A Lesson I Have Learned from a Witness Who Does Not Like to Remember

May 24, 2017
By: Veronika Doll

I first met Vera Hodek [1] in 2011. I was finishing my research about Vincent Hodek – a Prague-born aircraft engineer and a Czechoslovakian immigrant who came to the United States in October 1966, bringing his wife Marie and daughter Vera. In the fall of 2012, I started a new research project: inspired by historical anthropology, I decided to focus on the day-to-day life experience of the Hodek family as Czechoslovakian immigrants living in the United States.

In summer 2013, I traveled to the United States to work on sorting and organizing the Hodeks’ family archive. Going through the documents with Vera, I often asked her questions about her parents, Vincent and Marie Hodek. Vera seemed fully engaged and easily answered my questions.

As my research interests moved towards Vera’s own life story the following summer, the situation changed. When I asked her about her personal history, she returned to the story of her parents, repeating stories she had already told me. Knowing that forcing a narrator to share memories does not do any good, I tried to find answers to my questions in the letters, photographs, and other documents contained in the family archive. At the end of September 2014 I left to go back to the Czech Republic, partially disappointed but hoping I would be able to work with Vera in the next year again. Between September 2014 and June 2015, I kept contact with her through email as I had been doing in the last years.

In June 2015 I started my last research stay in the United States, having a big challenge ahead: to get Vera’s testimony which I believed would be valuable for my project. She seemed to be very open, often saying how important it is to share stories of the past with younger generations. Here, I saw my chance. I was carefully taking small steps, asking question after question, preparing the groundwork for a final recorded interview. We had fruitful conversations about my research.  Everything seemed to be perfectly set.

Until one day Vera crushed my effort by simply saying, “But I do not like to remember. We will not talk about it.” I tried to reopen the interview issue several times during that summer, but her feeling about remembering her past was clear. Wanting to respect her wishes and considering my oral history training, I did not see any viable way to overcome this obstacle. As I left the United States in September that year, I felt I had just lost a key part of the research, and I worried that my doctoral thesis was falling apart.

During the summer of 2016, I decided to visit the United States again, this time with no research purpose. I was mostly doing a sightseeing around New England. I was spending time with Vera Hodek, too. When we were chatting about contemporary immigration issues in Europe, Vera began to talk about her parents coming to the United States fifty years ago. This ­inspired me to prepare a celebration of Vera’s fiftieth year of living in the United States as a thank you for opening her house, and letting me study her family’s archive. With the help of Vera’s friends, I planned an anniversary party for the second Saturday in September. For the special occasion, I put a scrapbook together for her, containing photographs from her time in the United States, from 1966 to 2016.

Looking through the scrapbook, all of a sudden, Vera started to tell stories about the pictures. She described her arrival to the country, talked about her first vacation in the United States, shared a memory of meeting her husband. Her friends and family started to ask more questions, and Vera was answering and explaining.

This experience led me to realize that as a historian I failed. I realized that as a historian aiming for objectivity, I had gotten nowhere with Vera. But when I relaxed and addressed Vera as a friend, her words flowed. Leaving what I was taught about history and research aside, I learned a new way to work with historical sources. That September Saturday, I accidentally created a situation which opened new perspectives for me: a possibility to study the family history inside of the family.

[1] To respect the privacy and personal wishes of Vera Hodek, I am using her maiden name, Hodek.

Veronika Doll

Veronika Doll is a PhD candidate at University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic. She is specialized in 20th century Czech history; particularly, in postwar Czech immigration to the US. She is also interested in historical theory and method.

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