Sound and vision blog

281 posts categorized "Oral history"

25 April 2022

Recording of the week: Everybody has something to offer

This week’s selection comes from Jonathan Benaim, Audio Cataloguing Coordinator.

Taken from the British Library’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain collection, this recording is from an interview with guitarist Ernest Ranglin. In this particular excerpt, prompted by interviewer Val Wilmer, he reflects on the notion of competitiveness between musicians.

Ernest Ranglin on competition in jazz [BL REF C122/198-199] 

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In place of competition, Ernest Ranglin sees a collaborative process, valuing the contribution made by different players. The synergy of collaboration can be perceived in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee too. Their rapport is tangible and it makes for an expansive exchange.

International Jazz Day is celebrated on 30 April. Established by UNESCO, it advocates for the positive influence of jazz, including its capacity to cultivate peace, unity, co-operation and dialogue. The description of solidarity that Ernest Ranglin gives, and the camaraderie of the speakers, neatly illustrates that ethos.

A black and white photograph of guitarist Ernest Ranglin taken on Tottenham Court Road, London.Ernest Ranglin, Tottenham Court Road, London, 17 May 1993. Photograph by Val Wilmer.

With thanks to Val Wilmer for kind permission to use her photograph in this article.

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19 April 2022

Juliet Pannett

National Life Stories Goodison Fellow Suzanne Joinson writes about her research into the artist Juliet Pannett.

Black and white photo of Juliet Pannett holding a koalaJuliet Pannett, courtesy of Denis Pannett

As part of my National Life Stories (NLS) Goodison Fellowship, I have been delving into the oral histories of three Sussex-based artists: Ann Sutton and Barbara Mullins from Crafts Lives and Juliet Pannett from Artists’ Lives. If a biography is ‘a matter of joining holes together,’ as Carole Angier writes, then listening to the interviews often feels like experiencing the tension of the weave. The interplay of storytelling, hesitation and unfolding memory is immersive.

All three artists have had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of the South of England and beyond. Yet their reputations remain relatively marginal, although this is now changing for Ann Sutton.

In this blogpost I take the subject of Juliet Pannett, MBE, and look at how her self-defined life relates to her artistic legacy, particularly through the lens of her being regionally situated in Sussex. Whereas Ann Sutton is an avant-garde, experimental artist, and Mullins was in the vanguard of a resurgence of traditional materials and approaches, Pannett was in many ways the most ‘establishment’ of the three.

Pannett was 80 years old when Janet Grenier interviewed her in 1991 at Pannett’s home in Angmering. Her interview reveals an amusing, polished storyteller. The vowels signify a certain class and are evocative of a different era. Born in 1911 and died in 2005, she established an impressive career as a portrait artist and parliamentary painter. In her oral history interview she says with pride, ‘I could write to anyone I liked and almost everyone said yes.’ [Juliet Pannett interviewed by Janet Grenier C466/09/03, 00:03:11] The National Portrait Gallery houses 21 of her paintings and her subjects range from the Queen to Jean Cocteau. As a parliamentary artist she covered historic moments such as Churchill’s last appearance in the Commons and the Profumo affair. She was a member of The Society of Graphic Artists and Pastel Society and a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. Later in life she ran courses in Sussex with her son, Denis, and the rose bowl Juliet Pannett Prize of the West Sussex Art Award bears her name today.

In the interview she talks frankly about establishing herself in the art world. She speaks of the complexities of combining family life with working for The London Illustrated News and of the efforts required to increase her reputation as a portrait artist. As I listen to the hesitations and digressions, as well as the anecdotes, I catch hints of an undertow of struggle in her life. A picture emerges of a genteel English family keeping up appearances despite a gambling cad of a father and a mother forced to take in paying guests.

Because the NLS interviewing methodology moves slowly and chronologically forwards, the unravelling of a ‘life story’ is extremely full. We follow Pannett’s scholarship at the Brighton School of Art. We hear of the Master, Louis Genet, and his techniques and approaches. We can almost feel the crunch of pencil sharpenings under shoes and smell white spirit in the studios. Pannett’s training was both formal and provincial. She had to complete a year of drawing before being allowed to touch a paint brush. No trips to Rome for her, and she admits that most girls in the class were filling the time before marriage. But her seriousness and ambition are evident all the way through. ‘I wanted to be a really good draughtsman,’ she says.

