Most museums seek to edify. By contrast, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum wants to challenge what you think you know about the Holocaust. “This museum is not an answer; it is a question,” reads the text on the museum guide. To help complicate the picture are hundreds of videotaped survivor testimonies that line the museum’s walls, each offering a different window into the tragedy.
As we enter the last decade in which many Holocaust survivors will still be living—there are 495,000 worldwide, according to statistics from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany—the task of documenting their stories becomes more urgent. There are close to 14,000 oral history interviews in the Museum’s collection, of which approximately 13,000 hours are streaming online. For the latest exhibition, “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust,” the museum is showcasing narratives not usually told: those of witnesses and collaborators.
Culling such personal footage is no easy task. To ask an individual for his or her life story requires sensitivity and grace, says Noemi Szekely-Popescu, a staff member of the Oral History branch of the museum. “There’s probably nothing as private, or as painful, as talking about these memories,” she says. Talking to survivors comes more naturally to her than to most: she grew up in Budapest, Hungary, in a community that included many survivors, including both her grandparents.
For Szekely-Popescu, each interview represents a delicate balancing act. Personal testimony can provide key historical evidence—but it is also an intimate, emotional act of giving. Here, Szekely-Popescu talks about the art—not science—of gathering living testimony, the importance of silence, and the urgency of capturing these narratives while there is still time.—Rachel E. Gross
How do you find a survivor and prepare to interview them?
There are so many survivors who still want to be interviewed, that, for the most part, the requests come to us. In addition, we wouldn’t want to put pressure on survivors by knocking on their door to say: “I know that you are a survivor of this tragic, horrifying event.” It is preferable for them to take the initiative and contact us.
Third parties often reach out in order to put us in touch with a survivor. In these cases, if we are not dealing with a next of kin, we ask for the contact information of a family member who could determine whether the survivor would welcome an oral history interview. It’s a very delicate situation; there’s probably nothing as private, or as painful, as talking about these memories. We need to know that the survivor has consented to explore the idea of an interview.
Once we get the green light, we go ahead and gather pre-interview information in order to get the arc of the story. We don’t want a rehearsal, we don’t want the taped story to sound “wooden,” but we do need to get a general idea of the events prior to the interview. Once you find out the basic chronological and geographic touchstones of the story, you go to the library and start researching. You look at the historical record and review stories of people who lived through similar circumstances to see how the subjective experience is being represented by others. There is a beautiful complementary dynamic between what you can learn from documents and what you can glean from subjective recollections. Every subjective recollection is real, but it’s going to be a layering—and maybe even a complicating—of an event. In conducting an oral history, you intertwine a lot of threads and a lot of sources.
How methodical do you have to be in the interview?
I sketch out my questions in chronological order. This is a useful method to keep track of details as interviewees jump between life events. An event might remind a survivor of something else—but maybe the associated memory happened five years later in that person’s life. Letting him jump across years would result in our losing whole chapters of his life. For example, as you’re doing the interview, you might say something like, “We’re at the part when you’re hiding in the monastery in 1942.” This information suddenly triggers the survivor’s memory, making him jump ahead to an event which happened later in his life. If this happens, you make a quick note-to-self: “Go back to 1942.” I keep writing notes to myself throughout an interview to ensure consistency and strike off every element that I wanted covered at the outset.
What do you see as your place in an oral history interview?
There’s a fine line between being an accepting, comforting audience and being too warm or too close. You’re there as a friend or a sympathetic listener. But there are limits, because when you start to be very supportive, in my experience, survivors tend to censor themselves. Essentially, if they get to a difficult part of their story and your face shows too much emotion, they will give you less-than-total information in an effort to shield you from the pain. The outcome is that you lose evidence and important details. Due to the high volume of incoming interview requests, we’re not able to interview the same person twice. So, you do your best to get the story down correctly and exhaustively during this one, unique opportunity.
Are there ever particularly challenging moments for you?
