“My life is a book.”
Ginger Goldhammer: A Life in Conversation
In this paper, I will present and reflect on a small-scale “fieldwork” project I have conducted as part of a course led by Professor Joyce Flueckiger. The course has introduced me to methodological and analytical tools developed by folklorists and ethnographers for the collection and re-presentation of narratives people tell about their lives. For the project, I have spoken with Ginger Goldhammer—a Jewish woman in Atlanta—and have tape-recorded a conversation with her about her life. My additional purpose in this paper is to demonstrate the potential contribution to Jewish studies of insights from ethnography and folklore concerning life narratives.
I will begin with a short introduction to the fieldwork project, followed by a brief discussion of life narratives and their associated methodologies and modes of analysis. Next, I will introduce and present the transcript of an audio-recorded conversation with Ginger about her life. Finally, I will reflect briefly on this “life conversation” and offer recommendations for further research.
Ginger Goldhammer is a ninety-five-year-old woman, known in the Atlanta Jewish community as a survivor of the Shoah (Holocaust). She was born in a small town of what is now Hungary, was a refugee in China during World War II, and has been a part of the Atlanta community for over thirty-five years. In March 2002, she received recognition in a program at Emory University called “A Celebration of Survival: An Evening Honoring Alex Gross, Ginger Goldhammer, and Cantor Isaac Goodfriend.” The program publicly acknowledged Ginger, along with two survivors who had written books about their lives. While introducing her during the evening, Professor Deborah Lipstadt remarked that, although Ginger has not written a book, “Her life is a book.”
Professor Lipstadt’s statement marks Ginger as a person who has a “story” to tell. As a survivor of the Shoah, and as an interesting “old” woman, she has an audience for her story. She is an expressive person, who loves to talk. I have noticed that she often weaves tales and lessons from her life into conversations. She seems constantly to be telling her life. Ginger places great value on written expression, but she has told me, “I am not a writer.” Her story is, thus, an oral one. Also, it is primarily conversational, rather than formal. When asked to speak during the “Celebration of Survival,” she deferred to those who “have words,” saying, “I’m not a speaker. I am big talker but not a speaker.”
Though Ginger has not written a book, two organizations have conducted video-recorded interviews with her for the purpose of historical documentation. First, in 1996, she was interviewed as a part of the Visual History Foundation’s “Survivors of the Shoah” project. Again, in 2001, the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum recorded an interview with her. Both videos are framed as historical records of her life, regarding Ginger as a “witness” to historical events. In each interview, the questions reflect this interpretive frame. The interviewers prod Ginger for names, dates, and relationships to historical events. They ask her to elaborate on how things happened: how she met her husband, how she was later able to arrange for his release from Buchenwald, how she got to China, and so on. In one interview, the first question after Ginger introduces herself is “Where were you when the war ended?” Both videos include a section in which Ginger is asked to offer a “message” or advice to young people. In addition to regarding her as a witness to history, the interviews frame her as an exemplar or moral authority.
Upon watching the interview videos, I became interested hearing Ginger’s story in other ways. The films provided a record of her life. Yet the interviews seemed awkward for her, and the interviewers’ questions seemed actually to disrupt her story rather than to facilitate the telling. I became interested in helping Ginger create another kind of record for her life, by approaching her story through the theoretical lens of life narrative scholarship. I expected that, in the process, something “different” would emerge: a different—and this time written—record of Ginger’s life that would, perhaps, contribute to Jewish memory.
“Life narratives” are oral accounts of a life that are imbedded in social interaction. In using the term, I draw from Corinne Kratz’s article “Conversations and Lives.” Kratz refers generically to oral accounts—including “life histories” and “life stories”—using the phrase “life narratives.” Kratz draws attention to the conversational character of such narrative accounts, noting that each originates within a particular context, “where it begins as communicative exchange and situated interaction.” I have chosen this term for the present discussion because it resists, on one hand, the assumption that narratives necessarily constitute “history” and, on the other hand, the assumption that oral narratives are “just stories.” Further, “life narratives” can function as an inclusive term, drawing in even fragments of narrative that together may not constitute a single, coherent “story.”
Ethnographers and sociolinguists more commonly employ the terms “life story,” “life history,” and even “personal narrative.” All of these indicate oral genres, which are usually transformed by a scholar into a written re-presentation. Within scholarship, the “parent” genre is life history, which came into use especially during the 1980’s as a method of ethnographic data collection. In the nineties, scholars began to raise serious concerns regarding the conventions of the genre. Its claim to “history” has been challenged, along with its claim to “represent” a culture or an individual. Likewise, the conventions for transforming oral narratives into a written life history have come under scrutiny. In particular, scholars have raised concerns about researchers’ assumption that a written “life” should resemble the “western” notion of autobiography.