Most fascinating to the contemporary ear is how she established her career. Sending work to editors, pitching, being accepted in the illustration world as a female artist and her precociousness. Before finishing art school, she sent some work to The Cricketer and she then followed up with Sussex County Magazine:

‘I loved walking on the downs and sketching the old shepherds and country people and I thought well they might be interested, so I took them to show Arthur Beckett the publisher in Eastbourne and he said oh yes, good ideas we’ll have a series of Sussex types and I did thirty or forty and it was great fun, and it gave me an excuse to talk to the old shepherds.’ [Juliet Pannett interviewed by Janet Grenier C466/09/01, 00:25:55]

She tells it in a breezy fashion but receiving a professional commission at such a young age is impressive. It is possible to see how consistently hard she worked and the challenges of combining a career with family life. Her narrative shows us the continual navigation and integration of her family – her son Denis in particular, but also her sister the artist Phoebe Somers – with her working life.

The geographical locations that Pannett talks about are very local to me and so I can see the South of England through her eyes. Hove seafront, Brighton. Clambering on the beach at ‘Black Rocks’, now Brighton Marina. Years later she moved back to Sussex and bought a house in the village of Angmering. She considered herself a Sussex person and the imprint of her work can be found in the county if you look. It is in the archives of Worthing Museum, or captured in ephemera relating to prior exhibitions in Croydon Civic Hall, or in Hove Town Hall.

Black and white portrait photograph of Juliet Pannett as a young womanJuliet Pannett, courtesy of Denis Pannett

As I continue to work through the interviews, I am interested in exploring questions around why these female artists who operated outside of metropolitan hubs have slipped attention. Is it a correlation to living in the regions? I am also looking at how lives and life stories can be ‘written’ alongside oral interviews in alternative ways. The NLS interviews provide a central spine: the story in the subjects’ own words as experienced in that particular moment. Alongside that, like satellites, are catalogues and exhibition ephemera, educational and trust foundations. There are also more nebulous legacies such as the long-term impact on teaching, textbooks, and influence on generations of students or attendees at workshops. There is archival documentation of meetings and a wide matrix of cultural materials that contribute to an ongoing legacy.

Pannett died aged 94 after a lifetime as a professional artist and it is clear that most obituaries draw on the NLS interviews. The NLS ‘life-story’ oral history methodology depicts holistic histories that are fluid. The web of materials linked to Pannett’s output show us a professional working mother and a determined character person. She had much to prove, and when she was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen achieved a formal recognition that was important to her. The NLS interviews allow her career achievements to be examined as part of a wider picture. Most crucially, the integration of the domestic and personal life with the cultivation of a career and the creation of art.

When we look at an entire life-version, rather than individual isolated events, exhibitions, or achievements, we can see the unfolding of significant creative energy. Through a collation of memory and ephemera, my research suggests that peripheral forms of life stories – lives told in the margins of British art history – can be re-evaluated in a contemporary light, particularly within the context of a re-thinking of cultural agency and the impact of non-metropolitan areas. As we rethink our creative and cultural-geographical centres, moving outwards from cities to regions, it’s worth working in archives such as the NLS project to find a rich tapestry of stories that provide alternatives to the mainstream.

Suzanne Joinson is an award-winning writer and academic. Her novels A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer's Wife are published internationally by Bloomsbury. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester and writes regularly for a range of publications including the New York Times, Guardian and others. She has a strong interest in oral history and the stories found in landscapes and places. Suzanne previously wrote for the Sound and Vision Blog in February 2020.

18 April 2022

Recording of the week: Easter egg secrets revealed

This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

Having spent the weekend participating in Easter egg hunts and indulging in chocolate, did you ever think about how Easter eggs are made?

Creme eggPhoto by Richard Hicks via Flickr

Cadbury's manufactured their first Easter egg in the UK in 1875, and now sells more than 80 million boxed chocolate eggs each year.

Between 1995 and 1998, National Life Stories interviewed Sir Dominic Cadbury - the great grandson of Cadbury founder John Cadbury - for the project Food: from Source to Salespoint. In this extract he describes some of the processes behind the mass manufacture of chocolate eggs for the Easter season, from the reasons why Easter eggs are the only Cadbury product still packaged by hand, to the secret behind the success of the UK-favourite Cadbury Creme Egg.

Sir Dominic Cadbury on Easter eggs [BL REF C821/05]

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Sir Cadbury is right: there is something special about Easter eggs. Whether it's the colourful packaging, the excitement of hunting for them in the garden with young children, or just the opportunity to indulge unapologetically in your favourite chocolate, they bring joy to all. 

