It was when doing field research for my PhD in the mid-1990s that I first learned of local histories embedded in the broader landscape around the settlement of Sesfontein / !Nani|aus, north-west Namibia. This is an area known today for its spectacular landscapes and desert-adapted black rhino and elephant. It is a sought after tourism destination now catered for by luxury eco-lodges linked to locally-run conservancies. But I have come to learn that the landscapes described as ‘wilderness’ in tourism brochures advertising the area are also full of the traces of former dwelling places and the graves of known ancestors. And that people alive today were amongst those who lived at these places and who remember what they were like in times past.
During October and November 2016 I travelled around France, collecting historical source material about children’s lives in France during the Second World War. The source material is quite unusual: I have been seeking out and listening to filmed and audio oral history-type interviews with older French people about their wartime childhoods which have been collected by or recorded by various archives over the past 30 years.
In the summer, I wrote to around 150 French archives and institutions in order to try to locate the kind of material I needed. On the basis of the responses I received, I planned two trips which made geographical sense and took account of the quantity of material each archive claimed to have. The first trip was based in the Paris region, the second took in the eastern part of the country.
I have been able to collect a wide range of stories and experiences of wartime childhoods. I visited eight archives, took buses, planes, metros and trains, slept in innumerable beds, got drenched in the rain, ate sandwiches on park benches, and transcribed 150,000 words of interview material. I’ve listened to the stories of 70 people who were children during the war; I have another 35 remaining to work on, plus 35 oral histories I recorded myself for another project, which are ripe for re-use. Placed alongside a number of unpublished written accounts and memoirs, I can pull together a corpus of over 150 people for my study.
The people range in age from one Thérèse born in 1926 to another Thérèse born in 1941. The interviewees were children of factory workers, factory owners, level crossing guards, mechanics, farmers, teachers, accountants, among other things, born into middling or poorer families, in cities, towns and villages from Paris to Sète, Brittany to Bresse. Some of their parents were in the resistance. Some of their parents were deported. Some were tortured. Some were killed. Some of their parents did sneaky things like hiding wine barrels in the funeral hearse, most bartering produce in order to survive – but none claimed their parents collaborated or worked the black market.
Some of the children were interested and knowledgeable about the political world around them; others were entirely ignorant. All of them sang ‘Maréchal nous voilà!’ at school, but none claimed to have been keen on the nation’s new wartime leader. Some had enough to eat; some did not; some remembered their childhood treats and games; others did not. Some of the children resisted the German occupation in their own way; some had German soldiers billeted in
their houses; some heard gunfire, saw machine-gunned bodies, saw bloody reprisals wrought upon their compatriots. Most experienced geographical displacement away from their home at one time or another, many during the mass civilian exodus of 1940; most experienced family separation at one time or another, some because their fathers were being held by Hitler as bargaining chips in German POW camps.
Ten of the interviewees were Jewish. As children, they were hunted and persecuted just as their parents were. Around 76,000 Jews were deported from France by the French government in collaboration with the exterminationist policies of the Third Reich. Of them, 11,400 were aged under eighteen. Around 60,000 Jewish children were hidden by French people and managed to survive. Among those whose stories I listened to, none were deported, but several spent time in concentration camps – Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande, Douadic; most lost at least one of their parents and various other relatives; several were hidden by French families in the countryside, mostly well-treated but not always; others managed to escape with their parents and also survived the war.
The story of the Jewish children persecuted by Vichy is fairly well known because of the work of researchers such as Serge Klarsfeld, and because of international, educational and media attention; yet it is rarely told alongside the story of other children in France. Placing stories alongside each other should not put them into competition with each other. I consider that the Jewish experience of persecution during the era of the Third Reich was unique, and the suffering undergone by Jews incomparable. Yet I do not think that this precludes placing experience alongside that of others who also lived, suffered in different ways and survived the hardships of the age. In so doing, it is not my intention to diminish anyone’s experience, but to highlight points of intersection – the impact of the loss of a parent, displacement and dislocation, living under occupation, the functioning of emotional memory, a child’s agency or powerlessness recounted, remembering within a national memorial framework – and draw out nuance, contrast and comparison. I maintain that the past cannot be fully understood if certain elements are fenced off, put aside or ignored. And I contend that integration rather than segregation is as important when thinking about the past as it is when thinking about the present.
I described the source material as ‘unusual’. This is because oral historians tend to record their own interviews; they then archive them. But because we all like to record our own, to choose our own interviewees, to set our own questions, it is quite rare that people like me track down already existing interviews and appropriate them for their own usage. But I was curious to try the re-use research technique for three reasons: first, oral history is enormously time consuming to set up, record and process; with my opportunities to go to France very limited, I thought this would provide a better time/money investment. Second, I feel that it is important to make sure the memories that people have taken the time and emotional effort to record and preserve are made use of and valorised as historical resources. And third, I wanted to see whether it could be done: are the problems that re-using oral history throws up as insurmountable as some naysayers would have it, or can I conduct an interesting, fruitful and rigorous analysis of material like this?
The answer to that question remains to be seen. For now, the analysis of the data must begin. Watch this space for an update.
A joint UK-France research project documenting historical experiences of disruption and recovery in post-conflict and post-colonial contexts | Un projet de recherche Franco-Britannique qui explore des expériences historiques perturbées et retrouvées dans des contextes post-conflits et postcoloniaux