ISSUES OF INTERVIEWING PEOPLE WITH PAINFUL CHILDHOOD MEMORIES: CHILD SURVIVORS OF THE HOLOCAUST AND THE STOLEN CHILDREN


by Pauline Rockman
President of Descendants of the Shoah,
Executive Member of the Holocaust Centre and
Australian Coordinator of the Shoah Visual History Foundation

In this article I wish to explore how some of the lessons learned from interviewing child survivors of the Holocaust appear to be relevant to conducting interviews with child survivors of other traumatic events. The objective is to heighten awareness and develop an understanding of aspects of the interviewing process and its application specific to child survivors.

Robert Krell in "Therapeutic Value of Documenting Child Survivors" wrote: "…the quality of the first few years of life determine the antecedents to normal development and (that) the tender years of childhood, perhaps as many as the first ten, are crucial to the development of a stable personality, and the ability to cope with the demands of life. Any disruptions major or minor, in a child's sense of security and well-being may have a profound and lasting effect on their development."

What then of the Jewish child caught up in the Nazi assault of Poland in 1939?; the indigenous child in Australia up until the 1960's?.. the kidnapped children of Argentina in the 1970's; and the new ones currently waiting in the waters outside Christmas Island…the list goes on…

Many Child survivors of the Holocaust were forcibly separated or given away from their families in order to have a chance to survive. Indigenous Children were forcibly removed from their families to fulfil the requirements of the policies of the government of the day. Many child survivors were scattered around the world, many finding refuge in adoptive or foster families. So to in Australia were the Stolen Children. They were not necessarily living in there own communities, and consequently not speaking about their experiences. A conspiracy of silence and denial developed.

Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was created in 1994 with a mission to videotape testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. To date over 51,000 testimonies have been collected worldwide. (Nearly 2,500 in Australia). Of these testimonies, 11,872 interviews were conducted with Child Survivors. (428 in Australia).

The Foundation developed an interviewing methodology as a reference guide to collecting the oral testimonies. For Child Survivors particular questions were formulated to elicit childhood memories. Interviewers were trained to phrase the questions that would elicit those memories.

SOME THEORETICAL ISSUES

In the realm of holocaust testimonies it is only in the last decade or so that there has been a growing recognition of the significance of recording their experience. To know that one has painful memories to tell, and that others may be interested to listen is not in itself sufficient, it may also require a pathway to break through decades of previous silence. Today the impact of the Holocaust on young children is now considered as part of the whole traumatic experience, that is to say as the adult survivors are affected so to are the children…they are all a part of the entire traumatic experience.

How far back do people remember events of their childhood?

For the child survivor, the constant struggle with memory is overwhelming, whether it is too little or too much. If one does not have memories it may mean being deprived of a connection with those who loved and nurtured you, yet to have memories may mean that one is never free of the fear and dread of those terrible times. For example one child survivor's only vivid memory of his mother is the moment when he is torn from her arms into safety while she is pushed into a train to deportation and death. He never wants to forget his mother, but always wants to forget the train.

More powerful are the fragments of memory that may intrude and not make sense. They are triggered by both subtle and not so subtle events. Since the trauma occurred when the interviewees were children, the child survivor may have stored their memories as children do, i.e. through their senses. Memories are recalled from smell and touch. A mother's scent, a hand held by a father - any present day sensation that is remotely similar will be enough to trigger these painful memories.

Do painful and traumatic memories register and stay among young children - when ordinary memories would be lost?

Normal memory can be described as the action of telling a story. Traumatic memory by contrast is wordless and static. The trauma story in its untransformed state is a pre narrative. It does not develop or progress in time, and it does not reveal the storyteller's feelings or interpretation of events. It is like a series of still snapshots or a silent movie.

The subject of memory is very sensitive for child survivors. They often express doubt about their memories. They often lacked adult support during their traumatic experiences, and as a consequence there was no one to reinforce or help them reconstruct those memories. This could also make it difficult to distinguish between what they actually experienced and what had been told to them. In contrast to the child survivor, the adult who survived had usually acquired a strong sense of cultural and /or religious identity. His/her memory of family and tradition would be powerful and precious and perhaps serve to sustain them.

