When undertaken with care and forethought, interdisciplinary research projects can push scholarly boundaries while strengthening bonds with community stakeholders. Through describing the origins, development, and preliminary takeaways from an interdisciplinary oral history project, Stories of Holocaust Survival: An Economic Perspective, this Report from the Field sheds light on the benefits of bending methodological norms in public historical work with communities that have experienced trauma. It also describes ways in which Holocaust oral history can contribute to the understanding of economic infrastructure.
An Interdisciplinary Partnership
Between 2015 and 2019, Sandra Ghizoni, a research specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (Atlanta Fed), and Adina Langer, a curator at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University (MHHE), collaborated on an oral history project, Stories of Holocaust Survival: An Economic Perspective, with Holocaust survivors from the Atlanta region. Our work together on the project enabled us to learn about each other’s disciplines and to see, firsthand, the benefits of stretching the boundaries of our professional spheres for our work, our institutions, and our communities.
A New Setting for Economic Research
The Federal Reserve is not likely to come to mind as a site of public history. Few people realize that the Federal Reserve is home to museums. As the central bank of the United States, economic infrastructure is at the core of the Federal Reserve’s mission to support the nation’s monetary, financial, and payment stability, and promoting economic education and financial literacy for the public is part of that mission. As an aspect of its work to educate the public about economic topics, the Atlanta Fed, as well as its branches in New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Miami, are all home to museums.1 The Atlanta Fed also houses a research department tasked with investigating a variety of economic topics to assist the development of sound monetary policy as well as support economic education for the public. It is in this context of research and public education that the Stories of Holocaust Survival: An Economic Perspective oral history project was born.
The project was inspired by an exhibition on display at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland from the Holocaust Museum Houston called Questionable Issue, which focused on the currency of the Holocaust.2 The exhibition featured examples of currency from a variety of ghettos and concentration camps. What it did not do, however, was give any insight into how this currency was or was not used by those incarcerated there or what the economic infrastructure it operated in was like. This led Michael Bryan, vice president and senior economist at the Atlanta Fed, to think about what more could be learned about this topic. Part of his work involved asking questions about economic infrastructure and the conditions that allow it to take root. Research into these questions can help improve understanding of which institutions or instruments are most beneficial for economic well-being, as organized markets, money, banks, payments systems, and a great many other economic institutions enhance our lives. As Bryan thought about the Questionable Issue exhibition, he wondered if a deeper study into the Holocaust period could shed light on a related question: “How do people cope when certain pieces of economic infrastructure are absent?” He enlisted his colleague Sandra Ghizoni to help investigate these questions. They began by scouring both economic and Holocaust history literature and available primary sources to see what might be gleaned from the existing material.
Ghizoni began by consulting numismatic sources. (Numismatics is the study of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money, and related objects.) Questionable Issue included essentially a catalog of currencies that had been created for ghettoes and concentration camps across Europe. Other numismatic sources also captured the various forms of money, official or unauthorized, that existed in ghettos and concentration camps.3 These sources described what this currency looked like but provided little authoritative explanation of how and where this currency was used, or if it was used at all. In addition to numismatic sources, there is a literature on the confiscation of Jewish assets, the economic restrictions of Jews, and the rationing systems both outside and within ghettos and camps, all of which speak to the separation of people from their economic infrastructure.4 However, very little is written about the more rudimentary economic systems that replaced them.
The closest example of such a study is R. A. Radford’s “The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp,” published in 1945.5 Radford was an economist who was unfortunate enough to find himself interned in German POW camps from 1942 to 1945. In his narrative he describes organic economies operating within the camps that included commodity-based monetary systems, saving and credit, and active trading markets with arbitrage and futures markets. Radford’s account appears to validate conventional economic theory about the ubiquitous nature of money, credit, and business cycles, and his narrative is commonly retold in introductory macroeconomics textbooks and classes.
The economic lives of those living in far-from-normal functioning conditions have also been explored in regards to places such as refugee camps in Africa in the late twentieth century, where refugees’ market interactions were studied with the aim of creating a path from dependency to sustainability.6 Other examples of studies of how people function in an economy absent its typical infrastructure use the context of natural disaster. Following a tsunami in the province of Aceh, Indonesia, that destroyed lives, livelihoods, and property, economists observed that residents built back their community based on informal systems of trade, exchange, and insurance.7 No such study specific to the economic lives of those that endured the time leading up to the Holocaust, the Holocaust itself, and the post-liberation period is known. Much can likely be learned from these extreme economic conditions and this could have value for present and future situations, including those affecting people currently displaced from their normal economic environment due to war, persecution, or natural disaster, all of whom who are trying to build up their economic lives after leaving most of their assets and livelihoods behind.
