Yearning and Family History (from the Oral History Assn conference)
“Yearning,” she called it. Yearning. Her word leapt at me with all the force of being the right, true, word describing what’s within me. Her story: An experienced oral history interviewer visits a distant family member and is very quickly drawn into a story of trauma, of holocaust, of fractured families. The Q & A brought forth uncanny connections between her story, and other stories of fracturing, family, holocaust and slavery.
The panel at the Oral History Association conference in Oakland was called Community and Individual Memory. One presentation, about how the City of Fremont celebrated its 50th anniversary, is worth its own short post. This post is about a presentation by Rina Benmayor, on yearning and family interviewing.
Benmayor is one of the founders and directors of the CSUMB Oral History and Community Memory Institute and Archive. She’s an experienced oral history interviewer. In her presentation, she describes how, after doing some family research, she went to northern Greece to visit a relative (grandmother’s cousin*), whom she calls “Duka.” They had not met before. Benmayor brought her own collection of family photos and mementos—lots of which belonged to her grandmother. They bonded over shared memorabilia; their two collections fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Benmayor sees in Duka’s collection pictures of her young self (Grandma sent the pictures to her cousin), and in Benmayor’s collection, there are pictures of Duka and her family. Another cousin is present; he’s from Australia, and he acts as videographer of the interview that Benmayor conducts with Duka. The common language they spoke—Ladino.
Almost immediately, the interview veered from a description of early childhood (happy) to an account of surviving the holocaust. Duka tells of the separation of family—she went to one of the camps, and worked hard, oh so hard. Afterwards, she comes back and learned the fate of the rest of her family. Some members went into hiding, who (thinking that the coast was clear) came back to the house. But the coast was not clear, someone just identified the houses as belonging to Jews, so they were taken into custody, sent to the camps, and killed. She tells of the utter devastation of her family. Fractured.
Benmayor was totally unprepared for hearing a story of trauma and holocaust. So she went into factual questions, what happened, describe this, describe that.
Let me unpack that last sentence a bit. An experienced oral historian should research the interviewee’s historical context. The more the interviewer knows about the larger context, the better the interview questions. A better interview will have the interviewee reflecting on the experiences and their meaning, and not simply reciting what happened. Further, if there’s trauma, the interviewer should be prepared for that.
Benmeyor knew that these are the things that make for a good, solid interview. But she hadn’t known about these events with this side of the family, and so hadn’t done research or prepared herself for an interview that dwelt in trauma and the holocaust.
Benmayor said that her distant cousin’s language had a sense of “absence”—the language concealed more than it revealed. We were shown a couple of brief excerpts of the interview, in order to observe her relative’s body language. It’s not a matter of a picture is worth a thousand words, but a shrug that’s worth a thousand words. Or rather, the shrug that stands in for the possible thousands of words the interviewee could speak if she were to find words to describe what took place. My notes of the session from near this moment: “(There is no self.)”
(I attended another panel devoted to oral history and traumatic events, so I heard more about this that I’ll write about.)
Rina Benmayor experienced a collision of yearnings, she said—between her own yearning and what she did hear. She said, “My imagined story didn’t materialize.”
Benmayor’s presentation sparked a discussion that touched on the holocaust, on trauma, on fractured families, and of drawbacks in interviewing family members.
An elderly African American man stood up and told of his being a soldier in WW2—he was not in a squad that actually liberated Buchenwald, but his group arrived there soon after. He witnessed the horrors of the captives. He asked people in Buchenwald, “How could you let this happen?” Later, when he came home to the States, he asked his elders (either parents or grandparents, can’t remember) about their experience of slavery. He was told, Oh baby, all the family was broken up.
Another man spoke. He said he was from Austria; he has conducted a number of oral history interviews as a researcher. He’s also conducted some interviews with family members. He found those to be much harder to do—to go past that wall of silence and learn what happened. What the relatives experienced. It makes you rewrite what you know about yourself. (Lo these few weeks later, I’m not certain if he was the one who said that the Austrians haven’t worked through coming to terms with the holocaust in the way Germans have. But if so, then that sheds light on the wall of silence.)
I was awed to see these different perspectives mentioned together in this one room, in such a short timespan. These were voices of a holocaust victim, a holocaust liberator who was himself descended from former slaves, and the descendent of members of the society which perpetrated the holocaust.
Someone asked, “how many people here have interviewed family members?” A number of hands went up (oh that I could have talked to each person). Someone mentioned that doing detective work on family is doing detective work on yourself. One person mentioned feeling a sense of hesitation about inquiring into deeper details, not wanting to offend the family member. Another person in the room (that I did get to talk to), Angela Zusman, observed the tension between “the mind that wants to know and the heart that wants to connect”—but she also said to go forward with the inquiry.
Weeks after the conference, I’m still sifting through the issues raised in this session. How does one prepare for a conversation about trauma? Is it easier or harder to interview a member of one’s own family than it is to interview someone else? (and for someone who just wants to do this, to try this out, how does one prepare?) For someone who’s (probably) new at this interviewing task, how do you even begin to parse the issues of rewriting what you know about yourself, or what all’s involved in detective work on both family and self? And finally, I’m glad to have heard Benmayor’s use of the word yearning—which perfectly describes what’s been within me all this while.
Susan, What a moving concept this “yearning!” And thank you for such a moving article. I’m a novice at interviewing and I admire anyone with the skills and the knowledge to use this technique successfully. I fear that I’m stuck more on the end of the worse interviewer—- down near the person who sticks a microphone in one’s face and demands “Say something!” which was the approach one took with me once!
The more I read of your work, however, the more I hope that one day I will be comfortable enough to use interviews to include them in my approach to local history. Thanks for the education.