A Meditation on Narrative and Sources
I originally thought this through in a twitter thread, adapted here in my preferred style with minor changes for grammar, spelling, and clarity. Asterisks denote discussions too big for this post, some of which can be found in my MA Thesis.
In grad school I did extensive research on the Shanghai Jewish refugee community, specifically, by way of reading memoirs. Now I’m doing extensive research on the Warsaw Ghetto, specifically the Jewish resistance in, once again by reading memoirs.
Memoirs are a deeply fallible source, further complicated by their status as published or unpublished, with oral histories requiring a different set of questions altogether. But the strength and joy of working with memoir as primary source for a small, specific, closed communities is that memoir/oral history/diary/ego-narrative can be a surprisingly telling source.
Yes there will be self-aggrandizement, flaws in human memory, repression, mis-ordered remembrance, flattering portrayals of those who do not deserve it, but as a group, as a body of literature, they can come together to tell on odd sort of truth. They can tell the patchwork story of a community, through vastly different points of view, each with their own, unique reason for existing.
Especially in regard to Holocaust narratives, you will see people writing, or speaking, about their experiences for a very specific set of reasons: they understood that they lived through something Big and wanted to record it; they needed to cope with their trauma; they want their children and grandchildren to know their story; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the Shoah Foundation asked for and took their oral histories; they realized many years after the fact that their story needed to be told, etc.
Their motivation for telling/writing will shape, or inform, their narrative. A woman writing for her grandchildren may not write about the time she slept with a Japanese man in return for food money. A Polish man writing for History may not notice that his female comrades in the Jewish resistance had to slip off into the woods for an abortion.
Their motivations for writing, and, of course their gendered experiences and national socialization issues*, will inform the narrative the historian ends up seeing in front of them.
So even though these sources are deeply flawed, and shaped by so many factors and biases on the part of the writers, together they still tell a fairly cohesive story as long as you know how to analyze and interrogate them appropriately.
And, honestly, it’s such a thrill when the same figures and events pop in different narratives; when the same events occur through so many sets of eyes. There are couriers in Aryan Warsaw. The Nazis are liquidating the ghetto. Traumatized camp survivors are disembarking in Shanghai. American planes are bombing the part of Shanghai where the Jews had to live.
Through one point of view, one recollection, these are just stories. But through the eyes of many, they approach something a little bit closer to a cohesive narrative, to a form of truth, perhaps.