Oral history creates pathways to the past

Isabella Gajewski, right, and her mother were taken from their home in Poland by Russians and sent to Siberia in 1940.

OU News Bureau

Stories are an inherent part of our societies and culture, seen in our values and even inspiring movies, books and music.

There is a science behind the act of recording — whether in print or other media — the lives of those who came before us.

“Oral history is interviewing people about their past experiences, their memories” said Daniel Clark, a professor of history at Oakland University. “It’s talking to people who were present at the events that you want to explore.”

It is used to explore the experiences of people who don’t typically get into the historical record.

“If we don’t, it’ll be lost,” said Lidia Verbanac, whose Polish parents survived Russian work camps during World War II. “We all have history and unless we keep it alive, it’ll be lost.”

This practice comes with concerns.

“One of the complications is that people’s memories are not perfect,” Clark said. “We remember things differently from people who were exactly in the same location. Eyewitness accounts or visual memories can be off.”

Daniel Clark

The same can be said for written sources.

“Those who are practitioners of history know that not even written documents can be conceived as perfectly objective,” Clark said. “Almost all documents are created for some kind of purpose with some kind of audience in mind.”

Oral history is usually focused on trends rather than on precise facts.

In his own research with 1950s Detroit autoworkers, Clark interviewed more than 40 people who didn’t know each other.

Almost every one of them told a story that, in its own way, led to a conclusion of societal instability. Layering these account creates the trend, even if the facts of each individual story are foggy.

These transcripts and recordings are not only for individual use, either. Those who have embarked on oral history projects can choose to donate their findings to oral history libraries so others can use their information in future projects.

Clark recalls hearing stories from his own elder relatives and attempting to record them, but the story was never told in the same way. While the idea remained, the details would vary.

Some memories, though, can’t become imperfect.

“Memory can play funny tricks with us,” Clark said. “But on the other hand, some memories are seared into our minds.”

Verbanac, who lives in Shelby Township, recalled that when she was a child and learning about World War II in her studies, she was required to watch the movie “The Holocaust.”

Her mother, Izabella Gajewski, was born in Poland in 1933. She, along with her brother and parents, were taken from their home during breakfast and deported to a Siberian work camp in 1940.

Verbanac sat with her mother to watch the movie. One scene showed people being loaded into the freight cars of a train. The doors made a screeching noise as they closed.

Verbanac has pursued her own oral history project and presented them to her community, sharing the stories of her ancestors. PHOTO/MARY SIRING

“My mother burst into the loudest howl I have ever heard,” Verbanac said. “She wasn’t with me, she was back there. They piled them in, shut the doors and it was complete darkness.”

“Just seeing that and her reaction so many years later, it just gives you a flavor for what really happened,” Verbanac said.

She remembers that there were certain things her mother could never watch. She would wake up crying and screaming and never, until the day she died, throw away a piece of bread.

“If it couldn’t be eaten, it would go to the birds,” Verbanac said. “There is just a respect that that generation have for certain things that we will never have because we didn’t have the same experience.”

Especially in the case of the atrocities of World War II, recording the accounts of individuals is important to the history of the time.

“I think that if you’re a survivor of World War II and a survivor of a concentration camp, there is more at stake in getting those stories down,” Clark said. “You might think that the Holocaust and concentration camps have been done too much, but I don’t think we can ever learn enough about individual experiences.”

Oral history isn’t concerned with learning the momentous impact of world events. It’s learning the impact on average people: how they felt, how they reacted and how it has affected them.

“We want to learn from our history, we want to learn the mistakes so we don’t make them again,” Verbanac said. “We want to understand the huge sacrifices that people made so we can appreciate them.”



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Posted by on Nov 7 2017. Filed under Featured article, Macomb C., Oakland County. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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