What Did You Do in the War Grandma?


Linda P. Wood

Oral history is a unique way to learn about past events and experiences. It is a method which probes memory, evokes emotions and feelings which have long been dormant, and creates a relationship between narrator and interviewer which is often a very special one. The information can be dramatic when the narrator is an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, and the interviewer is a young teenager whose assignment is to find out about a war that began before most teenagers' parents were born.

"I was there to interview a woman on a very important era of American history," wrote Andy Smith in his story of Marion Joy. "My mind searched for a question. I asked her to reflect on her reaction at the termination of the war, and she replied, 'I just said, Thank you God, and may there never be another one. Never, anywhere.' A suitable ending from a woman like Marion Joy." Moments like this were repeated in every interview.

The young students in the ninth grade Honors English class often wrote about "penetrating beneath the surface" in their interviews. They wrote about how the women revealed a side of themselves the interviewer would never have guessed was there.

"There are two sides to Judith Cohen," Jason Gelles tells us, "there is the up-beat, enthusiastic side and the more serious side. She appeared possessed by a greater force, almost enchanted," wrote Jason about the way Judith recalled her life during the war. He concluded, "Judith has been changed by her experiences in the war. Today I see an enlightened Judith Cohen; someone whom I can look up to."

It is interesting to note that these ninth graders laughingly told their English and oral history teachers that they had not done well in another class on their history test covering World War II. "We didn't know any of the facts!" they cried. "We just knew about the personal side of the war!" Well, if history has any lessons for us to learn, they will be learned from the personal side of the information as well as the facts. These students will not forget the lessons they have learned in the "What Did You Do In The War, Grandma?" project.

Cassie Richman, age 15 , summed up her feelings, "I feel lucky to live in a time when no one I know is always in danger of suffering through a personal or life-threatening situation. I also feel fortunate to have spoken to a woman who lived through World War II, because I realized that my children, and even the small children of today, may not get a real chance to speak with someone who has actually gone through such monumental days." In this project, 17 students interviewed 36 Rhode Island women who recalled their lives in the years before, during and after the Second World War. Here are 26 of the stories told by the women, and retold by the students.

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Copyright 1995