On 8 January 2003 I carried out the first interview for the then newly founded Refugee Voices Archive. The interviewee was Elena Lederman, who had run a successful chocolate business in London for many years. She had survived the war in hiding in Brussels with her young son. I remember the interview very clearly. We were ready to start the project but the camera had not arrived. As we did not want to move the date of the interview we decided to film on my own personal video camera, with Dr Anthony Grenville, my co- director, behind the camera. I remember the excitement I felt that after months of planning we finally started this project, which we thought would leave a lasting legacy for the refugees and survivors we were going to interview. In January 2002 I carried out two more interviews, one with Marion Lesser, who had come to the UK on a Kindertransport, and one with Margaret Simmons, who emigrated from Germany as an adult, who had to leave her son behind in Germany. I remember thinking at the time that it was so important to incorporate the many different stories of Jewish survival, in Nazi Europe but also and in countries of emigration, such as the UK, into the wider Holocaust narrative. While the Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia had escaped mass murder, it was and continues to be important to chronicle the huge losses (of culture, belonging, and family) the refugees experienced.
The trauma the interviewees experienced was palpable in all my first three interviews. When talking about her wartime experiences in Brussels, Elena Lederman repeated throughout the interview the same phrase ‘I spent five years in the woods, five years’. Right at the beginning she explains why it is difficult to talk about her experiences.
‘I had terrible things. I can’t tell you. I can’t explain what I went through. I can’t, in no words can I explain. I don’t know how I am sane, I just don’t know’.
Marion Lesser also found it difficult to talk. She was keen to finish the interview and at the end told me ‘It’s hard to go back’. In her interview however she does talk about her experiences of the Kindertransport and later in the Land Army.
My third interviewee Margaret Simmons was born in 1906 in Germany. I did not know at the time that she would be the oldest interviewee in the Refugee Voices collection. In contrast, to Elena and Marion, Margaret was keen to talk and this was the longest interview of the three. She told me about living in Cologne, being married to a Christian man and having had to divorce because of the political circumstances and then feeling to the UK but having had to leave her son behind, who could eventually join her after the war. Margaret was one of the few adult women in the RV Archive who was interned on the Isle of Man and her clear recollections are very interesting.
I could not anticipate that 20 years later we would still be interviewing. I could also not anticipate that due to rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial, to share the stories of the women and men we have interviewed is more important than ever before. But I do know that when I conducted these first three interviews I felt very strongly that it was an enormous privilege to help my interviewees tell their story, even if often this was difficult for the interviewees. I have learnt so much in these encounters, mostly to be patient and to be guided by my interviewees. I understood in these early interviews that an interview encounter is so much more than the spoken word, it is also about the things which cannot be said and which are too painful to remember, it is also about accepting trauma and silence.
In our 20th anniversary year, we will reflect on the legacy of our archive and in April 2023, in the framework of the International Forum in Lancaster House, I hope we can discuss in much more detail the many issues surrounding the recording, archiving, and dissemination of Holocaust testimonies. I am grateful to all the interviewees who have given their testimony in the last 20 years and would like to thank everybody who has been involved in the last 20 years and has contributed to make the AJR Refugee Voices Archive an amazing project. Thank you!