By Mindy Kay Bricker
Monday, February 27, 2006
The untold stories of everyday women in the former Soviet bloc are being brought out from behind the curtain of obscurity. A women's oral history project has been going on for 10 years and spans at least eight countries.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic (WOMENSENEWS)--For Katerina Posova, the time she spent in a Latvian concentration camp is so vivid it could have happened last month and not 60 years ago.
As a child with measles, Posova was placed in the camp's infirmary. Her mother, also an inmate in the Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga, was able to stop by Posova's window every morning on her way to work.
But the day Posova was released from the infirmary, her mother never showed at her window.
"There was a line-up that night," Posova said, referring to a review of camp inmates by guards. The guards told her the sick would stay and the healthy would be transported out. She does not know exactly what happened, but assumes her mother was placed with the disabled and killed the following day.
Posova told this and other stories of her life in "War in Women's Memory," a documentary of six women's recollections of World War II that aired on a Czech public television station last year to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the war's end.
Broadcast as part of two hours of programming on women's war-related stories, women's advocates viewed the film as a breakthrough since programmers had initially questioned the relevance of those stories to the World War II observation. It did, however, suffer the initial indignity of being postponed for an ice-hockey broadcast.
The documentary was part of Women's Memory, a project launched 10 years ago by the Gender Studies Center, a Prague-based nongovernmental organization that wanted to record the oral histories of women--mothers, grandmothers, neighbors, friends, colleagues--born between 1920 and 1960 in the former Soviet bloc and the former Yugoslavia.
The stories are individual and diverse. Posova's story is about a traumatic childhood in a concentration camp. Vera Ticha, on the other hand, tells how she joined the military and become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Her motivation: she wanted to exonerate herself from guilt by association with her father, who had been labeled a party traitor.
So far, project participants in eight countries have recorded around 500 women's stories, amounting to more than 20,000 transcribed pages and some 17 books. And they plan to continue.
Later this year, the German, Slovak and Czech Women's Memory projects will launch European Women and Dialogue, which will host gatherings to consider the meaning of women's emancipation and will use the oral histories to spur discussion. The two-and-a-half year project will be funded by a European Union grant of about $216,000.
Organizers see the Women's Memory project as a way to insert the stories of normal, everyday women into a larger historical narrative focused on men.
"There is a view that the men do the big history and make the history books," said Pavla Frydlova, the Women's Memory coordinator in Prague.
Lyn Reese is director of Women in World History Curriculum, a Berkeley, Calif., project that develops gender-conscious writings for history texts. Although Reese is not familiar with the Women's Memory project, she said that restoring women's place in history is an ongoing and global effort.
Reese recalls going to teachers' workshops during the 1970s and having to persuade participants that there was such a thing as women's history. Today, she said, U.S. history teachers are slowly incorporating girls and women into their lesson plans, but that process could take another generation before the full benefits are in the classroom.
Women's Memory organizers have also developed their own projects in Slovakia, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Ukraine. The original oral histories are stored in each country's official archives and are finding their way into books and films. Copies of all histories are stored in Prague at the Gender Studies Center.
Frydlova says the project is also personally helpful for the participating women. She says many narrators say it's the first time in 17 years--since the fall of Communism--that they've ever told their personal stories.
Frydlova says that the Iron Curtain obscured women's stories and fueled Western perceptions, many times drawn from Socialist poster art, of strapping liberated women who gleefully drove tractors.
Women's Memory helps to dismantle those Western notions, says Marina Glasse, the project coordinator in Berlin. "We don't have stereotypes," she said. "If you listen to these women's stories, you understand more of your own understanding of your own stereotypes."
As an example, Glasse points to a woman, a mother of three, who was given the chance by the German Democratic Republic to work as a translator in India for six months. She wasn't allowed to take her children and her husband was studying in Moscow. Traveling outside the country was something not to be missed, so the woman placed her children in foster care while she was away.
While many people could immediately label this woman a negligent mother, Glasse says that it isn't the case. Her story is a glimpse at what women would do to advance their careers and themselves in a country that, without special permission, had impassable borders and, sometimes, impossible opportunities.
"We have to understand the society as it was and the culture as it was in the German Democratic Republic in the '60s," she said.
Though they share funding from 15 sponsors for basic administrative costs, each country's Women's Memory project is autonomous when it comes to gathering money for its individual projects.
In the Czech Republic, Frydlova says, the Gender Studies Center has tried to obtain official funding by sculpting and proposing the project in numerous ways; as educational, social or cultural. But the project somehow never fits the government's precise requirements for how grant money should be spent. She says she has been told that the project doesn't fit anywhere, and that she couldn't even find $1,000 worth of funding to distribute a DVD to schools last year.
Frydlova dreams of someday having a full-time staff overseeing the project, maintaining the archives, answering questions and introducing the project to schools and universities.
"We are aware of the richness of the material and what we have," Frydlova said. "It's just a matter of finding the funding to make it as big and as important as it could and should be."
Mindy Kay Bricker is a freelancer living in Prague.
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