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Contextual cartography: an email exchange with Henry Greenspan and Tim Cole, Part 2

Two weeks ago, we published the first part of an exchange between Henry Greenspan and Tim Cole. Below, they wrap up their conversation, turning to the intellectual difficulties of taking context into consideration. The issues they raise should be of interest to all oral historians, so we want to hear from you! Join the conversation in the comment section on Part 1, or by submitting a follow up piece for publication on the blog.


Henry Greenspan: As is clear, our discussion has complemented a number of current directions in oral history, even while such considerations are essentially absent from work concerning survivor testimony. Thus, while productive “reflexivity” and consideration of what is “off the record” have become central in oral history—as in the terrific work of Anna Sheftel, Stacey Zembrzycki, and others—such attentiveness to self and context remains very rare in work concerning Holocaust survivors. Indeed, I would say that the great bulk of survivor “testimony” projects are at least 20 years behind oral history more generally.

In that context, James Young’s piece on “double stranded” narratives that Tim cited was an important effort but has borne essentially no fruit—even within Young’s own work. Such, I think, is the power of habit and of paradigms.

That power will not simply be resolved in the “marketplace of ideas.” Contemporary ways of engaging survivors and their accounts—and especially the creation of video-testimony archives—are aggressively promoted, richly funded, and celebrity endorsed. When I began my work in the 1970s, there were essentially no models for what an interview with a Holocaust survivor was supposed to “look like.” That allowed survivors and I to make it up as we went along, a lucky accident for which I will always be grateful. Conversely, as a number of us have noted, it now takes considerable effort to convince a survivor-interviewee that there is any option aside from the conventional testimony approach. That is how ritualized things have become.

Taking place and space seriously may help us to better understand what others say, how they say it, and why they say it.

Nevertheless, I think the wider theme of Tim’s and my interchange is that the now usual way we engage survivors and their retelling—the “testimony” paradigm itself—is beginning to crumble. A new collection edited by Steven High, Beyond Testimony and Trauma: Oral History in the Aftermath of Mass Violence, presents alternatives. So do a series of other recent volumes and journal articles, many written by young scholars open to, and interested in, new approaches.

Of course, seriously engaging both context and retelling itself as inseparable parts of a complex, evolving, and multi-dimensional process—rather than an archived testimonial endpoint (the egg-from-chicken model) —is not simple. For example, when Young refers to “the social and political circumstances surrounding a story’s retelling,” he is not simply invoking one additional “strand,” but a relative zillion. Most readers will know the list. “Circumstances” include myriad aspects of the interview dialogue itself; the impact of varying protocols and practices associated with different projects and purposes (on all sides); contemporary perceptions, presumptions, and conveyed expectations of “witnesses”—who they are and what they have to say—and survivors’ varying responses to those expectations. In short, relevant “circumstances” potentially include every aspect of an interview’s where, when, why, how, and who—as defined both by the immediate participants and a wider, actual and imagined, many more.

It is not hard to compile a list of “contingencies” and “moving parts.” It is enormously more challenging to envision them actually in motion together. One must determine, for example, which contexts are relevant, and for whom? And if one seriously intends to talk about what is “received,” one must include both sides of a transmission. How does what is said relate, or not relate, to what is heard? Every interviewer (like every parent or teacher) knows the chasm that may pertain.

So how does one go beyond a laundry list of “factors” while avoiding conceptual chaos? The optimistic (and ambitious) title of a current paper of mine is “Putting Context in Context.” Beginning with a series of interviews that I did with one particular survivor in the late 1970s and early 80s—and comparing my interviews with the same survivor’s retelling in six other and very different contexts and projects that took place between the 1960s and the mid-2000s—I hope to make some tracks. Unsurprisingly, there are striking continuities and there are striking differences. And, most important, this is a survivor who himself has deeply reflected about his responses to different projects—both those he has chosen to avoid and his choices within those he has engaged. I have been arguing for a long time that without such reflections from survivors themselves (which are not the “last word” but an essential “some words”) we are mostly blowing smoke. Within the institutionalized and scholarly habits that now encase survivor “testimony,” it will take lot of work for that smoke to begin to clear. It will also take a methodological revolution—mostly too late for Holocaust survivors, but not too late for the ways we engage survivors of other hells.


Tim Cole: I’m pleased that Henry returned to something that he referenced in passing in his previous blog: the need to explore survivors’ reflections on choosing whether and what to say, because this is a critical part of understanding just what is (and is not) said. As Henry noted in an earlier post, we need to be aware that what happens when survivors talk can be “oral psychology,” “oral philosophy,” “oral theology,” or “oral narratology” and not only “oral history.” His alerting us to the variety of reasons that individuals choose to retell is important. Considering the reasons for creating the source is one of the first things any of us learnt in history methods classes. And yet, as Henry suggests, getting at those reasons tends to be difficult to access from most large-scale oral history projects given that such meta-data is largely absent. Henry’s practice of multiple interviews with the same survivor is one way of developing that kind of broader contextual understanding. Another is to listen hard to the interviews themselves and those times when these reflections do crop up within the act of retelling, or to draw upon as broad a range as possible of interviews and writings from one survivor. I have tried to do both in my forthcoming book, Holocaust Landscapes. For example, in a couple of chapters I draw on two interviews with David Bergman—who is one of the survivors I wrote about in the OHR article. What struck me about these interviews, was the value of watching and listening to an earlier audio-visual presentation that David had developed to better understand how and why he had decided to frame his wartime story as a series of train journeys.

