“We live our lives as narratives. We do not just tell stories. We are stories.”

What is it that makes a quote so compelling that it automatically captures everyone's interest? Contemporary studies in social sciences and current pedagogical approaches are bringing to the forefront the importance of orality, oral stories and oral history in the classroom. Immediately, even if the person narrating is unknown to students, orality makes the narrators accessible, resonant, relatable and exudes trust, since they themselves have a certain power and control over their narrative. Oral histories, through the different engagements to which students are introduced, enable a wider historical understanding, develop the learners’ historical conscience, and their empathy for other people's experiences. Students have to make sense of what they learned and put it in a context of what they know and as a result, they can perceive history not as a central and linear narrative, but as a complex multilayered mosaic that is also composed of individual stories. Students are basically introduced to the methodology of microhistory, the genre of history that focuses on the unique characteristics and reveals the complexities of historical contexts. 

Engaging with oral history enables students’ abilities to connect with the individuals under analysis. By working on people's personal stories through projects such as interviews and further research, students better recognise the importance of these stories for a deeper understanding of the past, and hence the present. By coming into contact with older generations, they can also appreciate and explore the stories of their own ancestors or people in their community, and thus expand their understanding of their local history. In this way, they can learn about the value of oral traditions for many communities, and can often become informed about the people who 'carry' the memory of a community as mediators (through storytelling rituals). In turn, oral history enables teachers and students of history and community to introduce historical evidence from the underside, shift the historical focus, open new areas of inquiry, challenge some of our assumptions and judgments of the past, and bring recognition to substantial groups of people who have been largely ignored. “Oral history is,” Thompson reminds us, “a history built around people...It brings history into, and out of the community”. 

In addition, by getting involved in discussion exercises and research outside the classroom, the students have the opportunity to get in touch with institutions of their country, such as museums, libraries and archives. With regard to archives in particular, oral histories enable teachers to instill in students how important it is to preserve memory, representation, and intergenerationality, and consequently young people are cultivated in terms of active citizenship and public engagement, and are able to understand and take on roles in shaping public history. Students become aware of their rights and obligations as active political subjects, as well as develop a deeper understanding of human rights (e.g. gender) and the struggles of other social groups or communities. In addition, the non-formal way of learning through oral histories empowers students who function better under other learning styles. This empowerment fosters cooperation with their peers and builds their emotional development and confidence.

“In following a story, we follow a story, we follow a story teller, or, more precisely, we follow the trajectory of a storyteller’s attention, what it notices and what it ignores, what it lingers on, what it repeats, what it considers irrelevant, what it hurries towards, what it brings together. It’s like following a dance, not with our feet and bodies, but with our observation and our expectations and our memories of lived life.” 

By listening, recording or reading oral histories, students also come into contact with another dimension of education, that of subjective positioning and personal interpretation of knowledge. Since social sciences in school transmit knowledge from a position of authority, either the teacher or the textbook, the course should fulfill an important objective: that of acquiring the basic knowledge of a subject and that of covering the necessary curriculum in a structured system of learning and examination. However, by being allowed to use other learning methods, such as oral history, students listen to the narrating subjects and thus are able to comprehend how the same historical event or moments in history can be interpreted and conveyed so differently in each case. As a consequence, they perceive the uniqueness and singularity of the subjective dimension, that the subjects carry within them pieces of macrohistory, and therefore they are integral parts of social history and not merely uninvolved bystanders. As a consequence, the students can also identify themselves as active historical subjects and realize their right to critical thinking and questioning of the knowledge of 'authority'. Of course, in line with what Berger notes, through oral histories we learn to sharpen our observation of what is silenced, what is repeated, accelerations or decelerations, and what has not yet become processed. These subtle yet discrete nuances in narratives can, through appropriate training, become elements that reinforce the students’ ability for an open gaze and perception toward a constant reflection on what they are learning, and especially as far as history is concerned, toward a consciousness for constant reexamination, revisiting of facts and sources, and verifying, rejecting and/or enriching them.

Oral history has become well-established educational praxis, especially in Holocaust Education, and rightly so. Interviews and testimonies constituted the main source of documenting the Holocaust. And a comprehensive understanding of the scale of racial persecution during the Second World War cannot be based only on abstract numbers of victims or published decrees of segregation and deportation. It should definitely include the perspective of those persecuted, as Yehuda Bauer and Saul Friedländer calls us to do Only through the perspective of those persecuted, can one appreciate the wide range of experiences and different responses to persecution, as well as the variety of survival strategies and local contexts. If we consider oral history as part of a global social movement to democratize history and nation-states, then its combination with the topic of the Holocaust in the educational setting serves the purpose of further democratization even more effectively. Curricula based more on skill-oriented teaching rather than fact-based teaching have a lot to gain from the usage of oral history in the classroom. 

Does oral history solve all problems of history teaching and didactics of history? Of course not. Testimonies, interviews, memoirs or any other form of individual narrative of one’s experiences are essentially historical sources. As such, they should be treated with the utmost respect. However, in order for us to fully understand them and to really appreciate their meaning and their role, we, as educators, need to properly contextualize them. Without its historical context, a source - no matter how valuable - remains a riddle waiting for its future researchers to solve it.

With all this at its core, the HerStories project has shaped all its deliverables based on how teachers and by extension students can delve into 20th century European history through [FR1] the life stories of seven Jewish women. Each deliverable enables students to engage with parts of the women's oral stories, either by reading them directly through the exhibition, or by studying them more deeply to create a video and tell/create a short story themselves (youth competition), or even through the exercises created exclusively for the classroom (Class exercises), or by serving as a guide in exhibition (exhibition and student workshop). And last but not least the compendium at hand offers a theoretical as well as practical guide on how an educator could use the assembled material to effectively use in the classroom the seven individual stories.  

Giving voice to these seven Jewish women through the entire project, creating a space to share their experience is also a way to discuss the questions of remembering, understanding, learning from history, shaping a better society, helping ourselves and others to be free from prejudice and hatred. It is heartbreaking to learn about the loss, pain and suffering they experienced, about the impossible choices they had to make. And – at the same time – it is empowering to see their strength and resilience, their individual ways of coping and rebuilding their lives, their determination to protect what was important to them.



Alexandra Patrikiou

Anna Pantelakou