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Friday, December 11, 2015

ORAL HISTORY AS IT OUGHT TO BE DONE

If you’re looking for an example of a published oral history that’s a model of the form, I don’t think you’ll go far wrong by looking at Harry Butowski’s just-published I Survived: My Name is Yitzkhak (2015: Word Association Publishers[1]). It’s the recollections of the late Isadore (Yitzkhak) Neiman, covering his youth in what would become at various times part of Russia, Poland and Belarus, his escape from Hitler’s military and loss of his family to the Holocaust, and his struggles to survive inside, outside, and around the armies of Poland and the USSR through World War II and its aftermath until his immigration to America in 1951.

Over the decades, I’ve read a fair amount about 20th century Europe and the near-destruction of its Jewish population by the Nazis, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything – other than maybe Anne Frank’s diary – that’s quite as evocative as Mr. Neiman’s account. His youth in the village of Czuczewicze, his love of potatoes, his rationalizations for stealing to survive, his plodding treks across vast stretches of the continent with thousands of others trying to stay ahead of the Nazi armies, his diversity of coping mechanisms in the chaos of the post-war USSR – it all comes through with remarkable, touching honesty.

This clarity reflects Butowski’s skillful recording and editing. Butowski began recording Yitzkhak’s recollections in 1974 out of simple interest and friendship, lost track of him when he (Butowski) came to Washington to work as an historian with the National Park Service, and resurrected his notes and tapes after retiring. He has used the latter in editing the former, apparently with a very light hand. A few footnotes to add historical detail, a useful prefatory section that puts Mr. Neiman’s life in historical context, and that’s about it (though anyone who's edited oral history knows that there had to be a lot of effort behind that light touch). So what at least seems to be Yitzkhak’s authentic voice comes through, and is truly compelling.

I Survived is a triumph, and should stand as a testament to the millions who didn’t.



[1] http://www.amazon.com/I-Survived-My-Name-Yitzkhak/dp/1633851001/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449879850&sr=8-1&keywords=I+Survived%3A+My+Name+is+Yitzkhak

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