Project Notes by Arwen Donahue
In 1994, Joan Ringelheim, head of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Department of Oral History, had the idea of starting an interview project on the postwar experiences of Holocaust survivors. I was fortunate to have joined the oral history staff soon after that, and so was intimately involved with the Museum's Post-Holocaust Interview Project from the time of its inception. The project was unique in its conception, and the interviews' contents were fascinating and illuminating. Most oral history interviews with survivors focus almost exclusively on experiences that took place from 1933 to 1945. This is understandable, but a survivor's life—as any person's—cannot be confined to an event in history. A life is always growing and changing, always open to interpretation, always defying definitions. By focusing on the present moment as well as recent years, Post-Holocaust Project interviewees had plenty of room to explore and reflect upon their lives as whole people, rather than being only “Holocaust survivors.”
The opportunity to work with Regine Beyer on a series of audio portraits of survivors' postwar lives was a tremendous one. It was an opportunity to bring what I'd learned from years of listening to Holocaust survivors to bear-to wrench open stereotypes, to present these people to a public audience in all their glorious diversity and complexity. Also, the interviews provide an opportunity to reflect on the culture and society we have made since the end of the war: our strengths, our prejudices, and our struggle for a genuine democracy; our struggle to learn to listen to others with the deepest respect and most careful attention.