lizabeth philibert was pregnant when she was shoved and
beaten by a lackey of the Duvalier regime in Haiti in the 1970s.
She is one of the survivors who has given her voice to an unusual
oral history project, called Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced
by War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations. The digi-
tal video project, centred at Concordia University, aims to revo-
lutionize oral history by harnessing this ancient art to modern
“Often, in oral history, there has been an emphasis on collec-
tion,” says Concordia history professor Steven High, the project’s
co-director. “You interview people, you are moved by the experience, then
you put the interviews on a shelf, and no one ever listens to them again.”
In this case, the project leaders want to build an oral history archive that
can be shared with the world.
Life Stories involves 40 researchers in 15 disciplines, from four
Montreal universities – McGill University, Université de Montréal and
Universitié du Québec à Montréal, as well as Concordia – along with 18
community groups. Researchers were assigned to a number of working
groups, each with a mandate to interview survivors from a different human
rights atrocity. One working group is identified as The Holocaust and
Other Persecutions Against Jews. Others focus on the Rwandan genocide
of 1994, the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the Cambodian genocide per-
petrated by the Khmer Rouge.
The Concordia Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling took
this on as one of its first projects. Both the centre and the project were
launched in 2006 with a $1-million grant from the Community University
Research Alliances program, or CURA, through the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council. Dr. High says Life Stories fits perfectly
into the centre’s mission: to provide cutting-edge, collaborative historical
research using digital and computer technology.
Digital video transforms the reach and scope of oral history. The
medium is far more permanent and more flexible than tape: it will be
possible to disseminate the archive to scholars and survivors everywhere,
over the Internet. “Now we are able to do things that were unimaginable
when I started as an oral historian in 1988,” says Dr. High.
An open-source software called Stories Matter ( stories-matter.com)
allows users to interact with the videotaped interviews, creating their
own clips. A search tool lets readers find common themes and threads
across all the interviews. The versatile tool also means historians can
build their own oral history database.
Besides the technology it uses, Life Stories differs in its approach
and methodology from many other oral history projects: it consistently
focuses on the survivors, rather than the atrocity.
“A lot of testimony projects are premised on the idea that you interview
people about what happened,” says Dr. High. “With the Life Stories ap-
proach, people are placed front and centre, and we’re interested in what
the violence means in the context of their lives … and how this violence
rippled through people’s lives, families and communities.”
In many cases, survivors are still struggling with the meaning of their
experiences. “When I interview someone about the Holocaust, it is not
something that they are explaining to me. Through the interview process,
we are both trying to understand what happened,” says Dr. High. “These
are unthinkable acts, unthinkable events.”
Interviews are conducted in the survivor’s mother tongue, then tran-
scribed and translated into French. Interviews conducted in French or
English are not translated. The interviews range from one hour to 25 hours,
broken into multiple sessions. The archive, once completed, will comprise
well over 500 interviews.
Displacement is the most common experience in all the interviews.
For example, Montreal has the world’s third largest population of Holocaust
survivors, behind New York and Israel. While most of the survivors fled
events that have become part of history, others were forced to leave because
of human rights abuses that aren’t as well documented.
Yolande Cohen, a history professor at Université du Québec à Montreal,
is part of the Jewish working group. Her team at UQAM is interviewing
members of Montreal’s Sephardic community, primarily French-speaking
Jews who settled in Montreal from 1950 to 1980 after fleeing persecution
in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Many were attacked,
some by rock-throwing mobs, while others lived in an atmosphere of
menace and intimidation. Dr. Cohen says that few of these people have
had a chance to come to terms with their past.
“What struck me the most about the interviews is a common thread
of denial and fear,” says Dr. Cohen. “Many of the people wanted to remain
anonymous and were still afraid to speak out.
“This fear is very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder – often un-
spoken but expressed, for example, when people start to cry during an
interview. It is a trauma which still haunts them 30 or 40 years later, but
which they suppressed when they resettled in Montreal, and went on
with their lives as if nothing had happened.”
In many cases, members of the working groups belong to the com-
munity they are investigating, blurring the line between researchers and
their subjects. Annita Muhimpundu, a Tutsi who survived the Rwandan
genocide, agreed to share her own experiences and she also is interview-
ing other people.
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