Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

“Schreibt und farschneibt!” War Voices

Diaries are created and maintained under all sorts of circumstances. The collection of diaries generated by young people during war, gathered by Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger in their Stolen Voices: Young People’s War Diaries, From World War I to Iraq (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), is testament to this fact. By reproducing the diaries of about a dozen observers in the First and Second World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Balkans War, the Second Intifada, and the Iraq War, we gain a personal perspective of the impact of war on the formative years of individuals.

Filipovic was eleven years old at the start of the war in Bosnia in 1992 and became internationally famous for the publication of her diary. In her introduction to this volume, she states that this is the “first of its kind to expose the shared experience of conflict by young people, wherever and whenever the violence may have occurred” (p. xii). She argues that diaries are very personal and not intended for publication and public view: “While they are not written to be historical records, the diaries end up being exactly that, in a powerful, personal, and human way” (p. xii). The growing scholarship on dairies counters Filopovic’s view, as many see them as much being written for a public viewing as for any other purpose. Her interest in compiling this set of diaries for a broader audience is to have us understand what it is like for a child to experience war in a way we can identify with and learn from: “These diaries may allow the concept of war to become less mysterious and more accessible, so that we know what we are dealing with, what it is and how it works” (p. xv). And no one will disagree with this assessment.

Challenger, a writer, adds some observations about diaries and their compilers in a separate introduction. She describes how Anne Frank, despite her death at age 12, with the Nazis striving to eradicate her identity, retains her identity through the diary. Her “diary exclaims from every page that Anne Frank was not just a Jew. She was, like all human beings, a broidery of emotions, desires, failings, and gifts, the complex details of a life” (p. xvii). Being a writer, Challenger dotes on the roles writing plays in generating and waging war (laws, documents, newspapers), seeing these diaries as a form of writing that is a “countermeasure. On scraps of paper in the dimness of cells, on old exercise books in candlelit cellars, in notebooks on a battlefield, young men and women gaze inwardly to observe the effects of their horrific circumstances upon their personalities and outwardly to record the transformations of the world around them under the burden of wartime” (p. xix). And these diaries make for compelling stories.

At one point in her introduction, Challenge remembers the words of the Jewish historian Simon Dubnov just before executed by the Nazis: “Schreibt und farschneibt!” [Write and record!]. This seems like a good way of characterizing what this compilation of documents is about.