Doing Oral History: My Meeting with Bukovinians in Poland
When historians want to tell the story of people and people’s agency in processes of social and cultural transformation, they rely heavily on ego-documents, such as memoirs, diaries, or oral history interviews. The character of oral history has been discussed here before, and many research guides will tell you how to manage these situations. However, before I started a research project to interview Bukovinians this summer in the region of Lower Silesia in Poland, I had no idea on how to conduct research in oral history. And to be honest, you have to sit in front of your first interviewee to know what oral history really means. In this post, I would like to share my experience from my summer research, as well as general thoughts about conducting an oral history project.
The festival: touching base
These interviews are part of a larger research project at the University of Augsburg, which looks at the relationship between ethnic German and Polish Bukovinians from the end of the 19th century to the present. My interviewees were Poles from the former Habsburg province of Bukovina and their descendants. After the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, the province of Bukovina became part of Romania, but as a result of the Second World War it was split between Romania and the Soviet Union, and remains divided between Romania and Ukraine to this day. Torn from their homes, and trying to survive and start a new life after the traumatic rupture of 1945, these people witnessed a long list of violent political, military and cultural conflicts and transformations during the short 20th century.
If you are looking for Bukovinians in Germany or the United States, you usually start your research with Hometown Associations, which were established by groups of immigrants after their arrival. In Poland, however, settlers did not build any regional institutions or organizations after 1945, at least not officially. The goal of the Polish communist regime was to erase the centuries-long heterogeneity of Poland by creating an ethnically homogeneous state with a common identity. This propaganda was especially forced on settlers in the ‘Recovered Territories’ in the West, as most of them had come from the multicultural eastern territories of the former Second Polish Republic, and other areas outside of Poland such as Bukovina.
However, after the major upheaval in East Central Europe in 1989, folkloric dance groups and choirs emerged which evoked and celebrated the culture of their own and their ancestors’ homeland. “Bukowińskie Spotkania”, an annual international folkloristic festival in Jastrowie and Dzierżoniów in Poland, brings groups from Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, and even the United States together: young and old people, some of them born in interwar Bukovina, when it belonged to Romania, all dressed in their traditional clothes. As part of the event, the “Bukowiński Festiwal Nauki” also offers an opportunity for international scholars on Bukovina to present and discuss their research.
So I decided to start my research by attending the Bukovina festival, in the hope of finding Bukovinians who were willing to share their story with me. After watching a parade of all the participating groups, as well as a wedding spectacle, and after talking with scholars (my biggest thanks to Magda Pokrzyńska and Krzysiek Nowak), testing my physical condition on a kayak tour, eating delicious food, and drinking homemade vodka, I finally met one person who pushed my research in an unexpected direction. Jan Guła, a true gentleman in his 60s, is the chair of the Lubań-based choir “Echo Bukowina” and the founder of “Bratnia Pomoc”: a foundation started in 1992 to preserve the Bukovinian memory and provide material support to families and friends in Romania and Ukraine. The choir sings their songs in many of the languages spoken in Bukovina—German, Polish, Romanian and Ukrainian—celebrating the multicultural heritage of Bukovina in a special sense. Pan Jan and the members of the choir invited me to Lubań, and that’s where I went after the festival in Jastrowie.
On my first day in Lubań, Pan Jan picked me up at my hotel in his old car. On this and the next couple of days, we drove around Lubań and the surrounding villages in Lower Silesia. Always busy on his phone, Pan Jan arranged meetings on the spot with his family members, and many others who were born in interwar Romania in Bukovina, and came as expatriates to the new state of Poland between 1945 and 1948. This is where I conducted most of the interviews for the project. In contrast to the revitalized urban areas in Poland the countryside remains neglected, and while driving with Pan Jan I observed the hauntingly beautiful landscape of Lower Silesia, interrupted periodically by the ruins of former German manor houses and palaces.
As you may have realized, I did not contact any interviewees in advance; in fact, I did not plan my research trip at all. The big advantage was that my interviewees too did not have any time to prepare themselves for my arrival. This meant I got more immediate reactions to my questions, as well as a fuller account of their stories. Pan Jan always introduced me to the people, and therefore helped to establish trust. Moreover, I did not prepare any questions beforehand, as I wanted to have an open conversation in a comfortable atmosphere. Some interviewees get nervous if you hide yourself behind a stack of papers and pencils. Furthermore, this strategy does not allow you to interrupt the person. I had my research questions in my mind, and if the interviewees jumped across time in their life story, I could easily ask the famous “Let’s go back to…” question. In my case, most of the people I met were happy to share their story with me. However, sometimes interviewees are not quite as talkative. In this case, closed questions and a structured interview can be helpful.
As in every history of forced migrations which includes dimensions of uprootedness and senses of belonging, some people became quite emotional during the interview. One elderly woman started to cry while telling me she wished nothing more than to meet again the German children she had lived with until 1946, and to thank them for their kindness. How you react in such a situation is a matter of ethics, and can be tricky. Often, this happened the first time that my interview partners talked about their childhood experiences, the expatriation from Bukovina, their life struggles in the alien landscape of Lower Silesia, the brief Polish–German contacts, and the economic hardship under communist rule. An interview with someone foreign to all of this came as a relief.
The adventure of fieldwork and doing oral history can sometimes be frustrating, but more often it is a motivating experience. In particular, you meet the embodiment of what you read in books. The movements of millions of Europeans as a result of the Second World War dramatically transformed the region’s physical and social makeup. The life stories of these people help to humanize your understanding of this area in the aftermath of the darkest era of the 20th century. To conclude, doing oral history is not only a quest for information; it is an encounter and a mutual experience. Both I and the people who told me their story gained something from this experience.