It is perhaps enough to note, particularly in the context of the earlier considerations of oral history and of archiving and reanalysing qualitative data, that these classic authors in the field of biographical research in sociology have preserved the integrity of their biographical data, whilst the authors of the texts they analysed are known by their names.64


At this point, let us pass on to the concrete thing, closer to my research of the oral autobiographical narratives of former Nazi concentration camp prisoners. As has been said, Poland has, on the one hand, an enormous number of written recollections of survivors, published and unpublished and, on the other, a few sociological (or, more broadly, social science) analyses of the kacet universe. In-depth studies of concrete stories and specific cases are absent. By this I mean sociological or anthropological studies in which we could read their own meanings and which would build their own interpretations, going beyond an approach that sees them as (rather poor-quality) historical sources or even literary texts.

Mention should be made of two studies by foreign authors who have endeavoured to follow such a path. These are obviously not the only examples, but they are of special importance and inspiration to me. Each of these studies has a different way of approaching the single autobiographical account by the social researcher. One of the accounts is by Margareta Glas-Larsson, Ich will reden. Tragik und Banalität des Überlebens in Theresienstadt und Auschwitz, edited and with commentary by Gerhard Botz.65 The first section, some 130-pages long, is Margareta’s autobiographical story, as tape-recorded during a very long multi-session interview, transcribed and edited, and with the specific traits of the spoken language being maintained. Margareta, the narrator, was an inmate of Terezin and then of Auschwitz-Birkenau and her name appears on the cover as the author’s name. The ←53 | 54→following sixty pages are filled with extensive footnotes: the historian’s reliable effort. In the next section, the third, titled Survival in the Holocaust, Gerhard Botz writes about the purposes and internal structure of the camp, the specificity of social relations at the women’s hospital where Margareta worked, the socialisation and adaptation which facilitated survival, and the psychosocial mechanisms of the transformation of the former inmates’ memories. All these analyses refer to the survivor’s story throughout. While Gerhard Botz is a historian, his analysis freely crosses the limits of his discipline, particularly the borderline with sociology. It cannot be otherwise, since he follows his interlocutor’s voice, never using her narration as a source of quotations or footnotes to his own argument.

The other source of my inspiration – which is even more important for me, as it is closer to my own research perspective – is Michael Pollak’s Die Grenzen des Sagbaren: Lebensgeschichte von KZ-Überlebenden als Augenzeugenberichte und als Indentitätsarbeit66, from which I have already quoted. Its first part in particular deserves close attention. It contains an analysis of a single, one-hour-long interview the author made with Ruth A. (so named throughout), a Berlin Jewess and former Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner. The recording, done as part of an oral history project, was analysed by a professional sociologist. But what kind of analysis was applied? ‘Open-ended’ is its simplest description. Pollak avoids getting attached to, or identified with, a single method, theory, or methodological concept; his perception of oral history utilises a combination of microsociology, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories. He names his major inspirations, whilst not seeing this self-definition as binding. Referring once again to Denzin’s conceptualisation, it can be said that Pollak gives primacy to the meaning, rather than method. In contrast with Botz, Pollak interprets his interviewee’s narrative, incessantly intertwining the text of the interview with his own argument. The interview and its interpretation are mutually combined in a process of constant reciprocal reference, within which research hypotheses are built and tested. There is room to refer to the emotion generated by the interview situation as an exchange and interaction. As Pollak emphasises, rather than being about separating the researcher’s subjectivity from the generalisations he formulates, an interpretation of the biographical account sheds light, as far as possible, on the entire research process, in all its complexity. Thus, the reader is encouraged to take a closer look at the process and its associated transformation of the subject researched (interviewee) and the researcher in their mutual interaction, and to join the process and continue it.67 It should be added that the interviewee’s account/story, the narrative heard by the researcher/interviewer, and the story ←54 | 55→read by the reader (being the subsequent researcher in this concept) are each time a different story/narrative.68

These declarations are attested to by the empirical parts of Pollak’s study, where the biographical interview recorded by the author is analysed. The analysis begins with the author evoking his first contact with his interlocutor and the process of building mutual trust. It is emphasised that the precondition for the success of this biographical interview was that it was not only he who selected the individual to be researched, as he was selected by her too, when she decided to entrust her story to him.69 This apparently obvious statement is certainly worth noting as it strongly underlines the subject status of both partners to the interview situation: stronger even than vague declarations and exhortations to respect subjectivity, as often seen in qualitative research.

