The Vagaries of Memory – Finding the Truth when Oral Histories Vary

I have a dear friend who always quotes his grandmother as saying, “There are three ways to tell every story—your way, my way, and the truth.” I suppose if three or four people tell the story, there are that many more versions. Putting them all together in a true way is the job of a writer of historical fiction.

Herman’s story, as he told it, was pretty much bare-bones except for a few key events. I would need to incorporate the memories of additional sources in order to make my book more interesting.

Some years before, I had met my Aunt Edith, Herman’s sister, while traveling in England. Not quite five feet tall, she was feisty, self-centered, gregarious, and ready to talk. After long hours of taping Herman in New York, I traveled to London. My daughter, who was studying film production and acting at University, came with me. We had both heard hints of Edith’s love for an Aryan man when she was still in Nazi Germany, and my daughter was sure it would make a great movie. The day we arrived, we sat with my aunt in her tiny kitchen, a tape recorder between us on the table, my daughter thinking of a film and I researching for my book. We let Edith talk.

It was evident from the beginning that Edith remembered some things Herman didn’t and this was why I had come to talk with her. But some of her truths were also different from those of her brother, and this could pose a problem for me as a writer trying to create a factual narrative.

It had bothered me that Herman could not, or would not, remember anti-Jewish incidents from his early years. “I was just a school-boy,” he often told me. Yet he was thirteen when Hitler came into power and fifteen when the Nuremberg Laws were enacted. I remember lots of things from my early teens and even from grammar school, especially slights by my friends and things like practicing duck and cover drills to prepare for an atomic bomb attack.

Edith vividly remembered that she was excluded from the regular high school. She was only allowed to take a class of domestic arts for girls unable to pass the academic exams and there she endured months of shunning by her classmates because she was Jewish. She had vivid memories of the many restrictions and slights she endured even before the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

“I couldn’t go anywhere,” she told me. “A lot of shops in Meiningen [their hometown] had signs that said, No Jews allowed. Ordinary shops—the delicatessen, the butcher, the baker. No Jews allowed. It was a terrifying time. That was between ‘33 and ‘34 and ‘35. …. I wasn’t allowed any cinema, theater, dance hall, or going to some of the shops. There was a Jewish shop. The biggest store in Meiningen. And they had the SA outside the door and asked people why do you go into a Jewish store? And took down their names. And it was very, very bad.”

Based on the Herman I knew, he must have been a bright and sociable boy. Why didn’t he, just two years younger, remember things that were happening in Germany while his older sister did? I could only conclude that he used denial as a kind of self-protection, similar to the way abused children sometimes push their mistreatment down into their subconscious.

In another incident, the two siblings remembered an event completely differently. Herman vividly recalled the events of Kristallnacht—how he fled on his motorcycle to his mother’s home and hid there for more than a month. Edith remembers it differently. She declared she knew for a fact that her brother spent six weeks hiding in the countryside, sleeping in barns and haystacks, because “that’s what my mother told me.”

Herman was incensed when he heard this. “I think I know my own story best,” he fumed. “She doesn’t know what really happened.” Though he didn’t remember how or why his sister believed her version was the truth, it was obvious to me Edith had been told a lie by her mother. Most likely it was a lie necessary for Herman’s protection and that’s how I wrote it.

Piecing together all the stories I learned from interviewing family members and Ritchie Boys, then interweaving them with the information gleaned from research, became my challenge and my delight. Even now I cannot stop reading books and web pages about the period. I never know when I might discover a nugget of information I can insert into my novel.


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