One of the hardest things, especially during an interview conducted over the phone, is when you are faced with silence. You’re no doubt thinking, “Is he censoring himself? Is he holding back?” And you have to stop yourself from saying something to mitigate the uncomfortable silence between the two of you. As the silence drags on, you’re almost wondering: “Does he think I’m no longer on the phone?” But you have to hold the silence because the longer you do— this is my impression—the surer you will be that he’s going to say what he really thinks. So, you just hold the silence. That is one of the hardest things to do.
Do you ever find yourself getting too emotionally involved?
Absolutely. I find myself getting emotional when something triggers a personal memory. That’s not to say that I’ve ever been through anything even remotely comparable, but stories, emotions and human reactions remind you of things in your own life. This is in our nature; we search for some kind of horizon of understanding to interpret other people’s experiences. When this happens you have to snap out of it because you’re there to document, not to dwell.
How has conducting oral histories changed the way you look at this history?
It’s interesting to see different perspectives on the same event. The multiplicity of memories doesn’t dispute the event; it complicates it. It complicates the basic questions that this history raises, like: “What would I have done? Did this person have a choice? What choices did he have?” I think that in most cases people did have choices. And that’s not to say that they had an infinite array of choices, or that they had every choice at their disposal that one would have in a free country in peacetime. But we have more choices than we realize, and the personal perspective brings this idea to the fore.
Why are oral histories so important?
Because they are more than history; they are lived history. They are the subjective memories of a person. They raise so many questions and offer multiple points of entry for analysis. When we talk about oral histories, we are not talking about the event in and of itself; we are also talking about why the event is remembered in a certain way. Why do two people, located in the same place at the same time, who witnessed the same event, see it and remember it differently? What is it about them that makes them present the event differently? Obviously, as we’re dealing with human nature, there’s no scientific formula to help us answer this question.
There are certain shades of difference, for instance, between the memories of survivors who left the countries where atrocities happened and the memories of survivors who chose to stay in their country of origin. The way the former group chooses to remember their life (in part because they are a member of the same polity 70 years after the traumatic events) in contrast to the way those survivors who emigrated remember the same events…I think that those two groups tend to remember things slightly differently…for entirely natural reasons.
As we enter the last decade in which many survivors will be around, what trends are you noticing?
More—if not most—of the people that we interview these days were children during the war. I’m not an historian or a sociologist, but it’s my impression that the child survivor reflects and expresses pain in a way that would be atypical for the adult survivor. For lack of a better word, there’s a kind of “intimacy” to the pain that a child goes through. That’s not to say that an adult survivor did not go through the same horror—indeed, he could have gone through much worse—but going through an experience as a fully formed person may enable an individual to represent it later without recalling a sheer, immediate, loss of innocence. Child survivors tend to recount a seminal moment when everything around them was destroyed—from one minute to the next. All of a sudden, they’re no longer safe…they recall a kind of world-ending discombobulation; there is confusion and there is pain, along with a sense of having been unable to have done anything when faced with catastrophe…perhaps the tragedy of losing one’s parents…when reliving these searing memories, some child survivors express something akin to shame or guilt—misplaced guilt, of course.
What is your role as an oral historian?
I’m not there as an historian. What I do is gather as much documentary evidence as possible. We can’t know what future historians will want to research, so every detail is equally important. If we don’t document these stories now, they will be lost forever.
Do you ever feel pressure?
I don’t think what I feel is pressure. I think one feels, maybe, privileged to be let into this very special, private, area of personal memory. I try to respect and honor that sentiment.
Was your work influenced by hearing your grandparents’ stories?
I don’t have a concrete memory of them speaking to me about their experiences. I mostly have memories of hearing stories that grownups would share amongst themselves. They wouldn’t sit me down and say, “Let me tell you what happened during the war.” It’s the things you pick up, family lore.
I did conduct an oral history with my grandmother when I was 17, and I’m very, very, embarrassed to say that I don’t have a copy of it. I conducted it on behalf of a college student who asked me to jot down some answers to questions he had, which I very dutifully did, and I don’t have a copy of her responses. It is one of my big regrets—I wish I had the transcript.