Michael Pollak’s analysis of the single biographical account is a sociological analysis. What he looks for primarily in his interviewee’s narrative is the supra-individual, the socially constituted – on the level of narrative, memory, identity, as well as the individual’s biographical experiences: the ones she evokes and the ones she neglects. Moments of silence are not simplistically interpreted as forgetfulness: they signify an inability to utter things unutterable rather than oblivion. The author attempts to recognise the border between the expressible and the inexpressible.70

The second part of Pollak’s book (each part could be treated as a separate study) compares the various forms of autobiographical statements made by former KZ inmates. Subject to careful analysis here are: court testimonies the former inmates made as witnesses; statements made for historical committees; sociographic research; oral biographical stories collected as part of oral history projects; and written and published autobiographies. The last two varieties of narrative are covered at length, as they are approached as the best and the richest sources for social studies. They best express the memory and identity of the narrators, their autonomy, and their group/ social affiliation. And, especially if they are unstructured biographical accounts, they serve as the best guides to the camp experience, offering insight into the processes of adapting to life in a totalitarian institution and also beyond, with the burden of its memory.

Pollak’s analysis extends to a variety of narrative forms, various ways of constructing the story. However, these ‘narratological’ analyses enable him to tell us something important not only about the narratives as such, but also about the social worlds, or universes, their authors are set within. Pollak shows how autobiographical research can wisely combine interpretive inspiration with normative or realistic inspiration (the German and the French school, following Bertaux).71 ←55 | 56→Although intentional, the combination avoids abusing such labels, or becoming attached to them. As he wrote, the structures and styles of autobiographical narratives refer one not just to the story-telling person but to the group(s) he or she belongs to. The typical is researchable and identifiable through the individual. Typical female narratives are discernible from typically male ones, stories told by members of the lower social classes are generally different from those given by members of the upper class. One can search for what is typical about the accounts of members of a single social group – political, religious, or cultural. Such typical, social elements are immanent and recognisable in any story, although stories are not reducible to this dimension only. Conversely, an individual narrative can be recognised as recounting the fate of a group for which it appears typical, if not representative (although not in a statistical sense).72

Let these considerations of Michael Pollak act as forerunners to my own typologies.

31 Qualitative data and their collecting techniques do not yet constitute a paradigm. The paradigm is primarily based upon the philosophical assumptions concerning social reality. Cf. K. Konecki, Studia z metodologii badań jakościowych. Teoria ugruntowana, Warszawa, 2000, pp. 16–23.

32 Characteristically, Anna Pawełczyńska has never published her camp recollections. Fragments of the ‘records’ made in the first months after her return to her home town of Pruszków in 1945 were published only in 2003 (‘Wieniec z kolczastego drutu’, Pro Memoria, no. 17/18).

33 A. Pawełczyńska, Wartości a przemoc. Zarys socjologicznej problematyki Oświęcimia, Lublin, 2004, p. 9.

34 In the German literature, the classical sociological study dealing with the reality of Nazi concentration camps – based, for once, mainly on accounts of former inmates – is: W. Sofsky, Die Ordnung des Terrors: Das Konzentrationslager. Published in 1993 and awarded the prestigious Geschwister-Scholl-Preis, this book has been reprinted several times since.

35 This study was republished in 2003, with minor supplements and a new historical chapter on the structure of Nazi camps in Polish lands, under the title Ludzie i bestie. Socjologiczne stadium mikrostruktur społecznych niemieckiego obozu koncentracyjnego [‘Humans and beasts. A sociological study of social microstructures of German concentration camp’]. Only the first part of the title is featured on the cover, most probably for marketing reasons. Two photographs of a camp ramp have been included.

36 M.T. Frankowski, Socjologiczne aspekty funkcjonowania hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych 1939-1945, Warszawa, 1996, p. 6.

37 K. Godorowski, Psychologia i psychopatia hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych. Próba analizy postaw i zachowań w warunkach ekstremalnych obciążeń, Warszawa, 1985, p. 12.

38 Ibidem, p. 14.

39 J. Topolski, Wprowadzenie do historii, Poznań, 2006, pp. 11–12.

40 Worth noting here is a Master’s thesis by B. Krupa, Wspomnienia obozowe jako specyficzna odmiana pisarstwa historycznego [‘Concentration-camp memoirs as a specific variety of historical penmanship’], Kraków, 2006. It analyses Auschwitz memoirs published in Poland, and challenges the criticism of sources, in its classical form, deeming it “helpless in face of camp memoirs” (p. 1.). Although the author speaks as a historian (if my understanding is correct), it is the literary narrative, rather than the world outside it, that is central to his interests: “I am not particularly concerned when I see that certain facts of essence to a camp historian might be missing in this picture; of importance to me are the facts that inform the person writing. It is the author’s original experience of the camp, rather than a reality beyond the text, that is fundamental to me. … It hence follows that I should carefully considered, first of all, the narrative, rather than look for facts outside of it. In other words, what I am offering is a style of reading camp memoirs which is dissimilar to the one practiced so far.” (pp. 76–77).

