A Meditation on Narrative and Sources

I originally thought this through in a twitter thread, adapted here in my preferred style with minor changes for grammar, spelling, and clarity. Asterisks denote discussions too big for this post, some of which can be found in my MA Thesis.

In grad school I did extensive research on the Shanghai Jewish refugee community, specifically, by way of reading memoirs. Now I’m doing extensive research on the Warsaw Ghetto, specifically the Jewish resistance in, once again by reading memoirs.

Memoirs are a deeply fallible source, further complicated by their status as published or unpublished, with oral histories requiring a different set of questions altogether. But the strength and joy of working with memoir as primary source for a small, specific, closed communities is that memoir/oral history/diary/ego-narrative can be a surprisingly telling source.

Yes there will be self-aggrandizement, flaws in human memory, repression, mis-ordered remembrance, flattering portrayals of those who do not deserve it, but as a group, as a body of literature, they can come together to tell on odd sort of truth. They can tell the patchwork story of a community, through vastly different points of view, each with their own, unique reason for existing.

Especially in regard to Holocaust narratives, you will see people writing, or speaking, about their experiences for a very specific set of reasons: they understood that they lived through something Big and wanted to record it; they needed to cope with their trauma; they want their children and grandchildren to know their story; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the Shoah Foundation asked for and took their oral histories; they realized many years after the fact that their story needed to be told, etc.

Their motivation for telling/writing will shape, or inform, their narrative. A woman writing for her grandchildren may not write about the time she slept with a Japanese man in return for food money. A Polish man writing for History may not notice that his female comrades in the Jewish resistance had to slip off into the woods for an abortion.

Their motivations for writing, and, of course their gendered experiences and national socialization issues*, will inform the narrative the historian ends up seeing in front of them.

So even though these sources are deeply flawed, and shaped by so many factors and biases on the part of the writers, together they still tell a fairly cohesive story as long as you know how to analyze and interrogate them appropriately.

And, honestly, it’s such a thrill when the same figures and events pop in different narratives; when the same events occur through so many sets of eyes. There are couriers in Aryan Warsaw. The Nazis are liquidating the ghetto. Traumatized camp survivors are disembarking in Shanghai. American planes are bombing the part of Shanghai where the Jews had to live.

Through one point of view, one recollection, these are just stories. But through the eyes of many, they approach something a little bit closer to a cohesive narrative, to a form of truth, perhaps.

Reading List: Historiography, Theory, Methodology, Construction, and Philosophy of History

Historiography, Theory, Methodology, Construction, and Philosophy of History

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition by Benedict Anderson

The Practice of U.S. Women’s History: Narratives, Intersections, and Dialogues edited by Vicki L. Ruiz, S. Jay Kleinberg, and Eileen Boris

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis

Selected Subaltern Studies (Essays from the 5 Volumes and a Glossary) edited by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Ranajit Guha

On Collective Memory (Heritage of Sociology Series) by Maurice Halbwachs

Writing History in the Global Era by Lynn Hunt

Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by George G. Iggers

Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice by Randall C. Jimerson

Archives: Principles and Practices by Laura Agnes Millar

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea by Rosalind Morris

Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Scott

The Fantasy of Feminist History (Next Wave Provocations) by Joan Scott

Oral History and Public Memories (Critical Perspectives On The Past) edited by Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes

Writing History: A Guide for Students by William Kelleher Storey

The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Opus Books) by Paul Thompson

The Pursuit of History (5th Edition) by John Tosh

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Eighth Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) by Kate L. Turabian



Reading List: Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 7-Theory, Methodology, Anthropology, and other History Approaches

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Dipesh Chakrabarty

The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Partha Chatterjee

Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews (Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics) by Sami Shalom Chetrit

Strangers in Their Homeland: A Critical Study of Israel’s Arab Citizens by Ra’anan Cohen

Globalization and Geopolitics in the Middle East: Old games, new rules (Durham Modern Middle East and Islamic World) by Anoushiravan Ehteshami

Contemporary Israel: Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, and Security Challenges by Robert Freedman

Remembering and Imagining Palestine: Identity and Nationalism from the Crusades to the Present by Haim Gerber

Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy by Peter Gottschalk

Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Issues in the History of American Foreign Relations) by Peter L. Hahn

The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (The Contemporary Middle East) by Fred Halliday

The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion (Philosophy and the Global Context) by Bernard Harrison

The International Politics of the Middle East (Regional International Politics Series) by Raymond Hinnebusch

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire by Deepa Kumar

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day by Walter Laqueur

Exile and Return: Predicaments of Palestinians and Jews by Ann M. Lesch

American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945 by Douglas Little

Politics and Government in Israel: The Maturation of a Modern State by Gregory S. Mahler

From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (Columbia/Hurst) by Meir Litvak

Palestinian Collective Memory and National Identity by Meir Litvak

Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 by Melani McAlister

Making Israel edited by Benny Morris

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren

Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967 by William B. Quandt

Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns (Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry) edited by Uzi Rebhun

Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (Studies in Antisemitism) by Alvin H. Rosenfeld

The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land by Donna Rosenthal

The Multicultural Challenge in Israel (Israel: Society, Culture, and History) by Avi Sagi

Orientalism by Edward Said

Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship (Cambridge Middle East Studies) by Gershon Shafir

Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination by Ehud Sprinzak

The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East by Shibley Telhami

Europe and the Islamic World: A History by John Tolan

Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel by Elhanan Yakira

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (The Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies) by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition by Yael Zerubavel







Reading List: Jewish History-Theory, Historiography and General Works, and Memoir


Gender and Jewish History (The Modern Jewish Experience) edited by Deborah Dash Moore and Marion A. Kaplan

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day by Walter Laqueur

How Jewish is Jewish History? (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization) by Moshe Rosman

A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood by Raymond P. Scheindlin

Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce by Sarah Stein

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (The Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies) by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi


Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl’s Journey from Hitler’s Hate to War-Torn China by Ursula Bacon

Shanghai Remembered…: Stories of Jews Who Escaped to Shanghai from Nazi Europe edited by Berl Falbaum

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Once My Name Was Sara by I. Betty Grebenschikoff

Shanghai Refuge: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto by Ernest G. Heppner by Ernest G. Heppner

Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (Palgrave Studies in Oral History) edited by Steve Hochstadt

I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941 by Victor Klemperer

I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer

The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945-59by Victor Klemperer

Survival In Auschwitz by Primo Levi

On Both Sides of the Wall: Memoirs from the Warsaw Ghetto by Vladka Meed

The Plough Woman: Records of the Pioneer Women of Palestine  A Critical Edition (The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry) by Mark A. Raider

Ghetto Shanghai by Evelyn Pike Rubin

Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition by Hannah Senesh

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman


Night by Eli Weisel

Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Studies and Texts in Jewish History and Culture) translated by Henny Wenkart, edited by Bernard Cooperman, by Pauline Wengeroff