Although, as Henry suggests, there are scholars doing important new work around oral history and the Holocaust, I think he is right to suggest that Holocaust studies—both historiography and collections—tends to lag behind the developments within oral history. I’d go further. My sense is that Holocaust studies period remains a profoundly conservative sub-field for a variety of reasons, and is the poorer for a tendency towards conceptual and methodological conservatism.

Much of my own work on the Holocaust over close to two decades now has been a call to consider the spatiality of the events. As I have begun to work more with oral history methods, I have been interested in extending that call to oral historians. As our conversation over the blog has suggested, there are multiple ways in which space and place play out in oral history. There is plenty of work to be done on thinking about oral history after the “spatial turn.” I would like to add another category to Henry’s list of what is happening when individuals retell their stories. To “oral psychology,” “oral philosophy,” “oral theology,” “oral narratology,” and “oral history,” I would add “oral geography.” I don’t feel that I have anything like a fully-fledged understanding of what “oral geography” entails, but simply a hunch that there may be value in thinking spatially about all aspects of the interview process and product. Doing so is not simply about trying to catch up with yet another wave of academic fads and fashions. Rather it is driven by a sense that taking place and space seriously may help us to better understand what others say, how they say it, and why they say it.

CODA: “To be and not to be”

Henry Greenspan: This week my class discussed interviews I did with Reuben, a survivor with whom I first spoke in 1976. Of all the survivors whom I’ve known, Reuben was the most obviously devastated. My decade of work as a clinical psychologist had not prepared me for a depression as profound as his. He described himself as a “gilgul”—Yiddish for “lost soul.” A gilgul, said Reuben, is “not in the old world or the new. He just wanders around. He’s lost, you know. He’s lost.” European Jewish culture, as Reuben knew it, was an “extinct species,” “pulled out by the roots,” “gone completely.” Reuben lived on as a remnant, situated nowhere. And, indeed, while his home was in a lower middle class suburb, he owned a small electric parts store in a part of Detroit burned over during the 1967 “riots.” The remains reminded him of the ghetto in Lodz where he was before Auschwitz. He noted: “Everything was boarded-up. And ruined. It was a lot like in the ghetto. A lot like in the ghetto.” Reuben thus found the Lodz Ghetto in the ghetto of Detroit.

Here, then, another example of the sort Tim describes of the way survivors locate memories in space—in this case, an active, lived overlay of one set of ruins on another. But, listening years later, what is most striking in my recordings with Reuben is how often they are interrupted by other lived experience. One constantly hears animated telephone calls from friends, in which Reuben and his comrades shifted unpredictably between Yiddish, Russian, German, English, Hebrew, and Polish (what I came to call “survivalese”) One also hears the arrival and departure of his teenage children—tires screeching, radios blaring, shouts and banter in the background. Periodically, a large maternal sheep dog followed by four pups padded through the kitchen in which Reuben spoke of how he was a ghost, without substance or locale.

It was years before I understood that all this life—friends, children, sheepdogs—as well as Reuben’s death—was the point. The two worlds do not add up, there is no higher synthesis; current theories of “trauma” and “resilience” do not help. One simply has to hold on to both realities at once, without attempting synthesis. Elie Wiesel once wrote that survivors faced a different problem than Hamlet’s: “To be and not to be.”

In the conventional video-testimony format—95% of the field, regardless of which specific project—the phone calls, children, and sheep dogs would literally be locked away—out of sight and out of sound. We would be left with a version of Reuben that excluded what might be most essential about being a genocide survivor—the simultaneity, again without synthesis, of both ongoing death and ongoing life.

And so another example of the ways the video-testimony format selects and excludes—often the most important things. Nor does it matter how many different “testimonies” from the same survivor in that format one watches, and however carefully. What isn’t there isn’t there—even for the most attentive interpreter. There is no way to see around the corner. We do not know, and really cannot know, what we are missing. But, worst of all, we rarely think about the problem and how it might be meliorated. Recent work concerning oral history “on the edge” and the need for “ethnographies of practice” are directly relevant. But in the world of Holocaust survivor testimony, such work is almost universally unknown.

Assertions like these will not be welcome by those who promote and fund video-testimony projects. If they respond at all, we hear about the worthy projects video-testimonies have facilitated (and I agree they have), but we will not hear more. And beyond such projects, there is the much larger world of studies in “testimony, trauma, and memory”—many inspired by work with Holocaust survivors—which will also not easily give ground. As Walter Benjamin wrote years ago, and I reiterated in the 80s and Alex Freund more recently, the romance of “storytelling” and “survival” is not easily abandoned. Too much—in material, ideological, and political capital—has been invested.

Like Reuben, then, much of Holocaust survivor video-testimony inhabits its own world–largely detached from oral history more generally and, strangely enough, even detached from the enormously complex lives and deaths of survivors themselves.

Image Credit: “Deceleration” by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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