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11 April 2022

Recording of the week: Parsnip wine and an electric organ

This week's selection comes from Tom Bench, Data Protection Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This recording features Don Prior, who was interviewed for Down To Earth, an oral history project about British horticulture. Like most of the interviews in this collection, the interviewer talks Don through his childhood, his working life (as a gardener for a commercial seed producer), his family life and so on, over the course of several hours.

Unlike most interviewees however, Don also seems to have spent some time alone with the tape recorder, filling an extra cassette with memories of Impington, the Cambridgeshire village where he lived and worked all his life. With no interviewer present to guide him, he ends up telling us about every single shop on Impington high street in the 1930s, the potency of homemade parsnip wine, and the planes he saw at Oakington Aerodrome, among other things. Unusual for this collection, but still firmly in the realm of oral history.

After finishing his last story however, we get something unexpected. Don announces that, as there’s a bit of tape left over, he’s going to fill it by playing us 'some of the old tunes that we used to whistle and sing when we were boys' on his electric organ.

A close up photo of the keys of a Yamaha Electone electric organ, taken at St. Anne MonasteryPhoto by Thomas van de Vosse (appeltaart) via Flickr.

He’s previously told us that he taught himself to play this organ as a way to wind down after long days in the fields, and that he liked playing for his granddaughter. And for the rest of the tape, that is what we hear: the soft, warm tone of Don’s Yamaha Electone rising out of the tape hiss like a memory.

Don Prior plays the organ [BL REF C1029/21]

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It can be a very intimate experience listening to these interviews and hearing people tell the tape about all the things that make up a life, but this unexpected appearance of music at the end of our fifth hour with Don stands out as a particularly personal glimpse into a private world.

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28 March 2022

Recording of the week: Virginia Woolf's voice

This week’s selection comes from Sarah O’Reilly, oral historian and interviewer for National Life Stories on the Authors’ Lives project.

Enter the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery on the upper ground floor of the British Library in London and on your left you’ll find a pair of headphones. Through it you can listen to the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, the writer who died on this day 81 years ago.

Woolf made the recording in 1937 for The Third Programme (now Radio 3) as part of a series of talks produced for the BBC by George Barnes. The broadcast – called ‘Craftsmanship’ - went out on the evening of the 29th April at 8.40pm and lasted around 20 minutes. Sadly only eight minutes of Woolf’s talk survive, due either to a conscious decision on the part of the BBC to record only a small part of the whole, or the accidental loss of the rest of the recording.

Download Virginia Woolf transcript

Oral historians deal in the oral and the aural, and Woolf’s broadcast is fascinating on both counts. To modern-day listeners the voice is extraordinary - her accent upper-class, her tone formal. A short transcription made by American scholar Emily Kopley and published in the Times Literary Supplement as part of a longer article captures its bygone cadences perfectly: 'Wehrrds, English wehrrds, are full of echoes, memories, associations.'

Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, felt the broadcast misrepresented his aunt’s voice: ‘the record is a very poor one,’ he wrote later: ‘her voice is deprived of depth and resonance; it seems altogether too fast and too flat; it is barely recognisable. Her speaking voice was in fact beautiful…and it is sad that it should not have been immortalised in a more satisfactory manner.’ If Bell is right, this may have been the result of Woolf’s discomfort with the medium of radio itself: ‘it could have been a good article,’ she later wrote about ‘Craftsmanship’, ‘[but] it’s the talk element that upsets it’. She promised herself in her diary that she would ‘refrain from the folly’ of broadcasting ever again.

Barnes had suggested the title of the talk and Woolf immediately responded by taking issue with the very idea of the writer as a craftsman. In Woolf’s view, words did not yield to the efforts of the author as easily as materials might yield to the craftsman’s tools: ‘Words,’ she said, ‘resist efforts to constrain their meaning or define them exhaustively’. They had a life and a history - ‘They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’ and as such could not be pinned down: ‘They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things’. As the Radio Times’ previewer put it on the 23rd April: ‘In Virginia Woolf’s opinion, craftsmanship is a word that can be applied to the making of pots and pans, but not to words in the way in which writers use them’. What, you might wonder, would Woolf have made of the proliferation of creative writing courses from the 1970s onwards? On this the previewer was equally clear: ‘Mrs. Woolf is a believer in the importance of a large choice of words, but she deplores all attempts to teach people how to write.’