For answers to these questions about the Holocaust period, Ghizoni turned to existing recorded oral history testimony with Holocaust survivors. She found that they tended to skim the surface when it came to the slowly unfolding changes to daily life during the Holocaust, instead focusing on the most disruptive moments and emotional impact of the horror experienced by individuals and their families. To gain a fuller understanding of ways in which the usual economic infrastructure was impeded or absent during the Holocaust period, an exploration of the minutiae of daily life during this time would be needed. Ghizoni and Bryan decided to pursue the possibility of a new oral history project with Holocaust survivors in the region. The hope was that, through the accounts of survivors, a glimpse of how people who have been separated from their normal economic environment cope and adapt would lead to a better understanding of the building blocks of our economic infrastructure. Stories of Holocaust Survival: An Economic Perspective was born from this idea, but how would it become a reality?
Assembling the Project Team
The Atlanta Fed has expertise in economic research, but not in Holocaust history or oral history and has no relationship with the Holocaust survivor community—a crucial part of the project. A speaking engagement by a Holocaust survivor, Norbert Friedman, attended by Ghizoni and Bryan, created an essential connection with the Breman Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University (MHHE). The Breman Museum fostered the relationship with the survivor community and the MHHE supplied their vast knowledge of the Holocaust and oral history expertise. This knowledge and experience provided not only the needed historical context to the survivors’ testimonies, but also served as guardrails to protect the emotional well-being of the survivors.
Ghizoni and Bryan met Dr. Catherine Lewis, director of the MHHE, when she had served as the facilitator of Friedman’s presentation at the Lovett School in Atlanta. When they pitched the project idea to her, she immediately saw it as an opportunity to strengthen ties with individual Holocaust survivors and to forge a new university partnership with an allied educational institution (The Federal Reserve). The MHHE’s position at Kennesaw State University gave the institution an academic perspective and support for original research. The MHHE also had a long history facilitating interdisciplinary (and international) partnerships.8 Lewis suggested bringing the Breman Museum on as a partner because of its longstanding close relationships to the survivor community. Lewis appreciated the opportunity to support a sister institution in the Atlanta museum and Holocaust education community. The involvement of these two institutions was instrumental in establishing the trust of the survivor community.
Whereas the Breman Museum played an important role in metro Atlanta as a hub for Jewish culture and history, the MHHE was a regional center for Holocaust education, developing robust field trips, traveling exhibits, and free in-school programs (such as the one featuring Norbert Friedman) serving more than 400,000 people per year including 65,000 K–12 students in the 2018–19 academic year.9 Connecting with Holocaust survivors through the Breman Museum, the MHHE hosted programs for aspiring teachers, rising high school seniors, and winners of the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” Art and Writing Contest, all featuring in-person Holocaust survivor testimony.
In 2013, the MHHE created the Legacy Series oral history project, an archive of testimony from members of their local community.10 Unlike the multi-part life history interviews often associated with academic oral history research projects, the Legacy Series records testimony that more closely resembles the discretionary public speeches commonly delivered by Holocaust survivors and veterans.11 By 2015, the MHHE had recorded more than forty hour-long oral history interviews with World War II veterans, home front workers, and Holocaust survivors focused on their experiences during the pivotal years of the Holocaust and World War II. It was this robust and growing archive of testimony that attracted Adina Langer to the museum’s open curatorial position in 2015. With a background in museum-specific, event-centered oral history (similar to the Legacy Series) through work at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City, Langer already had a goal of incorporating oral histories into exhibitions and public programs.
Recruited to serve as an interviewer for the Stories of Holocaust Survival project, Langer knew that a different interview approach would be needed to solicit the kinds of recollections that the partners hoped would shed light on experiences of economic displacement. Upon learning that the first interviewee would be Norbert Friedman, Langer jumped in with both feet, plastering Friedman’s 2006 memoir Sun Rays at Midnight with sticky notes marking each important transition point in his life.12 Understanding and anticipating many challenges, Langer and Lewis worked closely with Ghizoni and Bryan to hone the project’s methodological approach as they prepared for their first interviews with survivors.
