Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

With Heart: Compassionate Interviewing and Storytelling with Holocaust Survivors

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

With Heart: Compassionate Interviewing and Storytelling with Holocaust Survivors

Article excerpt

Love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told.

-Bruce Springsteen, "Terry's Song"

In this article, we show the compassionate interviewing and storytelling that took place through sharing conversations with two Holocaust survivors. For four years, I (Carolyn) have met with Jerry Rawicki; for three years, I (Chris) have held conversations with Sal Wainberg (until his death, February 22, 2012). Initially Carolyn conducted traditional oral history interviews with Sal and Jerry, which provided a concentrated chronology of the survivors' experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust. This information proved an invaluable foundation for us as we continued with more interactional meetings that fol- lowed the trajectory of survivors' current lives. In these conversations, we paid attention to how "then" (the Holocaust) plays into their experiences "now" (later in life) and how "now" relates to restorying "then." Through compassionate conversations we provided an opportunity for Jerry and Sal to tell their past and current stories in multiple and new ways. In the process, we discovered new plotlines and insights together.

We also reflected with Jerry and Sal on the meaningful and collaborative relationship we were developing. Though our focus was on them, we shared our vulnerable stories, learning from them about ourselves, and becoming more supportive as our conversations deepened. As collaborative researchers, we (Chris and Carolyn) also stayed in conversation with each other about how to work compassionately with participants (Patti, "Sharing" ). How could we build relationships with those we interviewed, be present in their lives when they had troubles, and feel we were making a difference by passing on their stories?

Our work follows the principles expressed and demonstrated by Bud Goodall and Nick Trujillo, who made a case for research that tells stories about everyday practices and individual and collective meanings (Goodall, "Writing"; Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo). Both wrote compassionate and vulnera- ble stories about illness, grief, love, and loss. Their exemplary stories included Goodall's blog about living and dying as well as he could with pancreatic cancer ("The Daily Narrative") and Trujillo's book with his wife about coping with her illness and death from ovarian cancer (Vande Berg and Trujillo). For Bud and Nick, research should embrace the mysteries of life and focus on what Goodall ("Writing" 63) calls "human stories," rather than turn subjects into objects. They were not afraid to take risks or to "ask the big questions about life," linking them to how we "can understand [our lives] in this cosmos, on this blue planet, a bit better" (Goodall, "Writing" 187). In their research, they took into account the social and dialogical nature of communication and our connections with events and persons we study. Their stories of love and loss, written with humility and heart, provided access to their experiences so that we might call on them as companions as we try to work through our own struggles with more grace, dignity, and humanity. They believed, as do we, that research should contribute to making the world a better place, even through relatively small acts in the everyday worlds in which we cohabit.

After presenting our participants, we introduce compassionate listening and then enter the heart of our work, two stories about our interactions with Sal and Jerry. These stories demonstrate the intimacy of our relationships as we focus on the situations these two survivors find themselves in at this later stage of life-for Jerry, grief over losing his wife; for Sal, his cancer and desire to be listened to at the end of life. After the stories, we construct a conversation that grapples with what we learned about compassionate interviewing, our relationships with Jerry and Sal, and the reciprocal impact of the Holocaust and compassionate storytelling.

The Participants

Sal Wainberg was almost four years old when Germany invaded his shtetl of ? …

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