Kristallnacht: stories that remain
Most of the time, when speaking with someone, we feel a human need to vocally express our agreement, wonder, or horror at what is being said. We exclaim “wow!” “yeah,” “uh-huh” or perhaps “no way!” throughout conversations, displaying our emotions and our interest. During oral history interviews, however, such exclamations are distracting and interfere with the flow of the Narrator’s story. One of the challenging aspects of interviewing is therefore stopping this – often involuntary – flow of sounds.
At the beginning of November I interviewed Arnold Friedman, Emeritus Professor of interior design at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Born in 1925 in Nuremberg, Germany, he grew up under the Nazi regime, shaped by his experiences of being called a “Judenstinker” and attacked by children on his way to school. One of the most challenging parts of the interview was listening to Arnold describe Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when throughout Germany Jewish homes, business and synagogues were attacked, burned and often destroyed. Arnold’s family was relatively lucky – the SS men entered, searched for only ten minutes and then left. Arnold’s uncle, however, was not as fortunate: he was thrown down the stairs of his own house and kicked and trampled to death by Nazi soldiers. It is often frustrating not to respond vocally during an interview, but this frustration reached a new level as I listened to Arnold speak about Nazi Germany and the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child. This was not the first time I have heard such stories, either first hand accounts from survivors or second-hand accounts about loved ones. Yet ordinarily, in such situations, I was allowed to respond, to emote, to use my voice in order to demonstrate my sympathy and empathy in my (perhaps futile) attempt to understand the horror that was being described to me. I was allowed to say the simple and short words “yeah, and “uh-huh”, sounds that are audible in a recording and interrupt the Narrator’s story.
Listening to Arnold, I could not respond vocally, could not say those seemingly meaningless words that are so conspicuous in their absence, but rather could only nod, look grave and try to express my feelings through my facial expressions. And yet just sitting there, even expressing as much as possible on my face – which admittedly tends to show everything I feel – seemed heartless, as if I were ignoring him and his story.
Of course, I know (and I hope he knows) that I was not. I know that his stories infiltrated my brain and buried themselves there. I know that his description of his uncle’s death and of the fear he and his family felt during Kristallnacht will remain with me just as those others stories do, the ones I was told by survivors in a different context, the ones to which I responded with “yeah,” “uh-huh,” and the simple sound of a sigh.
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