Addressing the Challenges
The first important challenge we faced as we began this project was the challenge of time. The project started in 2015 when most living Holocaust survivors were in their eighties and nineties, and admittedly, the project would have benefited from starting decades earlier. Although a study of how people coped when removed from their economic infrastructure could be done in a variety of settings, time periods, and geographies, the opportunity to be able to record first-person accounts of a topic little explored in Holocaust history seemed a worthy effort while the opportunity still existed.
We also had to consider the fact that many survivors might not remember enough specific details to provide the kind of information that would be most helpful to this study. The Holocaust covers a broad period of history, and conditions varied considerably by time and place. In many cases, the survivors had been young at the time and had little direct participation in daily economic activity. We knew that it would be challenging to recruit enough survivors to participate who both had a broad range of experiences that they could remember and the willingness to speak about such an unusual topic.
The second challenge we considered was how to structure our oral history methodology to glean answers to questions about economic organization while also respecting the traumatic nature of our interviewees’ experiences. Most survivors seemed to have a set way in which they told their stories. While speaking to students, Friedman shared personal experiences that not only illustrated the inhuman cruelty of the time but also illuminated his personal philosophy: his ability to appreciate and to seek the good in people. Friedman kept a collection of his reflections in a binder from which he would select content to share depending on the audience. Each of his reflections seemed carefully crafted to educate, but also to instill his message of hope for humanity. After witnessing several testimonies, we noticed that this seemed to be a commonality among the survivors who gave their testimony often, and whether it was due to repetitiveness, self-protection, or to convey a message, they told their story almost the same way, every time. To capture the economic aspect of their experiences—to find insights into the economic environment around them, and how they conducted their economic life at various points prior to, during, and after the Holocaust—a different oral history approach was warranted. The subject and minutiae of the interviews were outside of the survivors’ usual narrative and often outside of their comfort zone.
Traditional Holocaust Oral History
The interview process for the Stories of Holocaust Survival project diverged from the traditional gathering of Holocaust survivor testimony and the set of norms and expectations around the form and function of that testimony. These norms were informed by trauma research and psychoanalytic theory that rose in popularity in the 1990s alongside memory studies in the humanities and social sciences. Although some researchers, such as Susannah Radstone and Katharine Hodgkin, raised questions about the prevalence of trauma-informed interview techniques in oral history as early as 2001, the influence of trauma theory led to the codification of guidelines for interviews with members of the Holocaust survivor community such as those published by the Shoah Foundation.13 These norms evolved into a kind of etiquette for engaging Holocaust survivors in oral history projects rooted in the discipline of public history. As years passed, and thousands of interviews were recorded with Holocaust survivors and others who experienced traumatic violence, some experienced interviewers began to observe patterns in relationships between interviewers and interviewees based on a paradigm of “witness” and “testimony” that could result in distancing, and even dehumanizing, through rituals of reverence. The norms via which interviewers tended to treat trauma survivors with “kid gloves” often resulted in patterns of rote storytelling without room for meaningful interaction and new insights in the co-creation of oral history.14 In their well-meaning effort to treat survivors with respect, museums and other institutions that managed educational speakers’ bureaus had introduced a potentially alienating rigidity into interactions between speakers and listeners through the repetition of an expected progression through traumatic events. The norms of the scripted survivor testimony tended to de-emphasize agency while emphasizing victimhood. Although we wanted to maintain a respectful environment, we also wanted to bend those norms to facilitate the revelation of new stories.
Developing a New Interview Approach
In Stories of Holocaust Survival: An Economic Perspective, the survivors were asked to tell their life stories, starting with their lives before the war to give insight into what their “normal” life had been like, including the economic environment around them, their family background, education, livelihoods, and socio-economic status. The questions then focused on their perspective of daily economic life at each stage of the developing events of the Holocaust, whether it was a change of location or situation, imprisonment, or liberation. Interviewers asked the same kinds of questions about trade, obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, assessing who was “in charge” and negotiating the challenges of everyday life as survivors moved from “normalcy” to “horror” and back. The questions, ones that the survivors typically had not been asked before when giving their testimony, included: “What possessions did you have at the time? Were you able to trade them? For what? How did you agree upon a trade? What did you have to eat? How did you get it?” and so on. The answers would help fill, with as much detail as possible, the large gap in what is known or documented about how people reorganized their economic lives when removed from their usual economic infrastructure during this time.
