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Movement and memory: an email exchange with Henry Greenspan and Tim Cole, Part 1

Regular readers of this blog will be more than familiar with the work of both Tim Cole and Henry Greenspan. Their work offers new and powerful ways of understanding the role of space and time in oral history process and production. Below is the first part of their exchange, in which they discuss the importance of spatial and temporal positioning, as well as their own methodological approaches. Come back to the blog in two weeks for the exciting conclusion to the dialogue, and add your voice in the comments below.

Setting the Stage

Henry Greenspan: It is a pleasure to blog with Tim Cole whose work I much appreciate.

I would like to raise a form of “spatial positioning” with Holocaust survivors (really with anyone) that is different than the kind of positioning and re-positioning within survivor narratives that Tim has emphasized, as well as the spatial context (often defined by distance from/proximity to memory sites) in which survivors recount. This is the space that survivors choose, and partly create, for their recounting.

From the beginning, it was very important in my own work to allow survivors—as much as possible—to “set the stage” for our interviews. This could mean everything from where, in general, we met, to what room in their home, to what was on the walls or coffee table, to who else was around, to whether the door was open, and more. Reflecting my training as a psychodynamic psychotherapist, I assumed that such “staging” was itself an intrinsic part of survivors’ recounting; that is, part of their performing their account—similar to shifting textures of voice, body positioning, and other physical movements. While it typically takes time to understand the significance of these dimensions, I assumed they were potentially as informing as verbal content. My own multiple interview approach (versus single “testimonies”) made it at least more likely there would be the time required.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of “testimony” projects—which make up most of the survivor accounts that we have—exclude these dimensions. In virtually all projects, the almost always one-time interviews take place in survivors’ homes or in a recording studio—there are rarely other options. The demands of video recording inherently restrict movement; few survivors feel free to move around while they are being “filmed.” Similarly, the frame of a video recording—typically, a head shot, sometimes a bit wider—limits what is later viewable and, in most cases, limits survivors’ actual movement within the interview.

As a single example, Victor, the Treblinka survivor about whom I wrote for the OHR blog last May, was insistent on meeting neither in his home nor any kind of studio. Rather, he chose a room in a local community center that was, in essence, a kind of secret space. Over the 18 months we met—more than a dozen interviews—he never told his family or anyone else about our work—a secret confirmed years later when I contacted his son who did not know of the interviews. While Victor agreed to be audio recorded, a video camera would have been anathema (not that one was available in the late 1970s when our interviews began).

It became clear early on that the staging Victor chose complemented the content of his recounting. Both his Holocaust memories and his retelling of his life more generally were structured by themes of secrets kept and unmasked, confidences maintained and violated, reverence sustained or desecrated. At different moments in his retelling, he was both the perpetrator and victim of unmasking. So was I. He tested my trustworthiness throughout our first year of meetings.

As confidence grew, he physically enacted how he concealed himself in darkness—during the Holocaust and after—so he could catch intruders before they caught him. He showed me (a la Godfather) where he sits in rooms so that he sees who is entering before they see him. He described these strategies of concealment as what he had learned as a self-styled “military man” before, during, and since the Holocaust. Sharing these secrets and tactics with me, he also shared much more about his life in general. His memories of himself as an “ardent lover” that I wrote about here last spring depended on the sustained acquaintance and working relationship that we established.

None of this would have been possible within the procedures and structuring formats of the large survivor video-testimony collections, in which Victor would not have participated in any case. We learn, I think, that “survivor testimony” as generally gathered and constructed is a particular door to a particular place—far more inherently selective of who retells, as well as how and what is retold (which are inseparable), than we generally suppose.

Individuals choose where to place themselves in both the pasts that they retell, as well as where they choose to place themselves in the present moment of retelling.

Getting into Position

Tim Cole: It is great to have a chance to dialogue with Henry through the medium of the OHR blog. Henry is someone who has made us think hard about oral history in general and oral histories co-produced with survivors in particular, and his reflections come from decades of careful and critical listening.

Henry’s comments are striking in bringing the spatiality of the process—and not simply the narrative or “product”—to the fore. By focusing in on the space and place of the setting, Henry does something important in extending my thoughts in the article about the ways that we might approach oral history after the so-called “spatial turn.” I have tended to focus in on the product—the videoed interviews and textual transcripts that have been produced by the large survivor video-testimony projects that were particularly active in the United States in the 1990s. Thinking about a number of those products, I was struck by how survivors placed themselves and others in past time/past place as they retold difficult stories. What Henry rightly suggests we need to do is add another geography to the mix, and pay attention to the sites of retelling, not simply at the macro scale (as Hannah Pollin-Galay’s work does), but at the micro scale of where—in public or private space—a survivor chooses to talk.

