Oral Histories Save Family Memories Forever

One of the most critical missions the National World War Two Museum is engaged in is researching and interviewing all kinds of participants from the war to compile a rich oral history of what happened.  The entire collection is being digitized and catalogued for researchers.  The memory will be alive for eternity.

Often times, a member of the family never spoke of what they did during their service.  The memories are just too painful and they’d rather leave them below the surface of their consciousness.  They also don’t want to frighten family members or burden them.  However, these oral histories are important.

The museum does a phenomenal job.  They have ace researchers, and really dig into the minute details of certain events.  They also have the advantage of knowing a lot about the event in question from other oral histories, sources and historical research.  But, the museum just can’t get to everyone.  We are losing veterans at a rate of 800 per day by some estimates. The Greatest Generation (and many dislike that moniker) is also the oldest generation.  We are running out of time.

But, everyone can pitch in.  Here is the museum’s guide to compiling an oral history on the person in your family from that generation.  Even if the elder person in your family didn’t serve in the war, you might still follow the guidelines and interview them.  For example, my grandfather that just passed away was working for the US Forest Service during the war.  He went out and got wood for the war effort, and supervised the cutting and processing of timber.  Even though he wasn’t dodging bullets, he had a story to tell and it’s a shame we didn’t do it because now any details are in the grave with him.

There are ten best practices.  Here they are:

Ten steps to conducting good oral history interviews


  • Inform the Interviewee: Before any interview takes place, you should inform your interview subject of the purpose of the interview, the general subjects to be covered, the time and place of the interview, how the interview will be conducted (will it be taped, video taped?), and what will be done with the information.
  • Perform Background Research: You should do appropriate background research on their oral history topic before you conduct an interview. A trip to the library, as well as research on-line, is crucial to make sure that you have a familiarity with the subjects to be covered. An uninformed interviewer is a passive interviewer, unable to control the structure and direction of the interview.
  • Prepare Questions: You should have prepared questions written down. These questions should be broad enough to let the interviewee describe or explain the how, what, where, and why of a subject, but should be limited enough so that the interviewee knows what you are interested in learning.
  • Be an Active Listener: Oral historians must be active listeners. You should be able to monitor the quality of what an interviewee is relating while also listening to clues or inferences that may reveal new areas or topics worth exploring. Don’t just stick to your scripted questions—be prepared to follow up on interesting or important stories or themes if the opportunity presents itself.
  • Take Notes: You should take notes during the interview. Taking notes will give you a chance to jot down new questions as they come to mind. It is also a good idea to write down names used during an interview so you can check for spelling accuracy with the interviewee after the interview.
  • Listen for Inaccuracies: If the interviewee appears to be presenting a much distorted account, you can switch to a negative tack without damaging rapport. Simply state that other sources you have consulted have taken an opposite view and ask the interviewee to comment. Be careful not to directly challenge the knowledge or truthfulness of the interviewee. It is also best to save more personal and sensitive subjects for the middle of the interview when a more relaxed atmosphere has been established.
  • Accept Silence: Expect and accept a little silence. Never rush the interviewee into answering. One of the most common mistakes that novice interviewers make is to repeat or rephrase a question when the interviewee does not immediately respond. Another frequently made mistake is moving on to the next question at the interviewee’s first pause. People often need time to put their thoughts in order. If you allow them a few more seconds, they will probably add more to their earlier statements. Silence can be awkward, but useful.
  • End Strongly: Before the interview concludes, ask the interviewee if there is anything else they would like to tell you that you did not ask about. Conclude by thanking the interviewee for his or her time. If you have taped the interview and agreed to supply the interviewee with a copy, tell him when you will have that tape prepared. After the interview, write a thank-you letter to the interviewee.
  • Label Your Tape: If you are recording your interview, clearly label your tape with the date, the interviewee’s name, and the subject of the interview. It is always a good idea to start your interview by recording a short introduction at the beginning of the tape which includes the above information (labels can fall off): “This is Joe Smith interviewing Mary Jones about her WWII experiences on Thursday, October 9, 2003.” If you have the ability, digitize your tape onto your computer.
  • Transcribe Your Interview: Recording your interview only on tape will not be very helpful to others wishing to use your interviews for further research. Typing out your interview is time-consuming, but important. Not only will it make your interview more accessible to future researchers, but it will oblige you to listen more closely to the content of the interview.

I’d also add.  Upload your interview to a site like YouTube.  Tag it with #ww2museum #ww2oralhistory and then have hashtags about what they spoke about, for example, #battleofthebulge.  Now it’s sort of searchable and easier to find.

You never know what you will find out or where you will find them.  I was at a lunch for the National Holocaust Museum over a year ago in Chicago.  I was placed at a random table, and began chatting with the guy next to me.  His name was Walter Reed.   We chatted and he told me his story.  He was writing a book about it at the time.  I introduced him to the museum, and they decided to do an oral history.  Here is a snippet of his story from the newspaper article I linked to.

“One morning, there was a loud knock on our front door of our house, and a bunch of brown-shirted (Nazi) party members were out there with a truck, and they yelled ‘Raus! Raus!’ ‘Raus’ in German means ‘get the hell out,’ ” he said. “They grabbed my dad and me, put us on the truck and took us to the nearby county (jail).

Reed would spend about five days in a jail cell before being released due to his youth, but his father was sent to Dachau. Reed said the notorious Bavarian locale was at that time an “intimidation camp,” and his father returned home “about five weeks later, and he looked about 20 years older.”

The following summer, his parents sent him with a humanitarian mission to Belgium, where he lived with other displaced Jewish boys in a foster home.

“My parents must have known they would never see me again. They didn’t,” he said, explaining later that his 51-year-old father and 49-year-old mother, along with his two younger brothers, were eventually “put on a train for Poland, and that’s the last anyone heard of them.”

As for Reed, his “kindertransport” benefactors slipped him to southwestern France during the Nazi invasion of Belgium, and he lived in a barn with 100 other children for months before being selected for one of the last refugee transports out of Spain in 1941.

“America at that time, more so than now, was anti-immigration, (so) it was almost impossible to get a visa to come to the United States,” he said. “I’ve been to Las Vegas various times, and I play the slot machines, and I always lose my money. When it came to getting an immigration visa to the USA in 1941, I won the lottery.”

Can you imagine?

As you get together over the holidays with the elder statespeople of your family, why not set aside some time to do an oral history?  Even if they weren’t alive during the time of World War Two, you can still use the same guidelines above to find out a lot of information on a family member that succeeding generations might like to know.

Here is what an oral history looks like from the museum:

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