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Covid-19 & the Resonance of the Archive

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

For those of us who work on AJR Refugee Voices this strange time has a particular resonance. Normally, we work day-to-day with the archive’s incredible stories of ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times. We (academics, researchers, editors, translators, transcribers, cameramen, technicians and social media operatives) feel we know our material well. But suddenly the familiar voices from the past have come alive in a new way.

Let’s be clear: social distancing and sitting at home in self-isolation with video phones are mild issues compared to the breaches with normalcy forcibly endured by our interviewees. But, for the first time in most of our lives, we have to deal with issues previously consigned to the archive: do we have enough food? Will we be able to get any more? When will we see our loved ones again? When will this be over? And behind it all a threat and fear that most of us have been lucky enough never to endure before.

We feel this new closeness to our material in two separate ways. Firstly, we have deeper insight into the situations endured by our interviewees: what was it actually like to stay cooped-up with family members in hiding for months at a time, for example? Secondly, the hard-won wisdom of our interviewees gives us solace.

Over the past few weeks we’ve tried to reflect this shift on our social media, and have been cheered by the warm response of our followers. Going deep into transcripts, we’ve tried to find small details and comments to illuminate what’s happening today. At the end of their filming sessions, interviewees often reflect on general lessons, and these moments have been particularly powerful for us. Here is Ruth Barnett OBE, for example:

And Freddy Berdach:

In other cases it is the small details that seem so relevant. Here is distinguished psychotherapist Isca Wittenberg talking about getting through Kristallnacht with her sisters:

And Mirjam Finkelstein, daughter of Alfred Wiener, talking about daily life in Bergen-Belsen:

Mirjam’s son Daniel Finkelstein saw this post on social media and gave depth and extra historical interest to our tweet with this recollection:

More than anything, the archive is a testament to the resilience of our interviewees, who survived to tell us their stories despite the most difficult dislocations and distortions, and it is this that feels like its greatest quality at this time.

We will continue to mine our transcripts and photographs for more powerful content over the next weeks and months, and plan also to release some short films. You can find us here:


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