Oral history within the family

I would like to explore my family’s history through an interview with my 96 year old great aunt. Although physically frail she is still a great storyteller, and an insightful interpreter of her own life and how it relates to the present.

One of 6 children born into a poor Jewish family in Manchester, at a young age (younger than 10 I believe) she was orphaned and living in a household headed by her 14 year old sister. They survived through the hard graft of the children, and the kindness and help of neighbours – who can’t have had a lot to spare themselves. She has never talked to me about the racial aspects of her childhood, but I have heard (not directly from my great aunt) that my grandmother was unofficially adopted by childless non-Jewish neighbours and lived with them for some years. As a consequence my grandmother doesn’t seem to have considered herself Jewish, which I’m sure had consequences for relationships between the siblings.

The Second World War seems to have been liberating for her personally. She’s never quite said how this came about – possibly I’ve never asked – but at some point during the 1940s she spent time in Egypt. I don’t know if this was during or after the war. What can she have been doing there? She has some great pictures of her perched nervously on a furious-looking camel. After the war she pitched up in London on her own (!) and met her future husband at a literary evening. They were both avid readers, and together became involved in left-wing politics. Shortly after Israel was founded they went to live on a Kibbutz, which she hated (I’m not sure if this was to do with politics, lifestyle or both). Returning to London they opened a bookshop in Finchley, which was eventually very successful but they had many years of financial struggle. They had one son, and as there were no nurseries at that time she describes an incredibly difficult juggling act as a working mother. The family ended up pillars of the local community, to her lasting amusement (and secret delight, I suspect).

I am intrigued by the ellipses in family history – my great aunt has shared some compelling vignettes from her life but I’m not sure of the chronology or how they relate to each other. The Holocaust seems to be a taboo subject – I have no idea how it affected the extended family. Perhaps she doesn’t know either; I don’t get the impression she or her siblings were in touch with any wider family after their parents died. But perhaps I have this wrong.  I have often wondered if these gaps are because she wants to be in control of what she reveals or because I just haven’t asked the right questions or listened carefully enough. There are a number of themes I would like to explore through this interview, among them: my great aunt’s relationship both with her siblings and her Jewish identity; experiences of anti-semitism (she has never mentioned it); the liberating impact of the war; the significance of Israel to her; being a working woman (and especially wife and mother) in 1950s London; class and social mobility. I think this interview could shed light on these aspects of 20th century history through one person’s experience. It would also be an opportunity to reflect on the ethics and methodology of interviewing someone with whom one has a close emotional relationship within the context of a tight-knit family.

I have several concerns about this interview – some practical, some relational, some ethical – which I’ll explore in my next post, but the main area is whether she will feel she needs to ‘protect’ me from some of her more difficult experiences. I will also want to protect her, as I have no desire to cause her distress or bring traumatic memories to the surface. She might also just feel some of the things I’m interested in are none of my business – and I’m sure she will say so! She has honed her story so much in the retelling over the years I think I’ll probably hear a well-rehearsed version; entertaining, but guarded. Given her high status as the most senior member of the family it could be difficult for me to interogate this as I might wish.

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3 Comments on “Oral history within the family”

  1. Graham Smith says:

    Great reflection on the difficulties of oral history in family history, especially in a tight-knit family. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first ever interview. The silences would be worth gently exploring. Unsure of the idea of the war being liberating – you would need to explore and not assume. What an interview it could be.


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