Nomenclature presented a significant challenge in pairing the disciplines of economics and oral history. The use and interpretation of economic and financial terms can vary, and to record the purest account of their experiences, we avoided the use of economic terms as much as possible. The questions were devoid of terms such as “money”—which to most would mean currencies such as Deutsche Marks, Polish zloty, etc. The testimonies shed light on the many forms of informal “money” that emerged when the normal financial infrastructure disappeared. For example, in his testimony, Friedman described trading coffee and cigarettes for the rent of his apartment and the services of a tutor in postwar Germany, which, to economists, was a “commodity money” transaction. Or the inverse: whereas some concentration camps issued “money” to prisoners, since they were unable to get anything in exchange for it, it had no perceived value; in fact, it did not play the role of money. Avoiding the economic nomenclature allowed for minimal interpretation on the survivors’ part, with the aim of recording the clearest description of the economic environment without prescription. But before these questions could be asked, interviewees needed to be recruited.
Testing the Model
To move the project forward, we decided to recruit interviewees through our partner, the Breman Museum, which agreed to host several lunches where we had the opportunity to speak to the Holocaust survivors about the motivation for the project and enlist participation. Unsurprisingly, there was some skepticism about the unusual pairing of disciplines: economics and Holocaust history. It was at one of these lunches that Norbert Friedman became the project’s biggest advocate. At first, he listened quietly like the other survivors as we described the project. At the end of the session, when the conversation again turned to questions about why economists would have an interest in their life stories, Friedman spoke—and everyone listened. Friedman was well-respected in the survivor community both because of his experiences and his commitment to Holocaust education. He had begun sharing his story with his children’s classmates in New York in the 1970s and helped found the Museum of Jewish Heritage there in the 1990s. When he moved to Atlanta to be close to his son in 2010, he became a part of the speaker’s board hosted by the Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education at the Breman Museum. Friedman was an ideal ambassador to the community because his experience mirrored that of many survivors. At the lunch, Friedman stated his support for the project and the contribution it would make to Holocaust history and recommended that others aid in this effort as well. It was at this moment that the other survivors turned their consideration from hesitant to serious. Cultivating a trusting relationship with the survivor community was not only important for recruiting participants, but also for enabling the team to apply its atypical oral history approach in this community.
Friedman also became the project’s first interviewee. The ways in which his story matched others lent him credibility in the community, but the ways in which his story was specific to him enabled it to be an ideal test case for our oral history approach. He was an active trader and, in some instances, a market maker at all stages of the Holocaust experience, from the period just prior to the establishment of the ghettos, through a multitude of camps, and eventually postwar relocation. Over the course of five sessions, each more than an hour in length, he became a guide through the horrors of the Holocaust and helped to create a template for future interviews. This resulted in over six hours of testimony documenting his journey from city life in Poland, to hiding in the country, to forced labor in eleven different concentration camps, and, finally, to liberation. Not only was the breadth of his experience valuable, but also the depth of his experience that he was willing to share. He was open and willing to respond to questions that probed the minutiae of his daily life in order to understand his changing economic circumstances, even if, at first, he thought that the questions were odd. Friedman had a good perspective on payments systems and trade, price discovery, the interaction between formal and informal markets, arbitrage, and commodity and currency exchange. His ability to recall details of the situations he was in gave insight into the economics of many various environments. Friedman was not an economist, but he was, by necessity, an expert on economic organization and trade in desperate, often horrific conditions.
Although the initial focus of the project was on the prewar and occupation time periods, Friedman’s description of the economic situation in postwar Europe pushed us to expand the scope of the project to include that time, the scene of an active, but still far from normal, economy. Upon liberation, Friedman found work as an unofficial interpreter for the US Army in Germany, and that gave him access to the Army Post Exchange (PX). The PX rations and those given to him at the displaced persons camp provided him an opportunity to trade with the German population. He was able to get an apartment in Munich and paid the rent with coffee and cigarettes; one month of rent cost him two cartons of cigarettes. Friedman again found himself in a situation where resources were still severely limited, and therefore the black market was very active. He traded in a variety of commodities, including cigarettes, coffee, sugar, and a few other consumer staples that were available and sought after. As economic theory would predict, not all commodities were equally suited for trade. Friedman was in touch with Jewish student relief organizations and asked them to stop sending clothing, as it was too hard to find people that it would fit. Instead, he preferred that they send green coffee beans that he could use as money. The postwar commodity monies were not without problems. Friedman described how at some point the black market was flooded with Russian counterfeit cigarettes and the value of all cigarettes declined as a result. From personal experiences such as Friedman’s, the economics field can glean under which conditions commodity monies take hold, which commodities emerge as money, and which ones prevailed. Following Friedman’s interviews, questions about the postwar period were included as standard practice for each interview in the project. In doing so, details of economic environments emerging from the rubble of the war were captured, even in the absence of traditional assets or financial infrastructure.
