Voices from Ravensbrück: The Value of Multilingual Oral History

Silvia Calamai, Arjan van Hessen, Stefania Scagliola, Christoph Draxler, Henk van den Heuvel
Submitted by Karina Berger on 13 December 2022

The Project

The Voices from Ravensbrück project is the result of the curation and selection of multilingual oral history interviews with survivors from the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. Organised and funded in the context of CLARIN’s Resource Families, this interdisciplinary project brings together multilingual experts in the fields of linguistics, speech technology, speech corpora curation, phonetics and history.

A successful pilot project in 2021 involved the digitisation and transcription of five Italian interviews. Now, the new ‘Ravensbrück Oral History Resource Family’ comprises 38 audio interviews from different countries. The data, which was heterogeneous in terms of format and quality, has been processed and curated so that all interviews are now easily accessible and comparable. The outcome was recently presented in the well-attended CLARIN Café ‘Voices from Ravensbrück on the Web - A Multilingual Challenge.

The Ravensbrück Oral History Resource Family includes 38 interviews from many different countries. 

Ravensbrück Women: Their Testimonies

The project gives voice to a heterogeneous group of women who survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp, including resistance fighters, aid workers, prisoners of war, and Jewish women and children. After the camp was liberated by Soviet forces, the women returned home or emigrated.

Today, many countries hold collections of audio or video testimonies, either in private archives or in public institutions. Countries in which interviews have been found include the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy and the US, while the archives in some Eastern European countries are still being explored by Yuliia Chernishova and Alessandra Carbone at Siena University. The interviews represent collected data that already belong to a specific project or archive, with some already being accessible online. 

Oral sources affect listeners in different ways than written text: voices are full of emotion, they are vehicles of identity, of feelings. You can hear the silences. Letters and written archives are very important, of course, but they don’t move you as deeply, at least in my opinion.
Silvia Calamai

CLARIN Resource Family for Oral History

The new CLARIN Ravensbrück Oral History Resource Family brings together a specific kind of speech data: first-person spoken testimonies with a historical and deeply personal character. The Ravensbrück dataset currently includes interviews in Dutch, German, English and Italian. The interviews were selected with the aim of enabling the comparison of data that covers a similar topic from a multilingual and multidisciplinary perspective. 

Aligning all of these oral testimonies with a common format came with many challenges: the interviews varied widely across a range of variables, including quality and style, metadata schemes, availability of translations, transcripts or summaries, legal frameworks and knowledge about the context in which they were created. 

The metadata scheme was key to successfully uniting this rich and varied dataset. As presented by Henk van den Heuvel during the CLARIN Café, all processed interviews comply with CLARIN’s standard metadata scheme (Component Metadata Infrastructure, or ). In addition, a special CMDI profile was created in the CMDI component registry for this Resource Family. The metadata was added and downloaded and can now be harvested from the VLO. All links to the CMDI metadata are also available via the CLARIN Resource Family Oral History landing page. 

Some of the interviews were described and transcribed via the Transcription Chain in the Speech Data & Technology portal, which is supported by CLARIN. Interested researchers can use this open source transcription service to partly automate the transcription process, as was demonstrated by Christoph Draxler during the CLARIN Café.
 
Transcription Portal: Manual Correction using Octra.
 

Outcome

By digitising, curating and storing the material in the CLARIN infrastructure, this project presents a unique opportunity to study and compare these historical sources. The compelling topic and the way in which these interviews are presented, grouped and structured makes them attractive and easy to work with, opening up many avenues for cross-disciplinary and multilingual research in a broad variety of fields, including anthropology, psychology, literary studies, sociology, health studies, trauma studies, (socio)linguistics and cognitive sciences. In addition, it represents a valuable resource for schools, higher education, the media, and society more widely. 

The Ravensbrück interviews cover dimensions of historical and social and reality that cannot be found elsewhere; they give voices to a group of people who are under-represented in institutional archives and offer a new perspective on a much-studied subject. At a time when most possible perspectives and themes about WWII have been covered, resources such as this enable a new era of comparison. 

The multilingual character of the archive offers the possibility, for instance, to explore and compare the communication strategies and narrative styles used by different groups of the camp population. The dataset also allows the exploration of non-verbal communication, such as silences and pauses, perhaps revealing some universal features to the women’s testimonies. The wide range of interdisciplinary opportunities arising from the creation of this Resource Family means that, while it is the outcome of this project, it also represents the beginning of a much larger project.

 

Feedback on the CLARIN Café

‘I find it truly moving to see different European scholars, specialised in different fields, united in the service of a project that restores, in a certain sense, the voices of women from different countries and languages, all united by their experience. Storing and bringing together the names and words of these women under a single access point is the most effective tool for research and information on the subject but, above all, it is the greatest legacy to leave to the next generation.’
Leonardo Sastrucci, graduate student, BA course Language for Intercultural and Business Communication, Arezzo Campus, Siena University
 
 

Dissemination and Coverage

The project has also attracted wider attention and was recently featured in 'La lettura', the cultural insert of the main Italian newspaper (Il corriere della sera). You can read the article (in Italian) here:

 
Contributors

Silvia Calamai, Associate Professor in linguistics and sociolinguistics, University of Siena, Italy

Arjan van Hessen, Researcher, University of Twente, Netherlands

Stefania Scagliola, independent scholar, Netherlands

Christoph Draxler, Researcher, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, Germany

Henk van den Heuvel, Director Centre for Language and Speech Technology, and Head Humanities Lab, Radboud University