Rather than seeing these as different forms of “spatial positioning,” I wonder if they are both part of something that we could do more thinking about in the field of oral history—the centrality of place and space both in the process of retelling and the product of that retelling. As they tell of past time/past place, individuals choose where to place themselves in both the pasts that they retell, as well as where they choose to place themselves in the present moment of retelling . Both are significant and consideration of both may help us access the kinds of meanings that make oral history so important.

As Henry makes clear, the form of much contemporary large-scale oral history collection practice limits the kinds of places where survivors retell. As he notes, fairly tight parameters around the process mean that the living room at home tends to be the micro space chosen for the survivor and a close head shot further restricts the space for retelling to an armchair in that living room. He is right, I think, to ask what we might be missing from those spatial choices that are made with a concern about the product.

But there is more to the potential problems of foregrounding the final product over process that again touches on space and place. Within many of the large-scale oral history collection programs, the practice is generally to limit interviews not only to a single interview—compared with Henry’s practice of multiple interviews—but also to a single interview that covers a whole life story in two to three hours. There are exceptions here. One of the stories I look at in the article draws on the interviews undertaken by Joan Ringelheim, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with the three Laks sisters. These interviews are unusually rich, and long—stretching to eight or nine hours, recorded over a few days—and reveal I think, the extraordinary skill of Joan as an insightful and probing questioner and a keen listener. But these kinds of interviews tend to be the exception rather than the rule in large-scale oral history collections.

The results of the constraints of time and space focused around an emphasis on the final product means that survivors rarely get to choose where they are interviewed and are also asked a linear set of questions that move through time and space in unidirectional ways. One thing that interests me about these interviews—and this is where, alongside undertaking oral history interviews myself, I am also very much interested in studying interviews undertaken by others—are the places where interviewers try to take their interviewees through their questioning and the places that interviewees are willing or want to go. One thing that I’ve seen time and time again, is almost a tussle between an interviewer keen to move on to this place or that—generally the next location on their list that runs ghetto then camp with an eye on the time—and an interviewee who keeps going back to this place or that, or dismisses the significance of the place they are being asked about with a perfunctory answer before heading somewhere they think of as more significant. There is an important internal geography to oral history interviews that has the potential to tell us much about the dynamic of the interview and also I think, the kinds of places and spaces that people go in their retelling of past time/past place.

Performing Space

Henry Greenspan: Tim’s good comments reminded me of one of the most provocative (and brilliant) moments in Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus. Trying to get a chronological account of his father’s (Vladek’s) Holocaust experiences, and increasingly frustrated by Vladek’s tangents to other times and places, Art finally explodes: “ENOUGH! TELL ME ABOUT AUSCHWITZ!”

Crafted as it is, there could hardly be a better representation of the “tussles” that Tim describes between devotion to testimonial “product” and the vicissitudes of actual “process.” It is part of the genius of Maus that so much of the messiness is included. Indeed, as students always say (cats and mice notwithstanding) that is what makes the “Holocaust part” of Maus “so real.” Vladek’s recounting is not disembodied “testimony” waiting only to be “elicited”—as one might “elicit” an egg from a chicken—but always immersed within the thick contexts of his past and present life circumstances, relationships, choices, and contesting choices.

In my work, I especially emphasize survivors’ choices in retelling because I believe they are so often overlooked. As I argued in a recent OHR article there is nothing (no matter how “traumatic”) that is inherently “unbearable,” “incommunicable,” or otherwise “untellable.” Rather, it depends on what particular survivors, with particular listeners, choose to attempt to convey, for whatever purposes and at whatever personal costs. Survivors are typically very self-conscious about such choices, although they are rarely asked about them. I have suggested that not knowing survivors’ own reflections about their retelling compromises the reliability of our interpretations, a topic to which we may return.

Here, I want to suggest that the very distinction between process and product in survivors’ retelling is itself very much a product of conventional “testimony” practices, and that the process/product distinction is not always obvious.

