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2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday April 23, 2020

portrait of Agiatis Benardou

Agiatis Benardou

Senior Research Associate , Digital Curation Unit Athena Research and Innovation Centre

Exploring cultural heritage through oral history

Oral testimonies can be an important way to understand historical events. They have been the focus of the research project, ‘Memories of Occupation in Greece’, which brought together a number of oral testimonies into a digital collection. The project stimulates reflection on the role played by cultural heritage in recalling memories and on the potential of oral history for research. In this post, Agiatis Benardou interviews Anna Maria Droumpouki, a historian at Freie Universität Berlin, and scientific co-ordinator of the project, on the challenges of designing interviews to collect testimonies, the experience itself of collecting them, and the implications of making them available online.

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Title: Interviewer Ersi Malagiorgi and Stavros Zerbinos, survivor of the Dracia massacre © Memories of the Occupation of Greece

Date: 2017-03-31

Institution: Institution Freie Universität Berlin

Memories of Occupation in Greece is a project supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft Foundation and Freie Universität Berlin. The project collected and archived audiovisual testimonies on the German occupation of Greece (1941-44). To this end, a total of 93 interviews were conducted in Greece with witnesses of the period, including members of resistance organisations, hidden children, Jewish Shoah survivors, prisoners of concentration camps, witnesses to retaliation, and other individuals who experienced the painful period in various ways. The interviews were digitised and made accessible in a trilingual web portal and are available for research, educational and training purposes.

What was the methodology you employed while designing and organising the interviews with the survivors? 

The interviewers follow the biographical-narrative method as described by Dr Alexander von Plato (an internationally recognised authority on oral history and one of Germany’s leading oral historians). The interviewees have the opportunity to tell the story of their whole life without interruptions, setting their own priorities and following an associative or chronological structure as they deem appropriate. This is done in the first (open) stage of the interview, which is introduced with the general question: ‘Could you please tell us the story of your life?’ 

Although the primary research interest of the project ‘Memories of the Occupation of Greece’ is the time of the occupation, the interviews that are conducted cover the entire life of the contemporary witnesses. This decision to conduct biographical interviews was made because of the importance of the subject’s character and story prior to the occupation for understanding their behavior and actions during the occupation. Memories of the time after the occupation are important, as the experience has an effect on the entire life of the individual.

Can you describe briefly how the interviews were carried out?

The interviewers prepare themselves thoroughly for the interview. They possess an extensive knowledge of the German occupation of Greece and have been informed about the particular circumstances of the person to be interviewed, allowing them to comprehend each individual life story in its complexity. Furthermore, the interviewers prepare questions to assist in understanding the biography of each individual and the events that occurred during the occupation. As a matter of principle, the interviews are conducted with respect and empathy. 

Photos, documents or artifacts are examined together in order to bring back memories. After the interview, the interviewer completes a short biography and an interview protocol with a description of the interview situation. The interview subject receives a written copy of the interview.

Title: Interviewer Anna Maria Droumpouki and Efstathios Haitidis, survivor of the Pyrgoi Eordaias massacre © Memories of the Occupation of Greece

Date: 2016-12-16

Institution: Institution Freie Universität Berlin

What were the main challenges you faced during the interviews and the data collection?

The challenges were many. One important challenge was the conception and creation of the portal with the interviews preserved in their digital format and supplemented with other sources and materials such as keywords, headings, tab and qualitative information and summaries. The creation of an improved search and user functionality was also critical. 

How do you deal with the issues of ethics and privacy that emerge during the interviews?

Those who are interested can get access to the material after registering to the portal. This restricted access is important for safeguarding the personal privacy of the witnesses. The witnesses themselves have also signed a written agreement that they consent to the use of their interviews for educational and historical purposes.

Do you have any insights as to if and how the interviews have been used (for research or other purposes)?

Yes, there have been various presentations of the project to international conferences. The scientific team of the project has published some peer-reviewed articles for international scholarly journals and educational material for schools in Greece and Germany has already been prepared.

How do you think that cultural heritage institutions should approach sharing oral histories?

The practise of oral history in cultural institutions is well established although oral history is marginalised within academia. Museums and cultural institutions include video testimonies at their exhibitions as an effective exhibit tool and are considered now as integral elements in both the narrative and the design of the exhibit.