Friedman’s participation and endorsement led other survivors to contribute their personal journeys to this small and previously undocumented aspect of economic and Holocaust history. Among those were survivors who had given their testimony countless times but found new stories to tell and new details recorded in this project, like Hershel Greenblat from Ukraine. His prior testimonies were largely focused on his parents’ role in the resistance against the Nazis and their story of survival hiding in the caves of Ukraine. In Greenblat’s testimony for the Stories of Holocaust Survival project, he spoke extensively about his family’s experiences in displaced persons camps in Austria after the war and how his father provided for his family as a market-maker, even though it may have been illicit, making it something that Greenblat may have otherwise not wanted to elaborate on in previous testimonies. In addition, there were many individuals who had not felt comfortable giving testimony before but were convinced to participate by the unique scope of the project, such as Alfred Schneider, who had not formally recorded his testimony before the Stories of Holocaust Survival project. He was born in Romania and survived the Holocaust, but he had not endured the same type of horrors that his wife, Tosia, had experienced in various ghettos and concentration camps. Because of that, he didn’t feel that his testimony lent itself to the typical Holocaust oral history, but he did think the circumstances he faced in Czernowitz, Romania, before, during, and after the war, would be of interest to economists.
It has been seven years since the first interview with Friedman, and since then twenty-nine more Holocaust survivors throughout the southeastern United States have shared their recollections for this project. Together, their testimonies reveal common themes relevant to economic and social history. They help us better understand what happens when normalcy is disrupted and people must survive without any of the resources they would rely on under normal circumstances (jobs, banks, money, etc.). They also point to human resilience and human ingenuity, exploring what it means for people to build new lives without any of the scaffolding of their prewar experiences. The following sections provide examples of contributions this project makes both to our understanding of economics and to Holocaust public history.
Contributions to Economics and Historical Understanding
The experiences Friedman shared shone a light on the black markets that emerged in situations where normal trade was restricted and when authorized but highly controlled markets were inadequate to meet need. He described his background as “hard-working class,” and as the son of a kosher butcher, he often delivered meat to and negotiated payments with his father’s customers. Anti-Jewish legislation passed in the 1930s in Poland was the first step in his journey of economic isolation. He was prohibited from attending university and assumed an apprenticeship in a machine shop. Meanwhile, a ban on ritual slaughter forced his father’s business into the black market. Friedman was forced to develop new skills that would ultimately prove valuable to his survival. He learned to be useful in the factory environment in the legal economy and a skilled smuggler in the underground economy. Among other things, Friedman arranged black-market trades and smuggled meat into the Warsaw ghetto. (Before his eventual imprisonment in Mielec Labor Camp, Friedman avoided ghettos by staying with Polish friends in small towns and villages including Tarnow and Zawichost.) Although it is difficult to say how large the black market was in the Warsaw ghetto, with a population of over 300,000 people officially receiving only very meager rations, there was demand for more sustenance.15 He described his visit to the Warsaw ghetto like “walking into a zombie movie.” Friedman was issued a permit to transport apples into the ghetto, and in between crates of apples he hid the meat. Smugglers inside the ghetto would pay him “handsomely” in Polish zloty although he had to share profits with German officials who issued the apple permit. According to Friedman, not much negotiation was done; as with many black-market trades, it was “take it or leave it.”