What if we are retraumatizing people who bring up painful childhood memories?

The majority of child survivors have not told their stories, as children they were not encouraged to tell. As adults they have looked upon their stories as unimportant. The value of collecting memories is demonstrated by a proliferation of autobiographical books from various child survivors like Samuel Pisar's book "Of Blood and Hope" (The Melbourne Holocaust Centre has a child survivor group who have published a series of books including an anthology of child survivor stories) many speak of the positive albeit difficult, effect of their actions.

The telling of their story whether as an interview or in a book has proved for many a therapeutic and sometimes cathartic experience. It may serve as a vehicle for personal release. However it must said that the interview or telling of the story might be cathartic for some but not necessarily for all.

SOME METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES

How does one determine a cut-off age for interviewing child survivors; is there one?

In the process of interviewing over 51,000 survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust, the Shoah Foundation has classified a survivor of the holocaust as anyone who lived under Nazi and/or Axis rule between 1933 and 1945 and experienced persecutory and/or National Socialist policy. A child survivor is defined as someone who was born after January 1, 1929. This may also include adolescents. e. g. someone born in Poland in 1930 was 9 years old when the war affected his/her life; a person born in Hungary in 1930 was 14 years old when the holocaust came to Hungary.

Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and communities since the earliest European presence in Australia. There is a difficulty in ascertaining just how many were forcibly removed, as many records have not survived and others have failed to record the children's aboriginality.

Who does the oral history project interview?

The Shoah Foundation's interviews chronicle a range of experiences during the Holocaust, a representation of experiences…both Jewish and non-Jewish. In many cases child survivors are not so easily identifiable. Having once been concealed and silent, they do not come forward easily and there are many who have not broken that long silence.

As a direct result of the "Bringing them Home Report" in 1997 the Australian National Library, Canberra has been conducting a major oral history project with people involved in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Those interviewed include Indigenous people with a diverse range of separation experiences as well as a range of professionals who worked with the children, and others concerned with the policies and their administration.

It appears that the project is seeking to gather a wide range of accounts from individuals, which will provide future researchers and the general public with a record of what happened during this difficult and not well-known period of Australian history.

What is the role of the interviewer interviewing people who may reveal traumatic memories?

In any interview situation the role of the interviewer is of paramount importance. There are two things an interviewer must be aware of when setting out to conduct interviews with people who will reveal traumatic memories. Firstly there must be an understanding of how trauma affects individuals. What traumatic memory is and how it is different from other kinds of memory. Secondly there must be an awareness of the forces that work upon the listener, the witness, of these memories and the propensity to silence and deny those memories. It is as if the interviewer must be the container for the survivor's story and simultaneously be managing his or her own pain.

In any interview it is important to build trust by establishing a partnership with the interviewee. The interviewer should take a non judgemental approach to the child survivors' memory or fragments thereof and follow their lead, their story; not putting emphasis on chronology and details of events that could be beyond the child's scope of knowledge. Simple, sensitive questions that evoke the memory, the use of the senses, of images; e.g. smell, touch rather than the actual memory.

These interviews are not just contributing to an Oral History record; they also serve as a commemorative project for those participating…for the child survivors of the holocaust, for the Stolen Children; for other child survivors of trauma.

The Koorie Heritage Trust was established in Melbourne in 1985 with a commitment to protect, document and share the culture of the indigenous people of southeast Australia with the rest of the world. They are in the process of developing an oral history project to audio and videotape some testimonies of the Koorie Stolen Children. I am currently working as a consultant with them to develop this important project.

There is a commonality that is shared by people with tragic childhood memories, as is the process of uncovering those memories and bringing them forth. For the child survivor of the holocaust, for the Stolen Children and for all child survivors of trauma this process may serve as one of individual healing. For the Stolen Children it is my hope and belief that it can be a contributing factor towards a national healing… towards reconciliation.

Back to the Stories Index