NCJW, Pittsburgh Section’s involvement with oral history started with the modest aim of preserving the experiences of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Western Pennsylvania between 1890 and 1924. Started in 1968, the oral histories that were conducted helped preserve a social and political culture that was literally obliterated during the first half of the twentieth century while providing fascinating insight into the creation and history of a community in a quintessential American city. We hear why they left their homelands, how they reached America, and what their early views of adjustment were. Tales from these early interviews generated a book entitled By Myself I’m a Book, published in 1972.
With the conclusion of the initial project in 1972, the ambitious NCJW volunteers undertook a new work focused on the broader Jewish community in Pittsburgh from 1925 onward. Utilizing improved interviewing and collecting techniques, NCJW worked to record the personal recollections of those who influenced the quality of life in Pittsburgh and beyond. The interviews in this second phase contain first hand knowledge of Pittsburgh’s artistic and business worlds, its religious institutions, medical and academic establishments, social activist foundations and government. We hear an abundance of rich personal reminiscences and experiences from a wide spectrum of the community’s older members who played active roles in events of both national and international significance. These remembrances were recorded in a second book, My Voice Was Heard, published in 1981.
In 1980, NCJW produced a documentary film, “Bridges to History” (view below), that features vignettes based on the first two oral history projects and explains how the interviews were gathered.
“Bridges to History,” 1980
Then in 1996, NCJW created a second documentary called to “Bridges to the Future” (view below) that highlighted some of the unforgettable events in the lives of the people interviewed.
“Bridges to the Future,” 1996
With support from the Dorothy Blumenthal Fund and a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), the NCJW created a guide to the oral history interviews in 1993. In 2002 the guide was updated to incorporate the abstracts and indices from the earlier work as well as additional abstracts from interviews conducted since 1993.
The tapes have intentionally never been transcribed to encourage researchers the opportunity to hear the actual voices with inflections of the respondents. Rather, all interviews have been accurately abstracted by NCJW members to reflect the balance and content of each interview and to aid researchers in accessing specific information in the interviews. The inclusion of geographic, name and subject indices further enhances research access to information on the tape interviews.
NCJW took steps to preserve its organizational history by establishing the Archives Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh as its official repository as early as 1964. It was not until 1993 when NCJW donated its gathered oral history interviews and related documentation to the archives; since then the archives has continued to receive material through 2000. In 2008 the Archives Service Center awarded a contract to Safe Sound Archive for the reformatting of the 1,182 audiocassettes that comprise the oral history collection. Now the interviews are accessible online for listening purposes. In addition to the recordings, rich background information on each interviewee can be found in the physical case files associated with the donation of the collection to the archives.