While the past is finished, unchangeable, closed and completed, the memory, interpretation and representation of the past is an actual, ongoing process that we are observing, confronting, in which we are also – more or less consciously – participating. There are different ways we try to get access or rather approach the past ‘as it really was’. The most legitimated and institutionalized way is academic historiography with all its tools and techniques that allow us to name historical narration scientific.
But there is also another way to confront the recent past, or – to be more precise – to work with ‘the past in the present’. This work has less to do with the past ‘as such’, with objective facts, but much more to do with individual experiences ‘digested’ by individual memory. This method is commonly called oral history, although the term might be understood in a different way and indicate slightly different practices. Let me try to indicate two ‘ideal ways of understanding oral history.
The first one treats oral history interviews as one of the least accepted, an inferior tool in traditional historical research in the field of contemporary history. If there are no other, better, more objective sources to reconstruct the past events we can eventually refer to the memories of individuals. We are still looking for facts to discover what happened in a particular time and place, in particular conditions – individual memories after careful, critical, if not suspicious treatment, are used here to reconstruct these facts. Subjectivity, instability, uncertainty, and inaccuracy of human memory are all serious obstacles in this procedure. We are focused on facts we want to research – so the interview tends to oscillate around them through the researchers’ questions. Sometimes very specific, and very detailed.
But there is also another understanding and another approach in oral history, which locates this activity somewhere on the crossroads of different academic fields in humanities and social sciences. The interviews are not used here to reconstruct ‘external’ facts (or are not initially used this way) but are treated as personal testimonies, recollections of unrepeatable, extraordinary experiences of individuals. And these experiences are always extraordinary in that sense, that they are emanations of individual’s memory, individual’s identity. Instead of trying to find the truth about the past ‘as it really was’, we focus on what (and how!) is remembered, how it is recalled, what sense is given by our interviewee to her or his particular experiences and biography as a whole. The interview is understood as an interpretative event in which the interviewee is asked to compress her or his biography to a narrative lasting just a few hours. This recollection of the past experiences (and not ‘facts’) that are accessible to the memory represents a kind of selection – both conscious and unconscious. This act of memory depends on the story recounted, but also on the circumstances and conditions in which it is recounted. The question of whether a story is true or false does not make sense any more – they are all ‘true’, or rather authentic from a subjective perspective.
Each interview is a reaction to a concrete person, formulated questions, matters touched on. But at the same time it is the interviewee’s answer to her/his need to make sense of her/his personal experiences, make them sensible. That is why we can formulate various questions while analyzing interviews – the one about recalled events is just one of many, not necessary the first and most important one.
In oral history projects, which are planned not (only) to provide additional factual ‘material’, but to record individual experience, or better: memory and recollection of individual experience, we usually use narrative biographical interview. The main idea is to make our interview partner narrate freely her/his story or biography. So that our interviewee uses her/his own categories and terms to recall own experiences of being witness/actor of past events. The story should be – as far as possible – constructed and shaped individually, independently, without interviewer’s questions or suggestions. The main task of the latter is to ensure an openness of the interview space: openness towards the interviewee, the subjects she/he wants to include in the narrative or exclude from it, towards the way the story is constructed and presented… Questions are asked when the interviewee stops the narrative and waits for external impulses. But again – the questions should help our interview-partners to evoke further pictures, to narrate further stories. Questionnaires, if they exist, should be treated just as a set of subjects and hints, but not questions that are to be asked and answered one by one.
One more important thing in this context: when asking our interviewee’s for their autobiography, we communicate with them directly. We are much more interested in them as persons, as individuals, than in the experiences they witnessed, went through. Memory is not a depositary of facts but an active process of constructing and giving meanings.
Let me cite a longer passage from the interview guidelines written by an experienced oral historian – Alexander von Plato:
“We have to be aware that memory is “overcast“ by new experiences and new incidents. It is influenced by cultural forms of narrating, communicative dealing with and talking about dreadful memories, about proving oneself and personal failure. It is also influenced by the way a society deals with the past, by the language we use, by traditions in different communities. (…)
An even more important fact is that memory is not one sole system, but according to current memory research, consists of different “memories” which are “networked” with each other. (…) It is of utmost importance that you not only inquire about experiences but evoke stories, anecdotes, episodes, descriptions of persons, courses of actions (routine as well as exceptional ones) Only by acting in this way can we help the interviewees to remember by inspiring their different memories for themselves and in connection with each other. Thereby it becomes more possible to learn something about former attitudes.
When conducting interviews, there is always a contradiction: On the one hand, we know that we can only reach former experiences via today’s memory, via later reconstructions of history, via a “digested” past. On the other hand, we want to have as much information as possible about the factual history.
