On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History

On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History

On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History

On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History

Synopsis

Based on twenty years of the author's interviews and re-interviews with a group of Holocaust survivors--the first longitudinal study of Holocaust retelling--this landmark book describes how survivors recount their memories of the destruction. "It is not a story," insists one survivor of his memories. "It has to be made a story. In order to convey it." Guided by the author, readers directly follow the ways survivors can and--just as important-the ways they cannot "make stories" for the nightmarish "not-story" they remember.

Excerpt

At a recent public talk I was asked to comment on the differences between the work I do, as an interviewer of Holocaust survivors, and interviewing for testimony collections such as the Survivors of the Shoah project that Steven Spielberg initiated in 1994. For a while I treaded water, trying to explain contrasts in approach and purpose that were evident but not easy to summarize. Suddenly, a colleague who was moderating the program came to my aid. "The Shoah Foundation wants to interview 50,000 different survivors once," she reflected. "Hank wants to interview the same survivor 50,000 times."

As will become clear, this is not a quantitative study--anything but. But to begin with a pure assertion of quantity, even when invoked with ironic exaggeration, seems right. This is a book about immersion in details, returns and revisions, and taking the time that sustained talk takes. It is far less concerned with the things some say come out of survivors' testimony--lessons and legacies, teaching or tolerance--than it is preoccupied with the question of how we get into survivors' recounting. It is also driven by the related convictions that more and more talk about Holocaust survivors (which has characterized recent years) does not necessarily lead to better talk with them, and that nothing is more common than to think we follow survivors' retelling only to discover, in a later conversation, that we do not. Needless to say, the revelation depends on having the later conversation.

Whatever revelations these pages contain reflect twenty years of conversations and later conversations. Those meetings have certainly not numbered in the thousands. But they have been part of sustained acquain-

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