Friedman’s oral history also provided examples of how economic opportunities changed as people were moved through different concentration camps and as time passed. Friedman and his father endured internment at eleven different camps during the war, each with its own desperate environment. Friedman described some instances of bartering that occurred in the camps, one of which was at an aircraft manufacturing plant near Leonberg where he was a forced laborer. Because of his experience as an apprentice machinist, he was labeled a “capable Jew” and given work in the tooling department. At this point, Friedman was able to start a small side-business making cigarette boxes from scrap tin, which he traded for extra food rations for himself, his father, and his two uncles. Bartering seems to have been a common practice in several camps, at least when inmates had objects desirable enough to trade. As he moved from camp to camp, the last of Friedman’s possessions were confiscated, access to the outside world decreased, and the opportunities for trades vanished.
Ghetto experiences also varied greatly. Alfred Schneider’s testimony gave insights into the importance of location to the experience of people imprisoned in ghettos. When Jews were forced to move into one small section of the city of Czernowitz, Romania, he described those whose homes fell inside the ghetto border, including his grandfather’s, as “fortunate” since they still had access to their possessions. Other Jews, whose homes were located outside of the ghetto borders, were often forced to move with little notice and could only bring with them what they could carry into the ghetto. Their possessions became one of the only sources that could be used to obtain money or barter for other goods, such as food. Schneider also described a rudimentary payment system that existed between the ghetto and other camps in occupied territories. He said a trusted courier, usually a Romanian who was able to travel, was the only way to transfer money to people who had been deported.
Our understanding of the postwar economic environment was enriched by Hershel Greenblat’s recollections of life in the displaced persons (DP) camp where his family lived in Austria immediately following the war. He described an active economic environment based mostly on bartering in which inhabitants were able to open shops including kosher butcher, tailor, barber, and shoe stores in the camp. Greenblat’s family lived across from a barber shop within the camp and would watch as “people brought him [the barber] a chicken for a haircut.” Greenblat’s father was an active trader in these widespread, if illicit markets; he traveled between different DP camps and traded jewelry, cigarettes, and packages of saccharin, all of which were in high demand. Although Greenblat was unsure of their exact use, gleaning from other testimonies, these goods could have been used as commodity monies as Friedman described in his account of postwar Germany.
We also gained insight into the way survivors responded to the evolving environment in the postwar era in anticipation of resuming some sort of normalcy. Friedman described a shift in the demand for financial instruments following the war, corresponding with a reemergence of hope and the luxury of being able to think about a future that many survivors had let go of during their time in concentration camps. Some wanted to start saving, creating a nest egg for the future they could now start to imagine, whether it be marriage, children, or relocating. Currencies with a broad international appeal—notably, British pounds and US dollars—were widely sought by survivors. Friedman wanted to move to America because of his experience with US soldiers. He perceived a sense of freedom and fairness in America that he had not known before. In May of 1950, he came to the United States to build a new life with fifteen dollars in his pocket.
Even a relatively cursory examination of survivors’ recollections gathered for this project reveals common themes of interest to economists, historians, and other researchers. Our experience with the interviews and the answers provided by the twenty-nine project participants helped us develop a new approach for accessing the oral history content which will be available through a website hosted by the Atlanta Fed.16 Visitors will be able to browse by location, sub-chronologies within the historical period of the Holocaust, and common economic themes across experiences such as black markets, barter, and different forms of money.
Contributions to the Discipline of Public History
Participation in this unique economics project also enriched the public history work of the MHHE. For the museum team, the opportunity to engage in this project partnership enabled a new intimacy with the survivor community, an opportunity to get to know individuals more deeply and more personally than would normally be possible through a Holocaust education paradigm that involved a tight schedule of transportation, testimony, and student Q&A sessions. For a public history program dedicated to providing multiple access points into the history of World War II and the Holocaust, the nuanced perspectives shared by Friedman and others in the Stories of Holocaust Survival interviews offered new avenues for relevant storytelling. By interviewing survivors for this project while also curating new exhibitions based on the existing Legacy Series interviews, Langer came to appreciate the potential for the exploration of new themes revealed through the longer, more in-depth economic-focused interviews.
The first new museum exhibition to highlight oral history was Georgia Journeys: Legacies of World War II, which opened in 2016. Intended as a supplement and extension of the museum’s Parallel Journeys: The Holocaust Through the Eyes of Teens exhibition, Georgia Journeys was designed to take a strong first-person approach to public history with the goal of creating a resonant experience for visitors. The relatively brief Legacy Series oral history interviews were perfect sources for student-curators to extract summary details emphasizing diversity. Norbert Friedman and Tosia Schneider, both also interviewed for Stories of Holocaust Survival, were among twelve individuals (four veterans, four home front workers, and four Holocaust survivors) whose oral history transcripts were shared with students and then ultimately featured in the exhibition. The resulting exhibition includes biographical panels, a timeline juxtaposing events in world history with moments in the lives of the featured individuals, and a digital exhibition which emphasizes storytelling across space and time, highlighting intersections and near-misses in the overlapping stories of the participants.
