When I decided to take part in the Witness Project, my motivations stemmed from a desire to undertake my own historical research, in a way I never had before. Not only did this project allow me to do that, but it also proved to me how important oral history is to our understanding of the past. Through interviews with two extremely interesting women, I learnt more about Jewish Sheffield than I could have from any book. I also understand, in a way I never have before, how personal history is. Yes, reading books and articles is a great way of finding out about the past; however it fails to provide you with any personal details linking human beings to those events, in the way that oral testimony and personal stories do.
My partner Edward and I interviewed Sue Pearson and Jill Shaw. Both of these interviews are online and can be listened to through the Witness website. Sue talks about her childhood in Czechoslovakia and Prague, and her move to Sheffield in 1939 and her life following on from that move. Sue also talks about organisations such as the Red Falcons and how they impacted her life. Jill was born in Sheffield, but moved to London as a young woman where she still lives today. This interview discusses the key differences between the Jewish Community in Sheffield and London.
The chance to take part in casual conversation with people who could tell me, on a truly personal level about aspects of history which fascinate me, and have my own questions and thoughts directly responded to is something I have never had the chance to experience. Listening to the personal stories of these women, how their lives were affected directly by being Jewish, and hear what they had to say about how the Jewish community functions in Sheffield today was extremely interesting.
This project also proved to me how vastly different peoples experiences are, and how crucial it is to speak directly to a wide range of people in order to paint a picture of what life was really like. Both of the women I interviewed were extremely different, both had very different stories to tell and very different ideas about Sheffield as a Jewish community, yet both have lived here in Sheffield and had stories to tell regarding the same theme ‘Jewish Sheffield’. What this project has shown me is that there is no way to get a full, direct and honest way to discover history, quite like oral history.
Taking part in the witness project was an invaluable experience. It has taught me so much about history that my degree alone could never have. I was lucky enough to be involved in the interviews of two very interesting women and am extremely grateful that they both allowed me into their past through their own experiences and stories.
Interviewers: Edward Williamson and Olivia Rawbone.