The right to a name

By Rebecca Clifford, Associate Professor of Modern History, Swansea University

 

Last year, I had a conversation with an archivist that gave me a great deal to mull over. We were discussing the case files of child survivors of the Holocaust. I had flown half-way across the world to use her archive, one of the few that allowed me free access to an entire collection of children’s case files. Most archives require a researcher to have special dispensation to see such case files, and with good reason: they can contain highly sensitive information, including medical and psychiatric reports, and in many cases the ‘children’ concerned are still alive, now in their seventies. But this archive was an exception: they would allow me to look at any case file I wished. There was only one catch. I could never use the names of any of the children whose stories of persecution and loss were set out in these precious files.

I explained to the archivist that this created an ethical dilemma for me. I am writing a book about child survivors of the Holocaust, and I am chiefly interested in how child survivors have made sense of their pasts, in different ways at different times, through the seven decades of the postwar period. As an oral historian, I was drawn to this group because I wanted to understand how, without parents, relatives or communities to fill in the details of their early lives, these children have made sense of their childhoods, and related their own histories. There are many children in my study who do not know what town they came from, or their own parents’ names, or whether they had siblings; a few are not even certain of their own birth names. Throughout my research, I have paired oral history with archival documents, and I have done this predominantly by locating children in the archives, and then tracing them using their names. In interviewing child survivors (or anyone, for that matter), I always give interviewees the option of telling their story anonymously. No one has ever wished to do so. I have always assumed that this is because the people I interview recognise, perhaps more keenly than most, how precious the life story is. You can lose your home, you can lose your parents and relatives, you can struggle for years to understand the most fundamental details of where you have come from and who you are — and at the end of that process, to lose your very name from your life story is a loss too far. If we anonymise these stories, we both turn them into abstractions, and rob their owners of the right to continue to own them. Thus the archive’s policy (and it is a policy that is certainly not unique to this one archive) of ensuring that no researcher would use the names of the children in the files made me very uncomfortable: I could track the children down and interview them, or use other interviews that they had given, but I could not use their names. I would be forced to strip their identities from their stories.

The archivist explained that she had a very different set of concerns in mind: she was worried about identity theft. Archive staff wanted not only to protect the privacy of the now-grown ‘children’ whose case files they held, but also to guard against the chance that anyone might claim their identities in order, for example, to make a fraudulent claim for restitution. I had to admit that this had never occurred to me as a concern, and the archivist admitted that she had never considered my perspective on the ethical issues posed by the policy. We agreed that historians and archivists need to do more to talk through these issues. Fundamentally, we both wanted to protect the identities of the children in the files: she wanted to protect them by ensuring that their names would never be attached to their stories, and I wanted to do precisely the opposite.

We open a tricky can of worms where we anonymise people’s life histories. After going through the case files in this archive, I managed to track down and interview (or find existing interviews for) several of the ‘children’ whose case files I had seen. These interviews revealed the ‘children’ as subjects and historical actors in their own right, as they explained the long-term repercussions of their wartime and postwar experiences. The interviews likewise shed light on just how hard many of these young survivors had worked, slogging through archival records and tracking down distant relatives, to be able to tell their own life stories. All of these survivors gave testimony in their own names, but where I use the material in their case files to describe their histories, I must remove their names. To me, this feels wrong. I agree with the thoughtful and perceptive archivist who I met on the other side of the world last year: it might be time for oral historians and archivists to sit down and have a good, long conversation about the right to a name.

 

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