The Problem with Oral History

Our memories are not infallible. People who experience the same event often give varying accounts about what happened based on factors, which affect our perception. These can be external such as the location we occupy or the activity in which we are engaged at the time. They can also be internal, meaning our mental and emotional states. The result can be a challenging array of observations for any group, unified by a single occurrence.

One consequence of our vulnerable ability to remember things is the absence of the absolute certainty we would like to possess, when we are writing about historical events. History is fundamental to my current writing project, a screenplay about the experiences of Betsie and Corrie ten Boom. Sisters, they were imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II for helping Jews in Holland escape persecution.  

In telling their story I encountered a different kind of conflict; one of omission. Corrie’s almost polite representation of what they endured while imprisoned was not what I found in other accounts. To provide context, I looked for and found a comprehensive narrative about life in Ravensbruck, the Nazi prison for women. This was the last of three prisons in which Betsie and Corrie labored. It was by far the worst, the forced labor designed to get the last available ounce of service out of women destined for execution.

My source on Ravensbruck is the 2016 book by Sara Helm, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. At the core of Helm’s work is an extensive accumulation of oral histories by the women who survived the ordeal. Some of those survivors were children at the time of their imprisonment, but most were young adults, a few of whom possessed documentation to support their stories.

It is not unusual for historians gathering oral histories to encounter conflicts between the respective narratives. Most often the variances are minor. Sometimes, however, the differences are incredibly contradictory, leaving the poor historian with a difficult choice to make: Which version do you go with? Or do you report both without drawing a definitive conclusion?

Helm disclosed just such a problem regarding an event so spectacular that one can only wonder how people could disagree about the outcome. The conflicting reports concern a children’s Christmas party held a few months before the Russian army liberated the camp. All her sources agree that there was a Christmas party held in December 1944. The nature of the program and the food served is also uniformly supported. The debate arises in the telling of how the party ended.

Those sources, who were children and attended or were aware of the Christmas party, told her that the building in which the party was held was completely destroyed by an explosion. The obvious implication is that all the children at the party were killed in a heinous crime indicative of the situation the prisoners experienced every day. The camp commandant was under instructions to exterminate the camp population at the rate of 2,000 people a month regardless of age.

What these same sources could not clearly recall is how they managed to escape. Those sources, who were adults at the time and helped organize the party, say such an explosion never happened. The curious thing is that each version has multiple proponents, but they flatly contradict one another.  

The magnitude of the supposed crime is so incredible it makes you wonder how anyone could make it up if it did not occur. On the other hand, how could anyone who survived the camp not remember such an insidious event, even though the daily carnage was more lethal but committed on a far less spectacular basis; shooting, gassing, exposure to the elements and starvation? Someone is mistaken, but who?

My opinion is that age is another influential factor in shaping our memories. Those who were children at the time conflated different events into a single catastrophe. The adult witnesses, in my opinion, are the more reliable. The contradictions remain, however.

This event is not in my screenplay. The lack of unanimity is the primary reason for excluding something that would otherwise provide a spectacle on a colossal scale tailor made for a large screen presentation. Life at Ravensbruck was horrific enough to provide the desired context for retelling Corrie ten Boom’s account without trying to sensationalize it any further than what is easily verifiable. 

The problem with oral history is that our memories are not infallible.

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