The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began collecting and producing oral histories in 1989. Today, the collection consists of over 9,000 accessioned interviews conducted by the Museum or collected from other institutions. These interviews include Jewish and non-Jewish survivors (people targeted as Sinti/Roma, Polish Catholics, gay people, political dissidents, and resistance fighters), as well as rescuers, liberators, postwar prosecutors of war crimes, displaced persons relief workers, and members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. According to the methodology of the Oral History Interview Guidelines, "While textual documents are essential for the study of the Holocaust, 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 To that end, everything possible is done to create an environment in which the interviewee feels comfortable relating their story in detail. For example, USHMM guidelines stress the interviewer/interviewee relationship as a part of the process of testimony, and suggest 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. Thus, while a general question framework and extensive preparation are 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 (1929-2013). 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; the murder of her town's Jewish leaders, including her father; her mother and older sister having to do forced labor until they moved into a ghetto; digging an escape route out of the ghetto in order to get food and bring it back with some of the other children; her mother arranging for her remaining family to go into hiding; being separated from her mother when trying to escape to her hiding place; finding the farmer who had agreed to hide her but no longer being able to hide with him; hiding and wandering alone through the forests for two years; Soviet soldiers discovering her after the war and placing her in a military hospital; moving into a displaced persons camp; and emigrating to the United States in 1949. Similar to Charlene Schiff, Saartje Wijnberg also hid in the nearby countryside after escaping the Sobibór killing center in the fall of 1943.
In this selection from the larger interview, Schiff discusses her time hiding in the forest, specifically 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.