Glenn Kurtz’s book Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film (2014) recounts a project similar to my own, of piecing together fragments. Kurtz’s journey began with a film recorded during his grandparent’s visit to his grandfather’s native town in Poland. Seeing the places and faces on film inspired him to learn all he could about the town and its prewar inhabitants—what life was like in Nasielsk, how it was disrupted by World War II, the fate of those who perished, and what became of those who survived. It’s a fascinating story of discovery, tacking between information revealed in archival records and the stories recounted by survivors and their families. He makes use of the same archival resources I’ve been using—JewishGen, Ancestry.com, Yad Vashem, Warsaw Database, ship manifests of passengers, archival photographs. And extraordinarily, out of these fragments, he was able to find some of the people in the three-minute film, or find people who remembered them and could tell some of their story.
These stories bring the fragments, and the town, back alive. Still partial, still shadowy, but alive. I see this particularly in the words of Morry Chandler (Moszek Tuchendler), whom Kurtz found in Florida with his wife, children, and grandchildren. He appears momentarily in Kurtz’s grandfather’s film jumping out and smiling in front of the camera. For Morry, looking at himself and his town on film, and recalling the people he lived with in Nasielsk reminded him he ever had a childhood, and that he was happy:
It’s looking back and saying, Yes, there was a world. Other than what we have lived all these years, knowing what happened. It was a real world there. I mean people were going about their business. Kids were running, and doing all the things that kids do. And here I look at myself, and I see it was a happy face.
The book models two guidelines for my fieldwork: first, how to weave together fragments into a coherent story, integrating as well the gaps and inconsistencies that remain. Information is labeled along a scale of likelihood; the probable, the possible, and the still unknown outnumber what can be unambiguously confirmed. The book also provides a model for working with personal accounts. It corroborates Greenspan’s argument for ongoing contact with survivors, which provides the space for new stories to be recounted, for the revision or elaboration of past accounts, and for interviewers to ask questions that lead to new explanations and deeper insight into survivors’ experiences. (See Henry Greenspan’s “The Unsaid, the Incommunicable, the Unbearable, and the Irretrievable,” Oral History Review 2014, Vol 41, No. 2, pp. 229–243).
Kurtz writes, “Memories, like artifacts, are tightly wound bundles of information. Pull one thread, try to identify one figure, and the whole bundle unfurls.”