Life's sentences

January 12, 1996

Oral history is often neglected as a research tool, but Anton Gill explains how pertinent it was in his study of concentration camp survivors.

I came to oral history research as an absolute beginner and I was thrown - or threw myself - in at the deep end. It was the third book I wrote that represented the deep end. I was commissioned to write The Journey Back from Hell, a book about the postwar lives of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, in 1985.

I was faced with the task of tracking down, gaining the confidence of, and then interviewing former prisoners of all categories (for my investigation was not to be confined to the Jewish Holocaust) about their postliberation experiences. Survivors, most of whom came from Central and Eastern Europe, were now scattered throughout the globe. I had a relatively small advance - Pounds 13,000 - out of which I had to pay all my expenses. The work was to last three years. I was lucky that I was able to subsidise my work with smaller, short-term books, such as a history of the game of croquet. But there were times when I envied academic historians on university salaries.

Nevertheless, I managed to interview about 150 survivors in 14 different countries and to correspond with many more. The then USSR was particularly cooperative, though it has to be said that a couple of weeks after my interview at its London press office, my principal contact was repatriated on suspicion of espionage. "I am as clean as a whistle," he protested on television as the Special Branch hustled him through the rain on to an Aeroflot plane at Heathrow.

The initial problem I faced was how to go about tracking down survivors. There were obvious lines of approach where Jews were concerned - The Jewish Chronicle and the bulletin of the Association of Jewish Refugees were most helpful, as were the representatives of the Board of Deputies. As for non-Jewish Polish survivors now resident in this country, a small ad in The Polish Daily brought me almost a greater response than I could cope with. I also scoured the telephone directory for likely clubs, churches, and old people's homes. For contacts abroad, I wrote initially to embassies and to principal newspapers and television stations. Everybody was generous with their help.

The first line of enquiry yielded some individuals but far more organisations of survivors. My next job was to approach their officers, who would then interview me. I was well aware that I was being vetted, and understood their reasons for doing so: the memories concentration camp survivors carry are traumatic, and they have often been exploited by insensitive journalists.

Having passed the interviews, I began to get introductions to individual survivors. As my name was passed around the circuit, people began to approach me. Sometimes this happened with disconcerting directness. One afternoon I was working when there was a knock at my front door. I opened it to an elderly couple who introduced themselves as Auschwitz survivors. They spent the rest of the day telling me their story.

Most of the next phase of my work, however, was concerned with logistics. I had to arrange clusters of interviews which could be carried out in certain places at certain times throughout Europe. Railway timetables had to be consulted, city maps bought, interview dossiers prepared. Flights and hotels had to be booked, though sometimes I was invited to stay at survivors' homes. These people had never met me before. They were, however, eager and even grateful to tell their stories.

It wasn't easy. Most of the people I spoke to were, at first, very wary of me; but once they had accepted me I found that there was no question they ducked. There were surreal moments. Taking a break from interviews to do a day trip to Bethlehem and Jericho, I found myself on the coach sitting next to an elderly German former tank commander with halitosis you could break rocks with who told me he had come to Israel on a reconnaissance trip to see if it was a safe place to bring his wife on holiday. Our equally elderly tour guide carried a pistol at his hip and spent as much time berating the Arabs as filling us in on Jewish history.

There were pitfalls, too. I had arranged to go to Oslo exclusively to interview Professor Leo Eitinger, then head of the Institute of Disaster Psychology at Oslo University, and a survivor of Auschwitz. A native of Czechoslovakia, he had fled to Norway only to be arrested there later and transported: he was one of 11 Jewish Norwegians to survive. He told me he would give me half-an-hour. Then, if he was not satisfied that I was well-enough versed on concentration camp history to conduct a proper interview, he would terminate the meeting. I was relieved that in the event he gave me more than two hours then and a further four that evening, when he invited me to dine with him and his wife at their flat.

I had decided early on to use a small Sony tape recorder. The little machine was not intrusive or threatening, as a large microphone might have been. But I never used it without permission, and if permission was refused, resorted to a notebook.

It was not possible to discuss life after the camps without talking about life before and during incarceration in them. Some interviews were short - Simon Wiesenthal, the director of the Jewish Documentation Centre, Vienna, allotted me half-an-hour and ended up by giving me 60 minutes - but most lasted three or four hours and some took longer. The longest interview was with a retired doctor in Holland, which lasted 15 hours, in the course of which we consumed two bottles of whisky and five packets of cigarettes. Not everyone I talked to could be included in the final version of the book for reasons of space. Some were left out for other reasons: one Polish Gentile survivor of three years in Auschwitz (average life-expectancy there was three weeks), who demonstrated a profound knowledge of Jewish culture and history in the course of the interview, vouchsafed to me at the end his belief that the one mistake Hitler had made was not to "finish the job", by which he meant the extermination of the Jews. My editor found his story too controversial for inclusion.

I collected about 350 hours of interview for The Journey Back From Hell, which are now housed in the British Library's Oral History department in Kensington. My other tape collections will be similarly archived. It is my hope that they will contribute to the work of future historians in this field. I believe it is important to collect information of this sort while we can from the people who lived through periods of recent history.

I am not suggesting, however, that the word of such people should be taken as gospel. The recent recollections of a former British officer now in his nineties who was at the liberation of Belsen 50 years ago caused some concern to several survivors of that camp because of their inaccuracy. Of course it is necessary to crosscheck all such testimony. The memory can play honest tricks with the elderly and there are those who lie.

I have now used this technique in three other books - a study of Eastern Europe in 1988-89, just before the fall of communism; a social history of Berlin, 1918-39; and a book about the resistance to Nazism within Germany, 1933-45. I have been fortunate in finding people left alive who were involved in the periods of study at a sufficiently advanced age to have adult memories of them. The Germans have a very striking word for them - Zeitzeugen - witnesses of their time.

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