Woolf’s characterisation of words as slippery and alive is an idea that comes up often in the National Life Stories Authors' Lives collection of oral history interviews. Here Peter Porter characterises writing as a kind of ‘fighting’ with words, whilst Maureen Duffy compares it to a high-rise tight-rope walk:

Peter Porter 'writing is fighting' [BL REF C1276/09)

Download Peter Porter transcript

Maureen Duffy 'tightrope' [BL REF C1276/03]

Download Maureen Duffy transcript

The aerial tightrope-walker is a good metaphor - one wrong step and you lose your footing and fall. The craftsman becomes a circus performer, carrying out a daring and dangerous highwire act.

If, as Woolf believed, writing could not be taught, how are writers made? Writer Penelope Lively suggests an alternative route:

Penelope Lively 'writing out of reading' [BL REF C1276/07]

Download Penelope Lively transcript

For Woolf, words are wary of the glare of attention: ‘All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.’ So too are writers, when questioned too closely about their work, as the poet Anthony Thwaite argued when reflecting on the writing process:

Anthony Thwaite 'the arrival of a poem' [BL REF C1276/15]

Download Anthony Thwaite transcript

‘Words Fail Me’ was the title of the series in which Woolf’s broadcast was placed and the suggestion of the battle between words and their speakers is a theme which echoes throughout the Authors’ Lives recordings. Prompted to reflect on her life and her work in her Authors’ Lives recording, the novelist Hilary Mantel described the experience of being lost for words, in a manner that resonates perfectly with Woolf’s sentiments:

Hilary Mantel 'the problem with language'

Download Hilary Mantel transcript

For writers then and now, the struggle continues.

You can listen to a selection of extracts from Authors' Lives on British Library Sounds.   

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08 March 2022

Recording of the Week: Filling in the gaps of the feminist movement in the 1980s – Southall Black Sisters

This week’s selection comes from Amal Malik, Community Research Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Content warning: this blog contains references to domestic violence.

This Recording of the Week for International Women’s Day looks at the work of Southall Black Sisters activist and case worker Pragna Patel.

A pink, purple and orange banner featuring outlines of five women and the words 'Hate is your weapon, courage is ours - Southall Black Sisters fighting inequality and injustice since 1979'‘Let’s put race back into equality’, designed by Shakila Taranum Maan, 2008. Banner © Southall Black Sisters.

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) formed in 1979 and is a campaigning group that was established by women from African, Caribbean, South Asian and other minority backgrounds in West London. Faced with the onslaught of violence and marches by members of The National Front in Southall, the organisation formed as an anti-racist campaign group, influenced by the Black Power groups in the US and UK. As a result, they used ‘Black’ as an umbrella political term for all minorities, ‘born out of common experiences of colonialism and imperialism’.1 SBS addressed both the gap within the wider feminist movement concerning race and the neglect of gender in anti-racist movements. A Black feminist space gave women an environment to articulate their concerns with gender-based violence in the context of their racial identities. It emerged at a pivotal moment, with the important rise of feminist consciousness from 1979. Through active organisation, including conferences and the establishment of activist groups, British society was made to hear women’s demands.

Pragna Patel was interviewed by Rachel Cohen for Sisterhood and After: the Women's Liberation Oral History Project. The interview Patel gave encouraged internal discussions about the place of SBS within the wider feminist and anti-racist movements. Patel raised important questions of how the SBS dealt with the difficulties of confronting issues of domestic violence within minority communities, whilst avoiding wider racial stereotyping. Women of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are, statistically, disproportionately affected by domestic abuse, and Patel’s work sought to address why there was a gap in support for Black and Asian women in cases of gender-based violence.

Patel joined SBS in 1982, at a point where the group had lost steam, but also at a time when concerns of addressing domestic violence had increased due to cuts in support and welfare services.2 In an interview with Granada TV in January 1978, soon after she became Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher asserted that the population were fearful of being ‘swamped by people of a different culture’.3 Thatcher presented foreign cultures as an ‘alien’ threat to the British way of life, in rhetoric that one can argue further fuelled racial stereotyping of minority communities.4

In this clip, Patel explains how SBS emerged at a time when Black feminists were seeking to assert their identity in the activist space by discussing issues such as Black female sexuality and domestic violence. At the time, despite a growing anti-racist movement and the rise of feminist consciousness, few organisations focused on the specific challenges faced by Black and Minority Ethnic women at the intersection of those two identities.