Therefore we have to be aware of this contradiction. We have to take the memory of our interviewees seriously even if we can’t believe a story or certain dates they report or regard them as improbable. In any case, we should not interrupt or correct the stories prematurely or indeed argue with the interview partners. Patience is one of the major virtues, even if a story is told twice or three times. Mostly, such “repeated stories” have become “success stories”, i.e., they are told because the interviewees could clarify something or they met approval within their social environment by telling these stories. They mostly have a punch line, sometimes a conclusion. Therefore, they might show us something about the environment of the interviewees.”
In our work in the KARTA Center we share this attitude, we try to follow these rules. The individual perspective is the one we are “operating in” in our various activities: editing a historical journal in which we publish testimonies, diaries, interviews and – last but not least – pictures (only historical commentary is definitely reduced); documentation projects, exhibitions, educational programmes and, of course, oral history interviews.
The Center was created by a group of people educated in various fields of humanities, for whom contemporary history became a kind of passion and its documentation and presentation – a social mission. We started in 1982 as a clandestine periodical, but we quickly resigned from current journalism and concentrated on individual’s attitudes towards the totalitarian system. We focused on experiences of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century.
The next step was establishing an independent Eastern Archive in the late eighties: about 200 people worked voluntarily for KARTA and conducted interviews with people who were repressed by Soviet totalitarianism. 1200 audio interviews were collected then – most of them with individuals who were deported from the eastern borderlands of pre-war Poland to Siberia, who were imprisoned in Gulag or displaced after the war. Those people had to keep silent in communist Poland – their experience was politically taboo, excluded from the official memory discourse, from the official historical ‘master narrative’ of that time. Doing this huge amount of documentation work we had no idea we were doing oral history. We were acting intuitively, co-operating with journalists and historians, but our starting point was a genuine need to learn about the individual fates – much more than historical facts.
After 1989 a historical journal, which was also called “Karta,” was created. From the very beginning, we did not publish historical papers, but carefully laboured individual sources (or montages of sources which tell polyphonic stories). The real authors of the quarterly are individuals, ‘historical witnesses’. The past is described by them, but at the same time different perspectives are confronted: national, political, religious.
In the last few years we have intensified our oral history activity – this time with much more self-awareness and self-consciousness with reference to the oral history tradition. But rather a foreign one, as the term is only now becoming more familiar in Poland. Among the many different interview projects, some are worth mentioning in particular.
The first of them is our oral history project “The Poles and the Germans – 20th century history of one Kashubian community,” in which we have documented local stories of inhabitants of one village community on the pre-war Polish-German borderland. There is no written history of this region, nor has any historian documented the place. This local history exists only in individual memories and the collective memory of elderly inhabitants. We have conducted about 100 interviews with them in the country, scanned about 1000 photographs and documents, found a few written memoirs, a few press articles in local newspapers. What we got is a mixture of myth or fantasy with a suggestive picture of everyday life in the country, relations between Polish and German neighbours, before, during and just after the war, changing the national connection of this land and the influence of a ‘big history’ on individual fates. We also managed to find and interview several Germans who used to live in the community before 1945, had to flee and live today in various, distinct places of Germany. This confrontation was possible because we wanted to listen to people’s experiences, life stories and we did not try to reconstruct ‘historical truth’, to write ‘real history’.
Other important oral history projects we have been realizing in the last years were: Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project in which we conducted 164 (17 of them on videotape) biographical interviews with Polish survivors of the Mauthausen concentration camp; Women testimonies in which female survivors of Nazi and soviet concentration camps, and communist prisons in Poland were recorded; International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project that documented forced labourers for the Third Reich who worked in industry or agriculture and also concentration camp survivors.
In each of these various activities – and many others that KARTA took up in the last years – we focused on the individual perspective. This perspective is frequently contradictory or at least parallel to the official one, the one that exists in the collective memory. Working a lot with elderly people, soldiers, camp survivors, prisoners, forced workers, … we have managed to grasp generational experience(s). The archived interviews are a kind of generational confession.
Only in the last years (also the last in which war survivors testimonies can be recorded) have written biographical materials and oral history interviews become an important component of the Polish collective memory. But there is also an influence in the opposite direction: collective memory has a huge impact on constructing individual recollections, on making sense of particular experiences. Oral history interviews are perfect material for those, who want to research dominating narrative schemes concerning various historical events that are publicly remembered.
After many years of documentation and the popularization of twentieth century history (through individual stories), in September 2005 KARTA got a chance to operate in public on a bigger scale. We established the History Meeting House, where we show permanent exhibitions on totalitarian experience in Central – Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, also various temporary exhibitions, where we show films, organize seminars and offer intensive educational programs. We tell about contemporary history, about ‘systems’ but all the time we refer to individual voices – of ‘heroes’, victims, perpetrators, by-standers, observers, persecutors, … Today these voices and films are collected in the Oral History Archive – the biggest of that kind in Poland.
We use individual testimonies as a fundamental way to learn more about the past. Also through the confrontation of these stories with history familiar to us from the textbooks. Individual memories recorded on audio and videotapes and oral history interviews remain one of basic methods that help us preserve these individual testimonies. And this we way approach the past in the present.