Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Reading" into a Document - More Thoughts on "History is Personal"

Last month I wrote "History is Personal" in this blog, discussing how humans can relate ideas of a larger history to their own lives and can examine the past through their own family lens. As I prepare for an upcoming workshop that I am conducting with colleague Sue West, I keep delving deeper into the idea that history is personal, that the past informs one's present, and that individual history is important to a larger community.

In our class, Sue and I discuss using objects and archives as a launching point for documenting our lives. One item that I had stuffed in a "one day I plan to complete this genealogy research" folder is the document on the left. This is a copy of my grandfather's discharge papers from the U.S. Army in 1948. It is a public document. I have been told that my grandfather was displaced from his country because of the persecution of Jews in Europe and subsequently helped with cleanup after World War II. This document shows the very general information related to one man. It shows when this man was born, his height, his weight, his serial number and his immigration status. The paper was a formality, pronouncing his service and letting him move on. There is a copy of this item in the National Archives. It is one of many such records of individuals, documenting their service with the United States government.

This is also a unique document, representing an individual's life and embodying the hopes and dreams of his family. For one, the document can help set me down a trail to tracking more about my family story. The certificate says that my grandfather intended to settle in Palestine. Instead, his final home became the country he briefly served after the War. I do not have specifics about the journey here. I do know that these discharge papers represent a vital moment in my own personal history. They symbolize freedom and pride in who I am and from where I came. This document represents the struggle for the possibility of my existence.

Someone who stumbles across this manuscript in the Archives may not read into the document what I read into it. We each bring a unique perspective to what we read and what we read becomes clearer when we have more information upon which to base conclusions. Archives are important because they are the first hand accounts of humanity. Everything we know about history is (or should be) based on accurately recorded information. The content of this document and the related context of my grandfather's story can be examined from many angles by someone studying immigration, the Holocaust, the U.S. Army, my family, my story, the story of someone else in my family, or any other myriad related communities and subjects. It demonstrates how our "private" history is inextricably linked to a broader public history. Understanding that history is only properly done through analysis of what our ancestors leave us to study, we need to help ensure that proper documentation exists to allow us to thoroughly "read" the events of the past. History is indeed personal. The more we do to save our personal documentation to reflect our personal stories, and the more we do to simultaneously support the building of an accurate public documentary record, the more obvious that becomes.

No comments:

Post a Comment