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Oral History: Conducting Interviews with Survivors of the Holocaust

By Mario Perez, March 2000, based on the 1998 USHMM "Oral History Interview Guidelines"
formatted for the web by hm, July 3, 2002
  1. Preliminary Interview
  2. Making Arrangements for the Interview
  3. Conducting Research
  4. Preparing Questions
  5. Suggested Themes
  6. Suggested Questions
  7. Conducting the Interview
  8. After The Interview

Interviewing a Holocaust survivor can be a painful and difficult experience for both the interviewee and the interviewer. Asking a survivor to describe this most dreadful period in their life is a large and demanding request. When conducting an interview, one must take these facts into consideration. Thus, patience and understanding are essential to this process. First and foremost, an interviewer should never argue with the interviewee. Even if the interviewer is certain that the interviewee's historical data is incorrect, one should never argue with the survivor. An interview session is not the right time for the interviewer to display his/her historical knowledge. There is no place for ego in this process. Furthermore, one should never react negatively to what the interviewee has to say. For example, were a survivor to describe a rather graphic/unpleasant experience, the interviewer should not react with a look of disgust. The interviewer must expect to hear tragic stories. Therefore, it is important to train oneself to remain calm during the interview. In doing this, however, one should be careful not to appear stern and unconcerned.
  1. The Preliminary Interview
  2. The preliminary interview is conducted over the telephone. The purpose of this interview is to make a preliminary outline of the interviewee's story. Be very brief. Try to obtain the basic chronology of the survivor's experience. When the interview is complete, sit down and write a summary of the information obtained. This information will be useful in composing the questions that will be asked at the formal interview. Moreover, the information gathered over the telephone will allow the interviewer to make a better judgment as to whether or not the survivor in mind should be interviewed. The preliminary interview should be conducted weeks before the formal interview takes place. By conducting the preliminary phone session more than a couple of weeks in advance, the interviewer allows him/herself time to call back the interviewee if he/she (the interviewer) meets with any confusion as to the chronology of the interviewee's story.

  3. Making Arrangements for the Interview
  4. When and if you decide to conduct a formal interview with the survivor, contact the latter and make arrangements. Arrange the time and place with the interviewee and be sure to let him/her know the approximate length of the session to be conducted. The more the interviewee knows about the nature of this type of session the better; it will make for a more familiar and therefore comfortable setting. With respect to note taking, it is best that the interviewer not take notes while conducting the interview. This way the interviewer can give the interviewee his/her undivided attention. The interview should be tape/audio recorded and later transcribed. If it is helpful to the interviewer to have another person take notes during the session to supplement the video recording, the note taker should be in a position where he/she cannot interfere with the interview (in another room is preferable, i.e., a green room). In addition, it is better to have as few people in the room as possible; too many can be distracting.

    Finally, if the interviewer plans to make public use of the taped interview, it is necessary to have the interviewee sign a release statement absolving the interviewer from any legal ramifications. The release form should state how the obtained information will be used.

  5. Conducting Research After conducting the preliminary interview it is necessary to do research based on the information obtained Important Items to research:
    1. Names of places
      The interviewee may mention important names of places during the preliminary interview (i.e., the Judenrat, or the Lodz ghetto, name of survivor's hometown). The interviewer should familiarize him/herself with these names.
    2. Names of people
      One should familiarize him/herself with important names as well.
    3. Events/Organizations
      The interviewer should know important events and organizations that the interviewee mentions in the preliminary interview.
    4. Skim through a few Holocaust history books. Most libraries will have an appropriate selection.
      These are among some of the more famous writers of Holocaust history:
      William L. Shirer
      David S. Wyman
      Deborah Lipstadt
      William L. Rubinstein
      Elie Wiesel
    5. Interviewer should have a general knowledge of WWII European geography (i.e., look for maps of this period).
  6. Preparing Questions
    1. Organize the questions chronologically:
      For example:
      1) Pre-war years
      2) Lodz ghetto
      3) Auschwitz
      4) Liberation
    2. Once the questions have been compiled, try to memorize them. Looking at the questions during the interview can be distracting to the interviewee.
    3. Finally, it is important not to rush by trying to ask every question on the list. Oftentimes, the interviewee will address questions before they are asked.
  7. Suggested Themes
    1. Ask questions dealing with the survivor's family, occupation, and education
      Inquire how these elements may have helped them to survive.
    2. Ask questions dealing with the survivor's religious affiliation.
      Inquire how their religion may have played a role in their survival.
      Raise the importance or lack of importance of religion in their life, and how the Holocaust impacted this sphere.
  8. Suggested Questions
    1. As mentioned earlier, questions should be prepared in a chronological order.
    2. The order for full-length interview:
      1.) Prewar Life
      2.) Holocaust/Wartime Experiences
      3.) Postwar Experiences

      The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has created a standard questionnaire to make this process less difficult for the beginning interviewer. The questionnaire can be found in Oral History Interview Guidelines. For a copy of this booklet contact USHMM at (202) 488-0400. · Remember: the USHMM questionnaire is only a guideline. The interviewer will probably ask more in-depth questions that relate to the interviewee's unique story. In other words, one need not strictly follow the questionnaire.

  9. Conducting the Interview
    1. Follow the preceding guidelines
    2. Before commencing the interview, the interviewer should briefly get acquainted with the interviewee, especially if the two are meeting for the first time.
    3. To begin:
      1. Ask open-ended questions: "Tell me about your family life before the war." This allows the interviewee the ability to direct the interview. The interviewer will merely guide the process along.
      2. The interviewer should not interrupt too often. Rather, he/she should interject when a transition from one subject to the next is being made.
      3. Especially if the interview is being taped, the interviewer should not make many verbal comments. It can be distracting, especially if the tape will be viewed or heard by others in the future.
      4. Make sure to take breaks. Interviewing a Holocaust survivor requires a lot of energy.
  10. After the Interview
    1. Thank the interviewee
        1. Before the interviewee leaves, thank him/her.
        2. Call the interviewee about two days after the session and thank him/her again. Because the interview session will be emotionally draining for the Holocaust survivor, the Interviewer must do his/her best to display much gratitude.
        3. Send a Thank You card.
    2. Organize all materials: video tapes, audio tapes, transcript, etc.
    3. Educate people with the interviewer's findings.

short, bulleted list of points to consider
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