Make me a witness

Another fascinating article in the BBC News Magazine today, about witnesses to important historical events of the 20th century, and how they are dwindling. It raises some interesting questions about the value of first-person interpretation (the part about Milvina Dean, who was too young to remember the sinking of the Titanic, even though she survived it, is particularly great), as well as the impact of interaction with these "living relics" in developing empathy and understanding.

I have been lucky enough over the years to hear several Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences. Due to my age, and theirs, these were usually child prisoners or smuggled children at the time, and in fact, this made it even more powerful, because they were "our age" then. But thinking about it more analytically, what I have just realized is the paradoxical simultaneity of these narratives: they were both highly personal, and yet somehow blend into the accepted version of a Grand Historical Narrative. It's the same thing as happens in documentaries - you hardly ever hear a dissenting voice say "no, that's not how it was for me!" And even if they do (I can think of a couple of WWII documentaries I've seen, in which unrepentant Russian or German prison camp guards were interviewed) they are the immediate villain.

So it makes me wonder - if we already have this Grand Narrative Truth in our heads, and whatever else we hear either falls in line with it and therefore tugs at our conscience, or goes against it and we therefore reject it outright - what is the impact of witness stories?


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