Preserving Holocaust Oral Histories

A communication professor and her students help preserve the stories of local Holocaust survivors.

 

By Mary Beth Erskine

USF.edu News Writer

 

TAMPA, Fla. (June 11, 2010) White-haired, bespectacled and seeming somewhat expectant, the 83-year-old gentleman sits at the end of a long conference table in a classroom in USF’s Communications & Information Science building. Eyes around the table glance at him, a sense of apprehension in the air. The soft banter subsides. Carolyn Ellis’s graduate course, Communicating Illness, Grief and Loss, begins.

 

“I am not used to the role of a celebrity,” Jerry Rawicki says slowly in an accent that denotes eastern European origins. “The story I am here to share is one of carnage and deprivation. Yet, it is not mine alone. In some way, it is the story of every Holocaust survivor.”

 

It was the summer of 1939, and Rawicki was a Jewish boy living in Plock, Poland when the roar of German planes would signal the end of the life he had known for 12 years. The Holocaust would take the lives of his mother, father and a sister, leaving him with haunting memories of death and brutality in the Warsaw Ghetto.

 

As he speaks, exposing both his vulnerability and his memories, Rawicki pauses for composure. Eyes around the table divert downward respectfully, some glistening with tears, giving him his moment. As difficult as his words are to hear, it is abundantly clear that this is a privileged encounter with one who has survived some of humanity’s darkest days.

 

Rawicki is one of the few remaining – a living witness to the Holocaust. With the youngest survivors now in their seventies, time is of the essence to document their lives and memories.

 

“These firsthand stories must be recorded to honor the survivors and the memories of the victims so that no revisionists can argue against the Holocaust, and to make sure that future generations know that this truly happened,” says Carolyn Bass, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.

 

While the museum’s library has one of the largest Holocaust collections in the Southeast and has been preserving the histories of Holocaust survivors for decades, it does not have the staff to interview the survivors living in the Tampa Bay area who long to have their stories preserved before they die.

 

That need led USF Trustee Debbie Sembler, who is active with the Florida Holocaust Museum, to initiate a collaboration between the university and the museum focused on collecting and preserving the testimonies of local survivors. When the opportunity to become involved was proposed to USF Professor of Communication and Sociology Carolyn Ellis, she wasted no time. An internationally recognized ethnographer who studies and records human cultures, sociologist, and communication scholar, Ellis has a long-standing interest in personal narratives of loss, trauma and emotionality in communication. (Ellis was recently interviewed by People First Radio, a weekly show from the Columbian Centre Society in Canada. Click here to listen to the podcast.) 

 

She connected with USF Tampa Library’s Director of Special and Digital Collections Mark Greenberg. The USF Libraries, Greenberg explains, have a two-year-old affiliation with the Florida Holocaust Museum on several initiatives including one to integrate the museum’s library into USF.

 

Since the library already had experience documenting more than 500 unique oral histories for its collection, Greenberg said the staff could provide the technical services and logistical support for the interviews. Once completed, the digitized and preserved histories could be added as a permanent and publicly accessible part of both USF’s and the museum’s collections. The Holocaust survivor testimonies, he said, would additionally enrich the work of the libraries’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center – an interdisciplinary center founded last year to unify USF’s wide-ranging genocide studies initiatives.

 

With library staff providing the videotaping expertise, Ellis began interviewing survivors last summer, including Rawicki. She then extended the opportunity to graduate students in her Communicating Illness, Grief and Loss class, making the Holocaust the focus for the fall semester.

 

“It is our responsibility as a civilized culture to preserve testimonies of these atrocious events and how people have coped and lived,” says Ellis. “Working with the USF Libraries Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center and the Florida Holocaust Museum to interview survivors of the Holocaust and hear and record their testimonies for future generations presented a unique opportunity for students to try and understand grief and loss as emotions we all experience, as well as to learn how to create oral histories.”

 

To accomplish the task, Ellis grouped the class into three-person teams. After thorough research and preparation, including careful examination of sample interviews preserved in the Shoah Institute’s world-renowned archive, each team was paired up with two survivors. One student would conduct the interviews; another, transcribe the audio tapes; and a third, edit the final transcriptions.

 

There would be some differences, however, between the way Ellis and the students would conduct their oral histories and the way those contained in archives such as the Shoah Institute were done.

 

With the traditional approach to oral histories, Ellis explains, the interviewer stays apart from the story following a formally structured protocol. “In this context, where organized testimony conforms to criteria established by archivists and historians, the survivor anticipates what the interviewer wants to hear, and the listener has certain expectations about what will be said. Therefore, the unspeakable remains unspoken and the silenced remains unvoiced.”

 

Ellis says that while the conventional approach has produced valuable and riveting archives of testimony, “I believe we owe it to ourselves and to the survivors to seek additional ways of capturing their stories.”

 

Ellis and her students have begun to use what she calls “interactive interviewing,” a technique that allows for more natural dialogue between the survivor and the interviewer. “We started to move away from the traditional interview style where the interviewer’s role is to guide the story chronologically and toward viewing the interview more as a conversation,” she says. “The more intimate and comfortable context of conversation triggers memories that may not have been told before,” says Ellis.

 

In addition to eliciting new information and insight, this approach adds what Ellis believes is a crucial dimension to the interview process.

 

“While research for the accumulation of knowledge is important, it doesn’t need to be the only goal. I believe what we do as researchers should be helpful and therapeutic. After the interview process, the survivor should feel better in some way, if only in the sense that they have communicated their story well and in the hope that their story will live on.”

 

In the future, Ellis plans to expand upon this innovative process by collaboratively producing stories and analyses with survivors and publishing unique chapters in a book they will co-edit.

 

Greenberg calls the classroom initiative brilliant. “The fact that this is not a history class, nor is it a Jewish studies class, but it’s communication students learning how to help people who have experienced trauma, makes this effort so much more than solely preserving the past, as important as that is. It makes the entire effort more proactive with the purpose of putting an end to genocide.”

 

And that’s exactly what survivors like Rawicki hope for.

 

“I would like my contribution to be that the Holocaust is learned from and remembered,” Rawicki says, “and put to use in pragmatic ways to make life on earth safer for everyone.”

 

Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993