Although the Legacy Series materials were paramount to the creation of Georgia Journeys, the new oral histories being recorded for the Stories of Holocaust Survival project inspired an in-depth, thematic exhibition: Nourishing Survival: Food During World War II and the Holocaust, which also opened in 2016.17 The many testimonies to the importance of food detailed in the Stories of Holocaust Survival project were echoed in those of the Legacy Series shared by veterans and documented in wartime recipe books and memoirs.
In a banner in Nourishing Survival, Langer used the following quotation from Friedman’s interview, detailing his first encounter with US soldiers:
I came into the village, and there were American soldiers sitting around eating. I thought they were eating Napoleons. But what they were eating was processed cheese between crackers from C-rations. I didn’t know. To me they were eating Napoleons. I was wearing the concentration camp uniform. I was all of eighty pounds. Haggard. Dirty. Totally confused…
They saw what I look like, emaciated. And they gave me K-rations and C-rations, and they loaded ‘em in my hands. Stuff started falling off my arms, rolling down the pavement. And I started to cry, first time I shed tears in years. Because here was life-giving food. It was falling away from me. They got on their knees. They put the food in a backpack and handed it to me. And that was the first act of compassion from a uniformed individual shown to me in six years. And there was a surge of light, of hope. That maybe this is the end of our suffering. And maybe there’s a good future for us.18
Friedman’s longer account was accompanied by statements from other survivors recounting their experiences of deprivation during the Holocaust and World War II. Among those were Robert Ratonyi, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto in Hungary. Ratonyi shared his experiences scavenging for calories in his Stories of Holocaust Survival interview. Langer opted to use this slightly more refined version from his memoir in the exhibition:
Desperation to find some food reached a new high when somehow we got hold of some starch. Aunt Piri had the idea that we should try to mix it with the very fine lubricant oil that the clockmakers used. The fried mixture soon looked like traditional latkes. We all ate it and nobody got sick, but I doubt that this new recipe for latkes will ever get into a Jewish cookbook.19
The Stories of Holocaust Survival project also resulted in the revelation of memories that might not otherwise be emphasized in traditional testimony, memories which allow for a more nuanced approach to characterizing the interactions of Holocaust survivors with foreign soldiers and new cultures. The following example is included in the online exhibition for Nourishing Survival to encourage viewers to consider the role of food in bridging cultural divides. Friedman described a postwar encounter with an African American regiment cooking fish they had caught in a stream near the Polish farmhouse where he was staying with other survivors. Initially frightened by the perceived foreignness and unfamiliarity with these soldiers (he had never seen a Black person before), Friedman and his father used a combination of signs and the few English words that Norbert remembered from prewar American movies to coax the men to join them for a dinner of chicken soup and to partake of their hospitality, a new possibility found in freedom. After the soldiers accepted the meager meal provided by the survivors, they repaid the kindness:
And a short time went by. Maybe a week or ten days. A truck pulled in. Two of the soldiers that were in that group came in and they brought—they made us open up the barn door, pulled a truck, a 6x6 truck into the barn, and they unloaded anything that was a G.I. Issue available in their warehouse—we got part of it. They brought everything in: lard, sugar, salt, flour—and among other things, there was a bar of chocolate.
Although Friedman sickened himself by eating too much chocolate, he never forgot the kindness of these American soldiers who came to symbolize the hope for a life free from prejudice and filled with prosperity and opportunity in the United States. As the MHHE continues to develop new thematic exhibits, the testimony recorded for Stories of Holocaust Survival will remain an invaluable resource for inspiring new topics to explore.
The interdisciplinary nature of this project enabled us to bend the norms of conventional Holocaust oral history, and by doing so, created opportunities for survivors, economists, and public historians to form new kinds of relationships, based more on an exchange of knowledge and personal insights rather than a one-way conduit for sharing traumatic testimony. As a result, the project also provided new material for interpretation, beyond the scope of that produced through traditional Holocaust interviews. Although it was imperative that we respected the needs and boundaries of the community, the unusual purpose of this oral history project gave us a valid excuse to sidestep participants’ expectations for encounters with oral historians and museum professionals. The resulting sense of freedom benefited everyone involved in the project and encouraged participation from those who found new purpose in their testimony which otherwise may not have been recorded.
