Preserving Legacies Through Oral Histories

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The study of history is often focused on and dominated by towering figures—people who shaped their time and the era that followed, seeming to change the course of history itself. With apologies to the wiser gender, this approach to chronicling is commonly termed The Great Man theory of history, perhaps made most familiar to contemporary Americans by the illuminating, compelling documentaries of filmmaker Ken Burns. His work tells hundreds of stories, but his touchstones often guide the journey through America’s past—from Abraham Lincoln to Washington Roebling to Louis Armstrong.

While not disagreeing with this approach, the late historian Stephen Ambrose said that history is made by ordinary individuals, often those who faced stark choices as to which action seemed right at a particular moment. These decisions and experiences, woven together, are what make for powerful history surrounding world-altering events. Ambrose’s view was crystallized in his powerful work on D-Day when, he said, the actions of a few individuals who decided to fight rather than die on the Normandy beaches saved the world.

It follows that the seemingly ordinary lives of today’s seniors — our parents, grandparents, siblings, mates — are essential threads in history’s tapestry whose stories can and should be researched and recorded. The exercise itself is often revelatory — and immensely enjoyable.

Getting Started

The hardest part, according to historian and oral history expert Barbara Truesdell of Indiana University-Bloomington, is getting started. “It is perfectly understandable for individuals to be somewhat leery of approaching their parents about recording their stories,” she says. “Of course, a close relationship with your parents makes things easier, but a different kind of relationship should not be seen as an impediment. Consider the other side of the coin, and view such a proposal as an opening for developing a deeper kinship as parents age.”

Older people can also be reluctant to reflect and recount their lives, according to Truesdell. “For seniors battling depression—perhaps brought on by the gradual eroding of mobility and dexterity and mental agility—thinking about what they did means thinking about what they used to do, and that can sometimes make them uncomfortable, even despondent,” she says.

Framing their oral histories as a gift they can leave children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren often helps break the ice and inspires seniors to warm to the idea. “This is their legacy to their descendents,” Truesdell says, “And it’s more valuable than anything that could possibly be left to families after they have gone.”

Tips on Getting It Right

Truesdell offers a few simple technical and practical tips for conducting the interview.

  • First make sure your audio or video recording equipment is working properly. Test, test, test.
  • Find a quiet spot where the subject is comfortable and where, ideally, there will be no interruptions.
  • Try to pre-emptively eliminate any potential distractions.
  • Think like a reporter. Make a list of your questions, and sketch out the overall course you imagine for the interview.
  • Share your questions with your interviewees beforehand, perhaps letting them think about them for a couple of days. This not only puts the subjects more at ease, but can also inspire recollections buried for years that might not emerge on the spur of the moment.

Overcoming the Challenges of Video Recording

Video recording demands additional preparation, according to Truesdell. Show interviewees what they look like on camera, if possible. “The last thing you want is someone feeling self-conscious about his or her appearance,” she says.

And she adds that the most effective interviews of this genre are conversational, but not conversations. “Remember that you are acting as a journalist, so you must be mindful of basic journalistic practices: Do not interrupt your subject. Allow long pauses to go as long as need be in the course of an answer. Try to provide adequate explanation and context in your questions so future generations can easily understand the story,” she says. “A vague, meandering interview will likely be found in the attic years down the road, having perhaps been looked at once.”

One video recording that has been viewed considerably more than once was made by the family of Bela Adler, some 20 years ago. Richard Adler, who resides with his family in Malvern, PA, was not even present when his brother, an accomplished video and audio producer, videoed an extensive interview with their father. Bela Adler, who died in 1994, lived through the Holocaust, and his tale of escaping Europe and inevitable imprisonment by the Nazis is the stuff of a novel. The end result is something that he and generations of Adlers cherish and hold close.

But not surprisingly, perhaps, the elder Adler was loath to talk about his life at first. “It seems to me that, as time moves on, there are two groups of Holocaust survivors: One is those willing and even anxious to talk about it. They are determined to leave detailed documentation of the time, devoted to the principle of ‘never again,’ ” Richard Adler says. “Others, like my father, are extremely reticent. In my father’s case, he was not in the camps. He got out of Europe just as the war started. He always seemed to think his experiences were no big deal.”

As a young man, Bela Adler completed three and one-half years of medical studies when world events subsumed not only his life’s ambitions, but also the progress of humanity itself. He witnessed Hitler’s takeover of Austria, could recall Kristallnacht, and lost track of many family members amid the tumult. Relatives later died in Auschwitz. Once when working at a stable, a stable boy tipped him off that the Nazis were looking for him, and he escaped just ahead of their raid. He left Vienna for Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where he had a cousin, and the Nazis eventually caught up with him there. It was common for guards to order their prisoners to run errands and on one such occasion, Adler recognized the neighborhood. When his guard was distracted, he slipped away through familiar back alleys and obscure passageways and ended up at his cousin’s house, where he laid low for weeks. Later, he crossed many borders and found his way to what was then known as Palestine, spending the war years working with an uncle in Tel Aviv manufacturing medical devices.

After six years in Tel Aviv, he boarded a steamer for America, debarking in Philadelphia and eventually working in New York City where the skills he learned in Palestine landed him a job cutting diamonds for the famed house of Harry Winston. He then became successful in real estate in northern New Jersey, married and raised his family there.

The hours of interviews with Bela Adler are of especially keen interest to Richard Adler’s children, Isabelle and Ian, both soon bound for college. “Unfortunately, my children have no memory of their grandfather,” he says. “But this video tells his remarkable story, first-person. And as my children have gotten older, they understand the historical context and what my father’s story has meant to this family and, more broadly, to history.”

What tales might some of the older people in your life be harboring? Just ask.

(This article has been reviewed in February 2024 since it originally published July 2016.)

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