For example, one could “dissect out” a transcript of Vladek Spiegelman’s semi-chronological Holocaust retelling from all the rest that Maus presents. We would then have a testimonial product cleansed of tussles and tangents, multiple story lines and levels of reflection, and complex movement in time and space. We could archive and index that testimony extract in the ways that most survivor accounts are archived and indexed. But what would we actually have relative to what Maus conveys about Holocaust retelling and memory and—through that–about the Holocaust itself?

In my discussion of Victor, the “ardent lover,” for this blog, I emphasized that he did not simply “position himself” in an atypical space (relative to most contemporary testimony projects). He actively sought out that space and choreographed his recounting within it—including his performing the themes of secrets and unmasking by physically demonstrating ways he learned to outfox potential intruders—then and since. Taken alone, the “text” of his retelling—including what most video-testimonies frame and sanction–would be less than lyrics without music; that is, less than most of Victor’s ballet.

So also for a survivor who figures centrally in the work of my colleague, historian Ken Waltzer. This survivor refused to participate in any face-to-face interview. However, through a series of brief email exchanges (now well over 100), he and Ken—without fully realizing it—created an original space and medium for retelling that would not have otherwise existed. If one is genuinely interested in Holocaust memory, where does “process” stop and “product” begin in such an instance?

Of course, this man’s account, like Victor’s or Vladek Spiegelman’s, could be distilled for use as one historical source among many—essentially the way oral history was practiced years ago. But here new tussles emerge. That is because the majority of Holocaust survivors do not aspire to be generic “Holocaust sources” (although they may become deeply involved in a knowledgeable historian’s specific project for which they are directly recruited). Beyond that, survivors’ recounting—when not pushed to testimonial product—is often not primarily oral history (in the documentary sense) at all. Rather, Holocaust memory serves wider reflection: on the personal impact of such destruction, on faith in humanity or divinity, on the various challenges of retelling itself. When allowed, survivors’ accounts are thus as much “oral psychology,” “oral philosophy,” “oral theology,” or “oral narratology” as they are “oral history.” Leon, the survivor who articulated the reflection about recounting most often cited from my work—that he strove to “make a story” for what is “not a story”—called “mere factual recital” the least important aspect of his Holocaust retelling. Gathering “testimony” and actually listening to survivors are often very different things.

Refocusing the Narrative Spotlight

Tim Cole: Henry’s introduction of Maus into our conversation got me thinking about an important article that James E. Young wrote close to two decades ago calling historians to write what he dubbed “received histories” of the Holocaust, inspired in part by the multiple narratives told through word and image in Spiegelman’s “comix.” For Young, “received histories” are “double-stranded” narratives that mix “both what happened and how it is passed down to us.” “By restoring to the record the times and places, the social and political circumstances surrounding a story’s telling,” Young argues, “we might enlarge the text of history with its own coming into being.”

Re-reading Young, I was struck by his reference to the places of the story’s telling, given that this is something that Henry flagged early on in our conversation. As Henry suggested, those places tend to be chosen for, rather than by, interviewees and are almost entirely absent given the tight framing around head and shoulders of the interviewee. Also missing from this framing is the interviewer, and their reactions as they listen.

In his article, James Young was primarily interested in the process of historical writing and the importance of writing not only about the Holocaust, but also ourselves as historians and the ways in which we have encountered the events we write about. However, in Henry and my exchange we are—I think—pushing the idea of what received histories of the Holocaust might look like back to the interview room and not only the office where we sit and write.

When Young aired an early version of his article, he was heavily criticized by a Holocaust historian who saw his call for “received histories” to be a rather self-indulgent focus on the scholar rather than those being studied. However, one thing that has struck me about Henry’s work, and this conversation, has been how paying attention to listening and to process puts particular emphasis on those being listened to and their speech acts. It focuses on those choosing to tell their story in—as Henry notes—multiple ways and for many reasons (and at different times in different places).

Henry’s reflections on oral histories being more than history is worth thinking more about. It gets to the very heart of what it is that we all want when we sit down in the room together, and in particular whether we want the same things. Different interviewers and interviewees want different things at different times. Oral history is a co-produced source, but the idea of tussles suggests that co-production is not straightforward. I think that those tussles are particularly interesting, although you might then level the accusation that I’m getting self-indulgent on the sites of retelling and failing to grapple with the sites being retold. My hope in my own work is to try to move between the two. I don’t know if that is “received history” or not. I hope that it does justice to something of the complexity of what goes on when we ask questions and listen.

Image Credit: “Dance” by Hernán Piñera. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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