Monday, 16 July 2012

Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre on Jewish wartime refugees

A fascinating story on the CBC the other night tells of a new exhibit at Vancouver's Holocaust Education Centre about a little known group of wartime Jewish refugees. For more details see here

You can listen to the CBC radio story about the exhibit  here

The first interview is very interesting but I must confess I was a little blown away by the second interview, of Rabbi Erwin Schild, who survived Dachau and is the author of The Very Narrow Bridge: A Memoir of an Uncertain Passage .

The interviewer asked him what he no doubt thought was a basic and obvious question, 'What was it like in Dachau?' How the hell do you even begin to answer something like that?! Perhaps the journalist is working on other seemingly reasonable questions like 'What was it like when they killed your parents?' or 'What was it like at residential schools?'

But to his credit, Schill didn't hesitate and began (oh where to begin?) to answer the question.

1 comment:

  1. Working as a 'pseudo-journalist' (as one Toronto Star reporter called me) and Oral Historian, I have come to realize that the questions we ask to our subjects can seem obvious and stupid to anyone listening to the unedited footage.

    I have had many times where I have interviewed people who went through traumatic events, and found that the best way to break the ice is to ask obvious questions. I have had to ask "how hot was it in Afghanistan" to a veteran who was a witness to the American Friendly Fire incident, or the time I asked "how was the train ride?" to survivor of the holocaust. Point is, we ask these questions to initiate the dance which will allow both the subject and interviewer to feel comfortable. Extracting the history or the recollection from people is not as easy as it sounds, often when the tape is rolling, people shut down. Nothing makes most ordinary people shut up quicker than a camera crew, laden with with lights, microphones and recording equipment.

    Unfortunately, not all oral historians/documentary film makers work this way. I have worked with one particular award winning producer, who has had many shows on the History Channel, who was nothing but a insensitive baffoon. He would just want his version of the money shot (which consisted of having Veterans cry on the camera). He wouldn't beat around the bush, he was direct and without tact; he asked direct questions wanting to know how a 89 year old man remembered seeing his best friend killed after being hit by artillery - how that felt, ect. It was sickening to watch how this 'oral historian/producer' picked at the mental PTSD scars left by the Second World War on this old man. Normally: I only engage in asking those sort of questions if I can tell that the subject is willing to share those sorts of details. Some people are willing to share a lot, others, will almost only tell you Name, Rank, and Serial Number. I have had some old men tell me how they executed people for no good reason, or how they visited prostitutes. Stuff that you won't read in most history books about Canadian History.

    I am not afraid to have a subject cry on tape, but I don't want to feel as though I am simply extracting the bad memories from someone. I conduct my interviews so that they flow in a chronological fashion and that the subject is firmly re-established in the present by the time I am done filming, this involves 'fluff' discussion about post-war families, careers, hobbies, ect.

    However, by the sounds of it, this professional journalist sounds like most journalists/that famous producer I mentioned earlier, whereby feelings and the sense of conversation is disregarded in favour of simply getting the story.