Oral history is a unique way to learn about past events and experiences. It is a method which probes memory, evokes emotions and feelings which have long been dormant, and creates a relationship between narrator and interviewer which is often a very special one. The information can be dramatic when the narrator is an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, and the interviewer is a young teenager whose assignment is to find out about a war that began before most teenagers' parents were born.
"I was there to interview a woman on a very important era of American history," wrote Andy Smith in his story of Marion Joy. "My mind searched for a question. I asked her to reflect on her reaction at the termination of the war, and she replied, 'I just said, Thank you God, and may there never be another one. Never, anywhere.' A suitable ending from a woman like Marion Joy." Moments like this were repeated in every interview.
The young students in the ninth grade Honors English class often wrote about "penetrating beneath the surface" in their interviews. They wrote about how the women revealed a side of themselves the interviewer would never have guessed was there.
"There are two sides to Judith Cohen," Jason Gelles tells us, "there is the up-beat, enthusiastic side and the more serious side. She appeared possessed by a greater force, almost enchanted," wrote Jason about the way Judith recalled her life during the war. He concluded, "Judith has been changed by her experiences in the war. Today I see an enlightened Judith Cohen; someone whom I can look up to."
It is interesting to note that these ninth graders laughingly told their English and oral history teachers that they had not done well in another class on their history test covering World War II. "We didn't know any of the facts!" they cried. "We just knew about the personal side of the war!" Well, if history has any lessons for us to learn, they will be learned from the personal side of the information as well as the facts. These students will not forget the lessons they have learned in the "What Did You Do In The War, Grandma?" project.
Cassie Richman, age 15 , summed up her feelings, "I feel lucky to live in a time when no one I know is always in danger of suffering through a personal or life-threatening situation. I also feel fortunate to have spoken to a woman who lived through World War II, because I realized that my children, and even the small children of today, may not get a real chance to speak with someone who has actually gone through such monumental days." In this project, 17 students interviewed 36 Rhode Island women who recalled their lives in the years before, during and after the Second World War. Here are 26 of the stories told by the women, and retold by the students.
By Linda P. Wood
I was interviewing Mabel Smith in her large, airy farmhouse. She's a sensible, duty-minded woman, who likes to get involved in community affairs. Married in January of '39, she spent the war time coming up weekends in the summer to Rhode Island by train and raising three children. I can remember being here in Matunuck at Labor Day time when the Germans marched into Poland. I was very aware of the buildup, and of the fear of war that people had. In the summer of '37 I took a trip to Europe, and went to Austria. People there were very enthusiastic about Hitler, but you did wonder. Oh, they were for Hitler, they were. He encouraged young people to have great pride in the Aryan race and in the German nation, and he encouraged all sorts of athletic disciplines, the great strong Germanic, the master race, as he called it. Oh, it was a little scary even then. I didn't know too much about the anti-Semitism, but I was aware of it. I knew it was part of Hitler's build-up, and his policy. I can remember when Chamberlain made his agreement, and sort of sold out the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland. That made a great many people uneasy. He said he was getting peace for our times, but you felt that it couldn't last.
A small, cheery woman with a reddish brown pageboy, Nancy Potter is an English teacher at the University of Rhode Island who has published many short stories including her latest collection Legacies. I was living on a farm in eastern Connecticut. I was very aware that the war was going on in England because I had an English pen pal. People grew up early in those days. My pen pal was in an air raid shelter in London, and she would write letters about the war. During two bad winters, she spent almost every other evening in the air raid shelter. I was standing on the stairs when the Pearl Harbor announcement was made on the particular day, and the declaration of war followed very suddenly. I can remember looking down at the carpet and thinking life would never be the same again.