Compiling an Oral Family History

“Polish Roots,” a history of the Karcz family, was completed in 1982 after several years of effort. It was compiled almost entirely by means of recordation of oral history, as records were difficult to obtain and research resources were limited. Nevertheless, this type of work is worthwhile as it goes beyond the bare skeleton of a genealogical chart or the reproduction of a marriage or death certificate. While unsophisticated, it preserves such intangibles as family pride and heritage, as well as photographs, personal recollections and stories, artwork, songs, and recipes. Because such a work can be visually attractive, it can engender more interest and stimulate further (perhaps more academic) research by other family members.

I realized in 1980 that all of the members of my mother’s generation (the first to be born on American soil) were either retired or nearing retirement age. Since their memories and recollections of family facts were unwritten, I encouraged them to put pen to paper. The response was overwhelming; and the compilation of the book has provided personal satisfaction and has fulfilled its primary goal of preserving what once was. This article offers a format for the creation of an oral history, together with suggestions for others who are interested in a similar project for their own families.

Your first step should be to make a list of the names and addresses of all of the family members you can find. Send each person a form soliciting basic biographical data, information about deceased members (both of the old country and the new), recollections, and whatever else they would like to share (this latter category can yield surprises such as old photographs, mass cards bearing dates of birth and death, letters, newspaper clippings, and postcards). Promise to return all such items, insured. Ask for additional names and addresses of family members you may have missed; enclosure of extra forms might facilitate wider distribution. In addition, set a deadline, albeit generous — some people procrastinate indefinitely.

While you wait for the responses to come in, search your own memory. Write down those bits of information you heard from your aunt or grandfather twenty years ago. Look through old letters, scrapbooks, photo albums, baby books, and Christmas cards. You will later have the opportunity to compare your recollections with information (which may corroborate them) from other family members. Also, try some writing yourself. Draw or commission a talented relative to do some artwork or borders. And think about organization and content, which to some extent will be governed by the information you receive. You may wish to follow a format similar to the one I used:

  1. Include a preface, which sets forth why you think the project is important. This is a good place to thank family members who have been particularly cooperative.
  2. An index is also helpful. Don’t forget to clearly number your pages.
  3. Devote a section to a discussion of the village or city in Poland from which your family came. Maps can be included here.
  4. The next section will record family facts. This is the place for ancestor biographies, however sketchy. You should definitely include a family tree; I was able to put a fold-out version together (which took a good deal of patience, time, and a copier with reduction capabilities) containing over 200 people and spanning 160 years — all derived from oral history.
  5. An important part of your work will be stories and personal recollections by family members. Editing may be called for; be kind. Also, be evenhanded and attempt to give “equal space” to all who responded to you.
  6. Today’s descriptions of the current doings of family members are tomorrow’s family history. Include biographical information, enjoyable family activities, employment, volunteer work, and information on children or grandchildren where applicable.
  7. The photograph section is the heart of the book. Organize by either family branches or by generations. Each photograph should be clearly captioned by name, place, and date.
  8. Although purists will wince, I suggest inclusion of family recipes. How better to preserve your grandmother’s treasured recipes for “pierogi” or “bigos”? Be certain, however, to give credit where it is due; such things can be touchy.
  9. The final section should be a postscript or summary. Record the family’s collective feelings or warmth and belonging for future generations.

Naturally, by the time you have planned the above, your responses will have arrived. Do not be overwhelmed; no one says you have to finish the project this month or even this year. Start to fit the pieces together and resolve any inconsistencies before you begin to formally compile. I recall being confused about contradictory information concerning “Aunt Anna,” which all fell into place when I learned that there were two of them. You may also uncover a few skeletons here or there; I learned that a great-uncle emigrated (fast!) to America when confronted with an upcoming illegitimate child. Reading and re-reading your responses will also help give you a “feel” for what deceased family members were like by how others write about them. This will help you shape your annotations.

When loaned photographs have been sent to you, you may be amused to find pictures of yourself or of your immediate family which you did not know existed. Have “prints from prints” reproductions of the most interesting ones made, for yourself and for other relatives. Enlargements are an excellent idea. Do this right away; once the photos are returned to their owners, you may never see them again.

I should point out that, despite the best intentions, some family members will either not respond to you at all or will be hostile toward your efforts. It is an inherent risk in any family history effort that unpleasant memories of one type or another may be stirred. Others, however, will be delighted with your endeavors and will provide you with unexpected help and support. These are the people you will want to consult concerning any discrepancies, additional ideas, and so forth. You may also have the pleasant experience of hearing from, and getting to know well, relatives you have never met. This is all to the good. In this case, the more cooks, the better the broth.

Now the book is together. Let a few people review it and make comments. You may find that your friends and in-laws find it as fascinating as you do.

The next task is printing and distribution. For individuals with high net worth, a professional printer is the answer. For those of us who are paying for such efforts ourselves, the local copy shop is the more reasonable option, as printing can be extremely costly. My “quick print” book was bound, with colored covers, and covered with clear plastic. It looked attractive and professional.

When mailing the book to family members, you might wish to add a “thank you” note to those who participated. This is also the ideal opportunity to return the photographs and other memorabilia which were lent to you; don’t forget the insurance. After a few weeks and after reading the responses you will receive, you will be even more convinced that the entire effort was totally worthwhile.

If any information comes in too late to be included in the book, save it. Also make a point of saving any family-related information (regarding births, deaths, weddings, etc.) over the next few years, as you will want to update your project on a periodic basis. Polish Roots was recently given its “five year update,” and I hope to engage in some formal research for the next one, with guidance provided by the publications of the Polish Genealogical Society.

And last of all — if you are considering the compilation of such a book from oral history, do it now. Memories fade, people die, and once the unwritten facts about your proud family heritage are gone they are gone forever.