41 B. Engelking, op. cit., pp. 58.

42 K. Konecki, ‘Jaźń w totalnej instytucji obozu koncentracyjnego’, Kultura i Społeczeństwo, 1985, no. 3.

43 Ibidem.

44 Quoted after: ‘Więźniowie funkcyjni w hitlerowskich obozach koncentracyjnych (Dyskusja)’, Przegląd Lekarski, 1968, no. 1, p. 257.

45 Cf. H. Palska, Bieda i dostatek. O nowych stylach życia w Polsce końca lat dziewięćdziesiątych, Warszawa, 2002, pp. 37–40.

46 Translated after the Polish version: D. Bertaux, ‘Funkcje wypowiedzi autobiograficznych w procesie badawczym’, in J. Włodarek, M. Ziółkowski (eds.), Metoda biograficzna w socjologii, Warszawa – Poznań, 1990, p. 71.

47 N.K. Denzin, Interpretive biography, Newbury Park – London – New Delhi, 1989, p. 14. 48 Ibidem, p. 22.

49 P. Thompson, Life story interview with Karen Worcman, June 1996; available at: http://

50 Cf. P. Thompson, The Voice of the Past, Oxford, 2000, pp. 269–271.

51 Ibidem.

52 Quoted after: ibidem, p. 276.

53 F. Boll, Sprechen als Last und Befreiung. Holocaust-Überlebende und politisch Verfolgte zweier Diktaturen. Ein Beitrag zur deutsch-deutschen Erinnerungskultur, Bonn, 2003. Of particular interest is Part 3, Chapter 2, which analyses the impact of the ‘spirit of the time’ on the content of various autobiographical works by Ludwig Gehm (including his post-war biography published after World War II, documentary footage from the 1980s, accounts from an earlier period, and an interview with Professor Boll). Before the war, Gehm was a Social Democrat activist and member of the anti-Nazi resistance. Imprisoned from 1936, he was kept, for example, in Buchenwald, then enlisted in the Wehrmacht, which he deserted to join the Greek partisans fighting against the Germans. After the war, he spent some time at a British camp in North Africa and, once back in Germany, became active again with the Social Democrat Party (SPD) in Frankfurt. The study excellently shows how the social contexts informed the content of an autobiography that was created and compiled in a defined historical moment, specific political situation, etc.

54 For an exhaustive discussion, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 40–43.

55 P. Thompson, The Voice …, p. 286.

56 P. Thompson, Life story …; also, see the introductions to the consecutive editions of his The Voice of the Past (all reprinted in the most recent edition, 2000).

57 A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., p. 61.

58 P. Thompson, The Voice …, p. 286.

59 N.K. Denzin, Reinterpretacja …, p. 55–58.

60 Ibidem, p. 67.

61 After I.K. Helling, ‘Metoda badań biograficznych’, in Metoda biograficzna …, p. 31.

62 Translated after the Polish version: D. Bertaux, op. cit., pp. 80–81.

63 N.K. Denzin, Interpretive Biography, pp. 53–59. For an exhaustive, and polemical, presentation of this classification in the Polish literature, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 28–43.

64 For more on this subject, see: E. Hałas, ‘Biografia a orientacja symbolicznego interakcjonizmu’, in Metoda biograficzna …, p. 206.

65 M. Glas-Larsson, Ich will reden. Tragik und Banalität des Überlebens in Theresienstadt und Auschwitz, Wien, 1981. I have used the English edition: I Want to Speak. The Tragedy and Banality of Survival in Terezin and Auschwitz, transl. by L.A. Bangerter, Riverside, 1991.

66 M. Pollak, op. cit. The German-language edition contains texts originally published in French, revised, much extended and combined, for the first time in this form.

67 Ibidem, pp. 7–8.

68 N.K. Denzin, Interpretive Biography, p. 77.

69 M. Pollak, op. cit., p. 18.

70 Ibidem, pp. 89 ff.

71 This is not just a figurative statement. Michael Pollak was born in 1948 in Vienna. He studied sociology in Linz and then, at the encouragement of Pierre Bourdieu, with whom he corresponded and later collaborated, moved to Paris in 1975 to work at the École pratique des hautes études and subsequently at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He maintained intensive scholarly contacts with Austria, particularly with sociologists and social historians at the Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institut für Historische Sozialwissenschaft. He acted as an important (two-way) intermediary between Austrian and French researchers. He spent the final years of his scholarly activity researching into the social effects of AIDS, the disease that caused his premature death in 1992.

72 Cf. M. Pollak, op. cit., p. 8.