The US Holocaust Memorial Museum began collecting and producing oral histories in 1989. Today, the collection consists of over 9,000 interviews conducted by the Museum or collected from other institutions. These interviews include Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, such as people targeted as Roma or Sinti, ethnic Poles, political dissidents, resistance fighters, gay men, and others. There are also oral histories with rescuers, liberators, postwar prosecutors of war crimes, Displaced Persons relief workers, and members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. According to Museum guidelines, "...textual documents are essential for the study of the Holocaust, [but] an individual's testimony can supplement those documents by providing a detailed and personal look at a historical event that may be underrepresented or even absent from written works."1
Everything possible is done to create an environment in which the interviewee feels comfortable relating their story in detail. For example, guidelines stress the interviewer/interviewee relationship as a part of the process of testimony, suggesting that the interview "can create a bond between the two people that even ill-conceived questions cannot destroy. It is within that bond that questions and answers flow, and that history is revealed."2 Interviewers are advised against correcting statements that are historically inaccurate, and are asked to remember that the interview is about personal experience rather than history. While extensive preparation is required, the interview should emerge relatively organically. The interviewer guides, but does not lead.
This is a selection of an interview with survivor Charlene Schiff. Charlene Perlmutter Schiff was born in Horochów (today Horokhiv in Ukraine) on December 16, 1929. Her interview touches on many topics, including her parents' roles as educators and civic leaders and the murder of her town's Jewish leaders, among them her father. She describes how she and her mother and older sister had to do forced labor until they moved into a ghetto, and how she dug an escape route out of the ghetto in order to get food and bring it back with some of the other children. She became separated from her mother and had to hide and wander alone through the forests for two years. Soviet soldiers discovered her after the war and placed her in a military hospital. Schiff lived in a Displaced Persons camp before immigrating to the United States in 1949.3
In the featured clip from the interview, Schiff discusses her time hiding in the forest and the lengths to which she needed to go in order to feed herself. The interviewer, Joan Ringelheim, presses Schiff to describe not only her practical day to day reality, but also to reflect upon the ways in which she processes and understands her memory of the episodes that she relates. The result is a testimony that reflects upon both experience and memory in equal measure.