Pragna Patel on Black feminism [BL REF C1420/18] 

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Patel discusses the first meetings of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Most of the literature focusing on South Asian feminist activism has looked at 'two streams of South Asian political organising in Britain'. One, class solidarities in trade union mobilisation in the face of increasing privatisation; and the other, the anti-racist mobilisation of the Asian Youth Movements (AYM). These relationships have been mainly focused on male-dominated organisations, where the cultures were 'distinctly patriarchal'.5 SBS created a safe space for women to address the issues within their community and criticised the wider state’s handling of gender-based violence. In Britain in this period ‘it was the black women that helped keep the names’ of women suffering deportation threats within the public consciousness. Patel’s interview brings in the legacy and continuing ‘living history’ of British imperialism, cemented further by hostile anti-immigration policies. SBS and OWAAD looked to battle hostile immigration policies, challenged the targeted use of the dangerous contraceptive Depo-Provera for minority communities and established trade union solidarity in a period of rising women’s employment. SBS, alongside the organisation AWAZ (‘Voice’ in Urdu), also played a major role in protesting against the virginity testing at Heathrow airport and the ‘X-raying of immigrants’.6 SBS enacted effective campaigns to challenge government policies; in 1992 they gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the one-year rule in immigration, showing how it could trap newly married women in violent relationships.7

Confronting the visceral effects of racist polices on Black and Asian women immigrants, these organisations implemented important grassroots campaigns to support their communities. In breaking the silence on domestic violence in Asian Communities, the public campaigns of SBS showed the faults in the systems that let vulnerable women slip through the cracks.

References

  1. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-pragna-patel
  2. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation/transcript-conversation-pragna-patel 
  3. Sivanandan, A., and Jenny Bourne, ‘The Case for Self-Defence,’ Race & Class 58, no. 1 (2016): p. 65.
  4. Avtah Brah, ‘Women of South Asian origin in Britain: issues and concerns,’ South Asia Research 7, no.1 (1987), p. 45.
  5. Anitha Sundari, and Sukhwant Dhaliwal, ‘South Asian feminisms in Britain: Traversing gender, race, class and religion,’ Economic and Political Weekly 54, no. 17 (2019), p. 2-4.
  6. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain,’ Race & Class 23, no. 2 (1981), p.147-8.
  7. https://southallblacksisters.org.uk/about/southall-black-sisters-timeline/

You can listen to more clips from Pragna Patel's interview and oral history interviews with other feminist activists in our two digital resources, Sisterhood and After and Women's Rights.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

31 January 2022

Recording of the week: On the meditative practice of drawing

This week’s selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist. 

Having been to live drawing classes myself over the last few months, I started to appreciate and master this art I have for long time forgotten (perhaps, neglected).

In this compilation of short extracts from life story oral history interviews recorded by National Life Stories for the Artists' Lives project, various artists talk about different aspects of the art of drawing, from the very idea behind the process to the materials used in the creative process, to the basic question: what is drawing?

Drawing requires a structure, it is a conversational relationship with the paper; but drawing is also energy. Similar to sculpture, it is an intellectual as well as physical process: the whole of the body is involved in the making.

Black brush strokes on a white backgroundPhoto by Sheldon Liu on Unsplash

Among the compilation, the most fascinating part for me is the third excerpt where Deanna Petherbridge talks of drawing as ‘an artistic equivalent of this absolute economy of means’. She recalls her experience of drawing lemon trees on a Greek island, and the materials she used. In her words, pen and ink, black and white were used to make ‘thin and controlled lines’; ultimately, they served the purpose of economy, the ‘imaginative use of the minimal’.

Deanna Petherbridge describes her drawing style [BL REF C466/152]

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Thus the material is an integral part of the practice, it shapes and defines what we create; the meaning of the artistic work is also hidden in the tools we use. Also to me this is true: charcoal is for bold quick statements, pencil to polish and adorn smaller details.

In my experience, drawing is an art that doesn’t require much thinking: the pencil explores the paper, almost resembling a meditative practice where the eyes get better at seeing, not simply looking. The challenge for me comes when trying to draw human presence – not drawing the person, but a human body in its pure form.

I ask myself, what is the minimum (perhaps the kind of minimum that Deanna talks about?) required to give my drawings a meaning, a poetic side, a touch of reality? Drawing could be an idea we have in mind: in the process of learning, the most difficult thing is to slow down.

