ORAL HISTORY PROJECTS
- Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
- Museum of Jewish Heritage G.I. Oral History Project
- Columbia University Oral History Department
- Port Washington Public Library Medical History Project
- Port Washington Public Library World Trade Center Project
- Port Washington Fire Department
SURVIVORS OF THE SHOAH VISUAL HISTORY FOUNDATION
In 1996 I applied to Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation to become an interviewer in its project of collecting video testimonies from survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Steven Spielberg had established the foundation after the release of his film,Schindler’s List. I strongly agreed with the foundation’s aim: to create a permanent record on videotape of survivors’ personal experiences before, during and after the Holocaust, to help to ensure that one of the most devastating events in human history would never be forgotten. Over my 30-year profession as an author of books and articles I had interviewed many hundreds of people, often about sensitive subjects, and I believed that my experience gave me something to contribute to this project. I also felt that it would be a way to give back something to society in appreciation of my gratifying writing career.
I was accepted into the Shoah Foundation’s rigorous training program. Over three full days, those of us in the training program heard eminent speakers, received background information about the history of the Holocaust and the project itself, were briefed on the project’s aims, learned research techniques and sources to help us prepare for our interviews, received suggestions on the special concerns involved in conducting these interviews, saw videotaped testimonies that were models of good interviews—and some that demonstrated inadequacies. As part of the selection process, we were asked to evaluate some of those interviews, and we were also evaluated ourselves as we conducted sample interviews with volunteers. After meeting the project’s criteria, I was among the smaller group selected to be interviewers.
I went on to conduct videotaped interviews with numerous survivors and to receive extremely positive evaluations both from Foundation performance reviewers and from the interviewees themselves. I was in continual demand from the Foundation, and I interviewed as many survivors as my schedule allowed over the next three years until the interview phase of the project had ended. Once the foundation had completed some 50,000 interviews, interviewing ceased, although other work continued.
Now the videotapes, copies of which reside in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, New Haven, and Jerusalem, are being catalogued and indexed by thousands of key terms, so that students, educators, film-makers, researchers and scholars around the world, now and in the future, will be able to access this tragic and important aspect of world history.
COMMENTS FROM SHOAH FOUNDATION REVIEWERS AND INTERVIEW SUBJECTS:
“After I watched the interview of my older brother with a different interviewer, I realized how good you were. I just called to thank you for doing such a good job with my interview.” —R.B., a French survivor (August 29, 1999)
“Our highest rating.” —J.W., Shoah performance reviewer, about an interview with a Romanian survivor with limited English skills (April 22, 1998)
“You did a really good job—good reflective questions—a great interview—I’m going to give you the highest recommendation.” —N.A., Shoah performance reviewer, about an interview with a German survivor of concentration camps (April 24, 1997)
“An excellent interview—you did your research and it showed—your questions were excellent, with a gentle kind of probing.” —D.H., Shoah performance reviewer, about a 6-hour interview of a Polish survivor of ghettos and concentration camps (February 17, 1998)
“Incredibly strong interview.” —I.S., Shoah performance reviewer, about the first interview I conducted for the project, with an Italian survivor of concentration camps (February 6, 1997)
MUSEUM OF JEWISH HERITAGE G.I. ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
In 1999 The Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in New York City, launched a multifaceted research project to capture firsthand the stories of Jewish men and women who served in the Allied military forces during World War Two. I conducted a number of videotaped interviews for this project, drawing on my experience and expertise developed during my work with the Shoah Foundation.
This project is part of the Museum’s commitment to using personal narratives to tell the story of Jewish life in the twentieth century. Ten years earlier, the Museum had begun collecting historical documentation in the form of video testimony, providing historians and the public with living witnesses to the past. The Museum integrated that material with audio recordings and archival footage to create 24 original films. The Museum is using these videos in a similar way to educate visitors and help them understand twentieth-century Jewish experience and the history of World War Two. The interviews, supplemented by artifacts from the interviewees, have formed the basis for a special exhibition at the Museum, for traveling exhibitions, and for scholarly research. One of my interviewees is among the small group whose narratives were selected forOurs to Fight For: American Jewish Voices from the Second World War, the book issued in conjunction with the exhibit.
Although this project did not have a formal procedure for evaluating specific interviews as the Shoah Foundation did, the project directors’ endorsement of my work can be seen in the fact that I was continually asked to conduct as many interviews as possible over the two years that I participated in this project, until the interview phase ended toward the end of 2000.
AMONG THE COMMENTS RECEIVED FROM INTERVIEWEES:
“You conducted my interview with consummate skill and managed to bring out some pertinent facts overlooked by other interviewers, and I might add, you did this with tact and ease. Thanks to you, the experience was a pleasant one despite the gravity of the subject.” —G.T., a Polish-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who then went on to volunteer with the Army of the United States (July 10, 2000)
“I particularly wanted to thank the interviewer, Sally Olds, whose insightful questioning prodded my mind to recall far more memories than I knew I had. It was a pleasure to work with her.” —A.S., a former officer with the United States Coast Guard (November 15, 2000)
“Your sensitive interview enabled me to have this chapter [in the Museum’s book]. My sincerest appreciation for your superb talents.” —J.S., a soldier in the infantry
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY ORAL HISTORY DEPARTMENT
Under a grant by the National Science Foundation, Columbia University has been conducting an oral history project on the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Over a two-year period, researchers are collecting and analyzing life stories of people who were affected by these catastrophic attacks. I have interviewed several people for both phases of the project. The project was initiated and is under the direction of Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia’s Oral History Research Office.
PORT WASHINGTON PUBLIC LIBRARY MEDICAL HISTORY PROJECT
I interviewed several physicians and other health care providers as part of this program to preserve the history of health care in this community. The aim of this project is to shed light on traditions and past practices and to trace the evolution of changes in medical technology and care. The project is under the direction of Elly Shodell, Oral History Director of the Port Washington Public Library.
PORT WASHINGTON PUBLIC LIBRARY WORLD TRADE CENTER PROJECT
I am the interviewer for the Port Washington Public Library’s archival project to collect and preserve oral histories and materials related to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. I have interviewed a number of people from this community who were affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center, including workers who were in the towers during the attacks, emergency personnel, and family members of people who lost their lives on that day.
PORT WASHINGTON FIRE DEPARTMENT
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the all-volunteer Port Washington Fire Department in 2007, I interviewed firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and auxiliary members with the department. These interviews document the individual experiences of the men and women in the four companies of the department (Engine, Hook and Ladder, Hose, and Fire Medics) who serve the community. The department is the busiest volunteer firefighting brigade in Nassau County, serving some 35,000 residents, in addition to another 20,000 people who come to Port Washington as workers in the district’s many businesses. These interviews have become part of the Fire Department’s archives, as well as part of a website that paints a picture to show the community how it is served by these brave citizens. I have also participated in editing the transcripts, and excerpting portions of the interviews to post on the website.