Our forthright presentation of the purpose of the project built and maintained trust with members of the community. As a result, we were able to collect enough interviews to create economic lessons and new public history perspectives. We are grateful to have had this opportunity, especially as most members of the survivor community are nearing the end of their natural lifespans.20 Ultimately, we offer this Report from the Field as an invitation to others to consider the benefits of interdisciplinary oral history partnerships when working with communities that have experienced trauma. Breaking with tradition, when done with care and purpose, can result in a re-invigoration of the oral history relationship. In our experience, the benefits were many and the costs were few.
“Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Tours,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, https://www.frbatlanta.org/about/tours.aspx.
Questionable Issue, Houston Holocaust Museum, https://hmh.org/exhibitions/questionable-issue-currency-of-the-holocaust-2003-08-28; https://www.clevelandfed.org/en/learningcenter/exhibits/questionable-issue.aspx.
Hans-Ludwig Grabowski, Das Geld das Terrors (Battenberg, 2008); Albert Pick and Carl Siemsen, Das Lagergeld der Konzentrations- und D.P.-Lager 1933–1947 (Regenstauf: H. Gietl, 1993); Zvi Stahl, Jewish Ghetto and Concentration Camp Money 1933–1945 (Richman Books, 1990); The Shekel: Numismatics of the Holocaust, American Israel Numismatic Association, issues September–October 1982 and March–April 1983.
Martin Dean, Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Harold James, The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War against the Jews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Eric Sterling, Life in the Ghettos during the Holocaust (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005).
R. A. Radford, “The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp,” Economica 12, no. 48 (November 1945): 189.
A. Betts, L. Bloom, J. D. Kaplan, and N. Omata, Refugee Economies: Forced Displacement and Development, 1st ed (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017).
Richard Davies, Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).
For a study of the MHHE’s partnership with the Ben M’sik Community Museum in Casablanca, Morocco, see Adina Jocelyn Langer, “Public History Across Distances: Sustaining a Partnership,” Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians 34 (January 2018): 35–58.
Catherine Lewis, “Museums, Archives, and Rare Books 2018–2019 Overview,” Kennesaw State University, October 14, 2019.
“MHHE | Legacy Series,” https://historymuseum.kennesaw.edu/oral-history-program/legacy-series/index.php.
For an analysis on whether there is a “right way” to do oral history, see Alistair Thomson, “Fifty Years On: An International Perspective on Oral History,” The Journal of American History 85, no. 2 (1998): 581–95.
Norbert Friedman, Sun Rays at Midnight: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Life Before, During and After the Holocaust (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2006).
See Steve C. High, Beyond Testimony and Trauma: Oral History in the Aftermath of Mass Violence (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015), 9, for more analysis on changing paradigms in the use of trauma in the study of mass violence. For examples of guidelines, see USC Shoah Foundation, “Collecting Testimonies,” https://sfi.usc.edu/collecting.
For a particularly thoughtful analysis of this phenomenon, see forty-year Holocaust oral historian Henry Greenspan’s recent article, “The Humanities of Contingency: Interviewing and Teaching Beyond ‘Testimony’ with Holocaust Survivors,” The Oral History Review 46, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2019): 360–79.
Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
“Stories of Holocaust Survival: An Economic Perspective,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, https://www.atlantafed.org/research/projects/stories-of-holocaust-survival-an-economic-perspective.
For an online version of this exhibit, visit “Nourishing Survival,” https://spark.adobe.com/page/DxYD93t327PxP/.
James Newberry, “Norbert Friedman Interview,” September 29, 2017, https://soar.kennesaw.edu/handle/11360/2238.
Robert Ratonyi, From Darkness into Light: My Journey Through Nazism, Fascism, and Communism to Freedom (Meadville, PA: Fulton Books, 2020).
Norbert Friedman passed away in 2019, and Fred and Tosia Schneider died a year later, in 2020. Please see their obituaries here: https://www.atlantajewishtimes.com/obituary-norbert-friedman/; https://www.atlantajewishtimes.com/obituary-tosia-schneider/.