Posts Tagged ‘oral history’
Let’s back up a few years. Alex and Sylvia were married in late 1941. Alex was a union organizer for the New York City sanitation workers and for the Russian War Relief, a leftist anti-fascist organization. Even before he went into the Navy Alex traveled to various Hungarian communities around the United States. Alex visited these communities to raise money and support for the Russian War Relief and for the Hungarian paper he worked for (and would become Managing Editor of in the 1950s) called Magyar Szo. This translates to “Hungarian word.” This is a letter that Alex typed to Sylvia on June 2, 1942. I think it captures his humor and interesting use of the English language.
This letter was sent to “Ms. Sylvia Kotin Rosner” at “East 31st Street.” Kotin was Sylvia’s maiden name. I think that his inclusion of this name on the envelope speaks to Alex’s progressive ideology and belief in equality. Maybe I’m reading too much into this envelope but in a world where people still might call me “Mrs. Husband’s-First-Name Husband’s-Last-Name” I can’t help but think that Alex included Sylvia’s maiden name deliberately. (Then, take note that the letter begins “Dear Woman” and ends with a joke that he is faithful “perhaps because no woman wants to start out with an old married man.”)
Part two of my analysis of the envelope: A number of letters and stationary contain the address E. 31st Street. As of yet, no one in the family recalls them living there or knows anything about what the living situation before Brooklyn might have been. There are a number of these kinds of “discrepancies” scattered throughout the letters. This brings me to a point that I must address; the gap between written and oral history. This subject was bound to come up, as I am a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History MA Program.
So often we trust only what is written about the past. Putting pen to paper seems to give infallible authority to opinions while the spoken word gets all kinds of flack. But we need only look at examples of the name changes at Ellis Island, or the dated and prejudiced categories in the US Census, or the poorly transcribed interview to see how easily so-called objective history can be fudged, misread, and outright misleading. My whole life we celebrated my grandpa’s birthday on March 17th, the day before my own. Just today my aunt sent me his identification card and it states that his birthday is March 16th. Was the ID card right and my grandfather wrong about his own birthday?
This blog is the product of written documents and living, oral sources (aka family members). I’m not out to reconcile them or force one to fit the other. I don’t believe I can figure out a “truth.” The truth, like history, is a living and ever-changing thing. My reading of these letters changes them, changes our family myth and changes their meaning. It changes how I see someone whom I felt I knew very well, but it doesn’t make my “truth” of who Alex was defunct.
Okay, this topic will have to be revisited. Here’s the letter!
“Here is a clipping from one of the local papers, I wonder whether you will like the fact that I took the picture with the gorgeous looking dame, but what can you do when people think that only a prettygirl attracts attention.
Well it is only one day from that fateful meeting night and let us hope that the think will come off as we wish is [sic]. I know it must be hard on you to be all this time without a man, but we will make up for it shortly. Or are you? (I am kidding) …
…Incidentally we had a fine collection in Mich. and I think I made on of the finest speeches in my life, of course I prepared myself, and I was the big shot, in small town so I really had give my best. [six] …
…Yes, I am typing this letter, don’t you recognize my scatter brains? It is because there is so much to tell you and so little time for it. And I have a tremendous weakness for the pen.”