Deanna Petherbridge was interviewed by Linda Sandino in 2002 for Artists’ Lives, an ongoing National Life Stories project which has been interviewing British artists since 1990. A selection of full interviews from the collection is available to listen to on British Library Sounds, and audio extracts are presented alongside contextualising essays on the Voices of art website.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

24 January 2022

Recording of the week: The memory of liberation in Holocaust survivor testimonies

This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

In the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, our recording of the week reflects on the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: 'One Day'.

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The idea of liberation as ‘one day’ in a survivor’s story is a powerful one: when listening to survivors recall their wartime experiences, we often hear them discuss how they thought about ‘one day’ being liberated. Some survivors describe it as a moment they held on for, the hope of which sustained them; others describe it as a moment they felt would never come.

The testimony of Edith Birkin – given in an interview for National Life Stories in 1989 – contains a range of responses to both the idea of liberation and the liberation itself.

A painting by artist and Holocaust survivor Edith Birkin, depicting a group of prisoners at a concentration camp. A child embraces an adult through a barbed wire fence whilst another child looks on.

Edith Birkin 'The Last Goodbye', image courtesy of Denis Maryk.

Edith Birkin (née Hoffmann) was born in Prague in November 1927. She was 12 when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and 14 when she and her family were sent to the Łódź ghetto. She remained there until the ghetto was liquidated in 1944 and she was deported to Auschwitz. In the early part of 1945 she was sent on a death march to Flossenburg, then transported via coal truck to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated.

In this edited extract, Edith describes the conditions in which she waited for her liberators to arrive, what she imagined the moment would be like, and how the reality was quite different from what she had pictured.

Edith Birkin describes the liberation [BL REF C410/030]

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There are moments of joy in Edith’s recollection. She describes the moment as ‘marvellous’, remembering the first food she ate – tinned macaroni – as ‘heaven’, and explaining how she shares that same food with her family every year to personally commemorate the moment. Yet what she and her fellow inmates had imagined would be a euphoric moment filled with dancing, singing and kissing was dampened by their severe ill health. The inmates were too weak to celebrate. The food the liberators brought them saved some and killed others. They were free but not safe.

Decades after the event, we often assume that liberation was ultimately a joyous event for survivors. The war was over, they were alive, they were no longer incarcerated and were able to return home. The word ‘liberation’ itself elicits ideas of liberty and salvation, which is consistent with the popular notion of liberation marking the break between incarceration and independence, between suffering and relief, between certain death and the opportunity to live. Edith’s testimony complicates this narrative, showing us that the moment of liberation was emotionally complex and that it did not necessarily mark the end of suffering.

In this edited extract she describes returning to Prague after the war, just 17 years old at the time.

Edith Birkin describes her return to Prague [BL REF C410/030] 

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The most striking part of Edith’s description of this time in her life is her declaration that this, for her, was ‘the worst time of the war’. Contrary to what one might expect – contrary even to her initial response to being liberated – the reality of liberation was often far from ‘marvellous’. Edith recalls the loneliness of being the sole survivor of her family; the discovery that friends and neighbours who had promised to protect property had in fact stolen it for themselves; and the helplessness of not knowing where to turn. Perhaps her most crushing realisation was that the hope that had sustained her in the concentration camps – that she would find surviving family members and be reunited with her friends one day – was gone. For survivors, the dawning realisation that life would truly never be the same again was a trauma all of its own.

Oral history provides a unique opportunity for us to understand and engage with the ways in which people remember the past. Liberation was one day in Edith Birkin’s life, but its significance shifted as her situation changed, taking on a whole range of meanings as her story develops: it is simultaneously a dream, a joy, a disappointment, a moment of justice and the precursor to the darkest period of her life. As this example shows, it is through survivor testimony that we can gain a fuller appreciation of the nuances of historical events that can often seem unambiguous.

We should note, however, that exploring the past through testimony – particularly remembering genocide through testimony – can only tell us part of the story. In reflecting on liberation and in listening to survivors describe their memories of liberation, we must remember that for millions of people that one day never came.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember all those who never saw liberation, as well as those who did.

A banner graphic for Holocaust Memorial Day, featuring a candle alight against a black background, the Holocaust Memorial Dya logo, the words 'We're marking Holocaust Memorial Day' and the hashtag #HolocaustMemorialDay / 27 January

Edith Birkin was interviewed in 1989 by Katherine Thompson for The Living Memory of the Jewish Community. Her full interview is available to listen to online on British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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