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Socially-Distant Oral History

By Dr. Bea Lewkowicz

A few weeks ago, I conducted another socially distant interview for AJR Refugee Voices in London.

This time, we managed to do the entire interview in the lovely garden of our wonderful interviewee, 98-year-old Selma van de Perre. She has been very busy recently, as her book ‘My Name Is Selma’ was published in January 2020 in Holland to critical acclaim. The English version is coming out in September 2020. So we were very lucky that Selma decided to spend almost an entire day with us in her garden.

In the interview and her book Selma recounts her life in Holland before WW2 and her extraordinary war time experiences, working for the Dutch Resistance and eventually being deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp as a political prisoner. In late April 1945 Selma was ‘exchanged’ with other prisoners from Ravensbrück to Sweden. It was a surprise to all her fellow prisoners when she then revealed to them that her name was not Margareta van der Kuit but Selma Valleman and that she was Jewish. Selma arrived in the UK in November 1945 to join the Dutch Defence Forces in the UK and to be reunited with the only other surviving members of her family, her two brothers. She started working for the BBC, where she met and later married Hugo van de Perre, a fellow journalist. They settled in Hammersmith, had one son. Selma worked first as a maths teacher and then as a Foreign correspondent for Dutch newspapers. She became involved in Holocaust education in the Mahn - und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück and has been working with students there for many years.

You will be able to meet Selma on Monday 7th of September 2020 at 4 pm when I will interview her on Zoom for the AJR Book Club. Please join us! Register here:

I feel very grateful that we were able to listen to Selma’s story in her garden rather than on Zoom. The real interview encounter is very different from an interview on Zoom. There are so many more things you notice when you meet the interviewee in person. You notice the voice, the body language, the intonation and you can see the entire environment of the interviewee. These layers mean that the interviewee can really listen to the interviewer and this is what makes an oral history interview a real encounter between two people. In a Zoom interview some of these layers are stripped away which does not mean you cannot conduct a meaningful interview. But it is very different, for example it is difficult to pose a question without interrupting the interviewee. In a normal interview setting the interviewee can also see the body language and facial expressions of the interviewer and understands when the interviewer has another questions to ask.

These reflections made me come to the following conclusion in terms of best interview practice. Whenever possible, we should aim to conduct a ‘real’ interview. This can then be followed by a Zoom session focusing on the photos and documents of the interviewee, because when we film photos and documents at the end of interviews, it is difficult to maintain social distance. If the interviewee is a master of Zoom, he or she can even ‘screenshare’ on Zoom, which makes it the perfect medium for looking at photographs and also capturing the voice of the interviewee. But even without screensharing, this can work very well and is a wonderful follow- up to the real interview.  

Thank you Dr Herbert Edmonds, Tom Komoly and Selma van de Perre for teaching me how to use Zoom for the purpose of capturing your valuable photographs and documents for the AJR Refugee Voices Archive!     


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