‘History is everybody’ – not the most inspiring quote, but I was being interviewed today and the interviewer thought it was because she made sure she wrote it down then and there, even though it was being recorded and she could transcribe later. The context: she was interviewing me about ‘My Hidden Mother’, the biography I have written about Mum that, in a nutshell, tells the story of a Jewish girl from a nice middle class family growing up in a world that’s about to implode, ie 1930s and 40s central Europe. The story is all about what happens when a whole group of perfectly ordinary people are dehumanised by the system. They become a label. They are no longer people. They are unwanted, they must be discarded, disappeared. My mother was lucky in that her disappearance meant her survival – for millions of others it meant death. You can read in your history books about Hitler, but you don’t read so much (with the exception of Anne Frank) about people who were not in positions of power, despite the fact that they are the majority by a factor of millions. History is bunk? Certainly is in the text books.
This is changing, slowly. All I remember about history at school was the astonishing fact that Queen Elizabeth I had 2000 dresses. This is a ridiculous factoid. What does it even mean? 2000 dresses at one point? During her entire life? What might be more interesting, is who counted them? Was there really some lady-in-waiting who one night thought, what the hell, why don’t I count how many dresses she really has, then write it down, and a few hundred years time people will be SO grateful I did, because this is what really matters. Put like that, one can see how absurd it is. I want to know how many dresses I might have had if I’d lived then; I want to know what my underwear would have been like, I want to know how I coped with periods and boyfriends. There is one hell of a lot that would be really interesting to know if an ordinary person like me had written it all down, but nobody like me did. I wouldn’t have had sufficient education, wouldn’t have had the level of literacy necessary, probably wouldn’t have had parents who could afford to buy paper, certainly wouldn’t have had access to a publisher.
Different now. I don’t need to be able to afford paper, because I have a computer, and I can write my mother’s story and I can get it published and I can get it out there so that people can read it. And then a student from Greenwich University can come across my book and read it and love it and decide to interview me about it, and maybe she’ll recommend it to others to read, and all the tiny, enormous, everyday and extraordinary facts of my mother’s life will become known beyond the small circle of my expected readership.
We are all history, but if nobody writes it down, after a few generations we disappear.
There is a photograph of my mother with her family. She and her brother are smiling for the camera. Her parents are not. They know what’s coming. I think it’s the most desperately sad picture I have ever seen. We are ALL history.
‘My Hidden Mother’ by Catherine Edmunds