Tag Archives: oral history

“Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Firsthand stories from Russians who lived through the transition from communism to capitalism.  For the most part, the main emotions they have is shock and anger — Russia threw away the great dream of socialism, which they worked so hard for and suffered for (even some former work camp inmates long for the old days), and sold it so cheaply for blue jeans, VCRs, and salami.  (For some reason there is a very consistent reference to salami, as in if you have salami, life is good.  I guess it was scarce during Soviet times?)  Now, mobsters and a$$holes are in charge.

It was sickening to read about parts of Russia occupied by Germans during the war.  In one Jewish village, they marched everyone out to the woods, had men dig two big pits, threw kids in one and buried them alive; then threw everyone else in the other one and buried them.  Sick.  Of course Stalin and his like did some similar stuff; yet for the most part Stalin’s image is fairly intact, even today.  The attitude is that he was harsh, but he won the war and bootstrapped the country to the forefront of the world; he was what Russia needed at the time.  So they say.

One story from a man imprisoned in a work camp from age 16 to 30, who came out to no family or friends.  Very lonely.  Eventually married a woman who had a daughter and found some peace.  Just before he died: “Write that I was a happy man on my tombstone. That I was loved.  The most terrible torment is not being loved.”

Other choice quotes:

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.”

“We’d built it all then handed it over to the gangsters.”


“Native American Testimony” by Peter Nabokov


A very excellent collection of (primarily) oral histories from American Indians, from 1492 – present.  Overall, there’s understandably quite a bit of anger and bitterness at the white man destroying the Indian way of life and taking their lands, whether through broken treaties, wars, forced resettlement to reservations, Allotment, or Termination.


George Gillette of the Hidatsa tribe, at the signing away of ancestral lands to be submerged by a new reservoir. This picture really hits me in the feels.

I feel like I have a better appreciation of the whole difficulty of US Indian policy.  Injustices have occurred which Indians demand be rectified, but the ultimate solution where all whites leave the continent is not going to happen.  We’re in this together, like it or not.  Therefore US policy has generally been designed to facilitate the Indian’s integration into white society.  (At least that’s the intention — part of the problem here is that policies were malformed or not suited to generalization across all tribes and types of Indian in the country.)  But then there’s the frequent Indian response that they don’t want to be integrated into white society.  They want their continent back (won’t happen) or at least they want to be left alone.  But they really don’t want to be left totally alone … poverty is no fun.  So they grudgingly accept the white man’s support, but they don’t like it.

I wonder if there might be some value in examining societies like the Amish – here’s another culture that has found harmony and success living a traditional lifestyle within the modern world.  They are white of course, and also lack a sense of historical systematic victimhood … maybe letting go of the victim status is the key for Indians moving forward?

The final chapter or so touches on the rise of the Indian casinos… while I tend to believe it is somewhat shameful that they have stooped so low to participate in such a business, I also find it delightfully apropos that Indians have finally found a way to profit from the white man’s greed.


“Japan at War” by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook

The book’s format is inspired by and identical to Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” – a collection of oral histories of soldiers and others involved in World War 2 – only this time we hear from the Japanese perspective.  And there is absolutely no way that this collection could have shared Terkel’s title.  This was one of the saddest, most depressing books I have read in a long time.

Some of the things that happened in the war are indeed stranger than fiction.  And much more horrifying:

  • Infectious disease research on local populations in Manchuria by Unit 731.
  • Ghastly vivisections and practice battlefield surgeries – like amputating both arms and reattaching them backwards, just for kicks – on Chinese prisoners by military doctors.  Oh yeah, and no anesthetics either.
  • During the Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the fire-stoked wind was so intense that people were blown away into the flames.  One mother was carrying her baby on her back while trying to reach safety – the baby burned to death while still attached, badly burning the mother, too.  The mother survived, even though several of her children died.  In later years she poured water on their graves, saying “You must have been so hot.”
  • During the invasion of Saipan, soldiers and civilians hid in caves from the devil Americans.  Mothers were ordered to kill their crying babies so as not to alert the enemy.  I don’t know how they brought themselves to do it, but many did so.
  • Similarly on Okinawa, many civilians committed suicide or killed family members rather than face the horrors they were told would be inflicted on them when captured by the Americans.  The kids in one family killed their mother by hitting her head with rocks.  Then the older boys killed their younger brother and sister.  They were deciding which of them should kill the other when they were found by American soldiers.
  • Kaiten and kamikaze pilots.

The final oral history in the book is very fitting.  Long after the war ended, a man is giving a tour of a bombed-out Mitsubishi factory in Nagasaki.  He says that the torpedoes used in the attack on Pearl Harbor were manufactured there, in the same place where an atomic bomb would destroy everything several years later.  “We fought a stupid war, didn’t we?”

There is one similarity with America’s experience as in “The Good War” – the common man in Japan felt like he was doing what must be done to save his country.  Sadly, the common man was misled by the de facto military dictatorship of Japan.  Questioning the Emperor’s will was a crime, and the Emperor delegated his authority to the military.  The Emperor, being divine, could never be wrong, so everything had to be justified even by lying.  Sometimes even military planners didn’t know the true situation on the battlefield due to all the false stories and propaganda in the newspapers and official reports.  “The closer you got to the front, the less often you found a burning and unflinching belief in victory.”  The Army and Navy planners stayed mainly in Tokyo.

The war against China demanded oil, and Japan needed to seize that oil from the Western colonies in the Pacific, and stop America from interfering, in order to keep up the fight in China.  Japan’s industrial capacity was 1/13th the size of America’s at the outbreak of war.  It never really stood a chance.  As a Zero ace said, “You need altitude, speed, and firepower to win an air engagement.  No amount of bushido will help.”

“‘The Good War'” by Studs Terkel

This is a collection of oral histories from those who fought in or lived through World War II.

Some common themes:

  • The feeling that the war was justified; they contributed to something great – although it was a destruction of something negative rather than the building up of something positive.
  • In the beginning the war felt like a great adventure but then innocence was lost as the horrors of war became evident.
  • “The war was fun for America.”  – quote from the book.  Also: “Never in the history of human conflict has there been so much talk of sacrifice and so little <actual> sacrifice.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, in charge of price controls.  Consumption of consumer goods doubled during the war.  It really brought the country out of the Depression, and made many people wealthy.

I understand better some of the dangers of drawing conclusions from oral histories.  The interviewees most definitely relate their WWII experiences through the lens of many years and in light of other historical events.  Specifically, (this book came out in the early 1980’s) they are influenced by Vietnam (many comparisons to WWII and Vietnam) and also the Cold War (many remark on how quickly the Russians went from being our “friends” to our “enemies”, at least according to the government.)

Something learned: PAFs (Pre-mature Anti-Fascists) and the Lincoln Brigade – Americans fighting in the Spanish civil War.

“World War Z” by Max Brooks

In the near future, a mysterious plague originates in China.  The infection incubates for a few hours or days, then the victim dies…and then rises again as a zombie, with an insatiable appetite for fresh human flesh!  The living bitten by the undead contract the zombie plague and eventually become zombies themselves.  The only way to stop the zombie is to destroy the brain.  Needless to say, the existence of the plague incites mass panic.  Eventually, the uninfected band together, establish quarantined safe areas, and work at eradicating the zombie hordes.

This book is told as an oral history of the Zombie War.  From its origins to the reemergence of a stable society, the narrator interviews various individuals around the world about their experiences.  And some rather interesting experiences they are!  What the people and government leaders in this alternate reality do to overcome actually is really thought provoking.  For one thing, the nations which survive are basically forced to adopt what is known as the “Redeker Plan” – abandoning most of the country’s territory (and people living there) to the zombies while establishing a protected area, and there building strength enough to win back the lost areas.  Basically this brings up a lot of ethical issues, survivor guilt, etc.

Lots of interesting vignettes in here.  Not really a blood and guts zombie story (I’m not really into those), but more to do with the psychological and social effects of a zombie plague.  Really enjoyed the story – couldn’t put it down at parts.