Already in 1976, anthropologist Renato Rosaldo noted his own “inappropriate” assumptions about what a life history should be. After pursuing a project intended to record the life history of Tukbaw, a man he had come to know in the Philippines, Rosaldo observed the following:
... I did expect Tukbaw’s narrative to reveal a person with a deep and intricate inner life; I thought him an extraordinary and introspective person, capable of composing a self-reflective and confessional autobiography. My expectations were disappointed; in retrospect I realize they were inappropriate.
Other scholars have noted that not all life accounts conform neatly to the researcher’s genre expectations. Kratz describes all life narratives as being shaped by assumptions about “what counts as history”:
We might expect first-person accounts that focus on individual actions and experience, if not also on psychological self-reflection. But narrators may not offer this as appropriate. Even if they do, the choices of topics, episodes, sequence, and mode of narration are not automatic. They all draw on ideas about what matters in recounting the past, what should be remembered and why.
Some researchers invoke the term “life story” as a corrective to life history:
Rather than “life-history,” we prefer the term “life story.” By “life story” is meant simply the story of someone’s life. For our purposes, “story” is preferable to “history” because it does not connote that the narration is true, that the events narrated necessarily happened, or that it matters whether they did or not.
Genre conventions prescribe what “counts.” They, thus, influence what events are included in a life account and in what sequence, as well as shaping the style of presentation. The conventions associated with a genre may affect what “life” emerges in the account and also how the audience interprets that life.
Genre conventions also influence whose life “counts.” Charlotte Linde discusses this issue, particularly with respect to autobiography. She observes that one must usually “be someone” in order to have an autobiography published. Alternatively, an ordinary person may publish an autobiography if she can serve as “a witness to history” or if his life can be seen to represent “a typical case of a phenomenon of general interest.” The premise that an author must in some way be “special” has its consequences for the “life” that the autobiography presents:
The fact that, in order to write an autobiography, one must be a particular kind of person dictates that autobiographies be organized differently than life stories and that they contain quite different material. Normally, as we have already noted, some public persona or property makes the author’s life worth writing about, and this persona or property serves as the theme around which the autobiography is organized.
For instance, a person who was “ordinary” except by virtue of being a survivor of the Shoah would customarily organize her autobiography around the theme of Holocaust survival. Thus, the war years would become a temporal focus, and the author would be expected to situate life experiences in relation to historical events. Life experiences that seemed irrelevant to the theme of survival might be left out of the autobiography altogether or given minor attention. In contrast to the relative exclusiveness of autobiographical authorship, Linde regards life story as an inclusive genre. She claims that “...anyone—that is, any normally competent adult—can be assumed to have a life story, and indeed is socially required to have one.”
Linde’s observation that life stories are universal may, in fact, not hold true in every culture. Genres are culturally-delineated. Thus, not all cultures share the same set of familiar genres. Genres to which the narrator herself is accustomed are often called “local genres” or “indigenous genres.” Through such genres, narrators frame their own stories and their own lives. Many researchers have moved toward a methodology of non-elicitation, that is, an approach to “collecting” life narratives without actively eliciting them. This approach is intended to allow a person to speak in her own “indigenous” genres, rather than being prompted according to the researcher’s genre expectations.
Not only genre but also “performance” affects what a person narrates and how she narrates it. According to performance theory, speech is always situated, that is, it takes place in a particular “...moment and context of production, where it begins as communicative exchange and situated interaction.” The narration takes place in the presence of an audience and within a particular sociocultural context. It is the narrator’s assumption of responsibility to that audience which makes a narration a “performance.” Laurel Kendall calls texts alone “frozen presentations,” removed from their context of production, and thus altered. A written text cannot reproduce a moment of performance. Performance analysis of narrative gives attention to its situatedness, acknowledging that, in addition to being words and form, the narrative is also an act.
After watching the video interviews of Ginger Goldhammer, I was asked to write a “bio” for use in the Emory “Celebration of Survival” program. In particular, I was asked to include in it her service to the Atlanta community, in addition to other elements of her story. On the telephone, Ginger helped me fill in gaps and add details to what I remembered from the videos. I include the resulting bio below, both to provide background for the reader and to demonstrate how Ginger’s “life” looks within such a genre—which bears the marks of its parent genre, biography.
Ginger Goldhammer has given over 35 years of service to the Atlanta community. She was born June 16, 1906 in the town of Nemeskosztolay, which at that time belonged to Hungary. Her parents gave her the name Gyöngyi Roth. In 1934, she married a Viennese physician, Dr. Egon J. Goldhammer. The two of them were residing in Vienna when Hitler's forces came there in 1938. The couple left Austria a short time later, making their way to Köln, Germany and then to Berlin. German officials seized Dr. Goldhammer in Berlin and transported him to Buchenwald.
Mrs. Goldhammer sought help from a non-Jewish doctor whom she had known years before. Now a member of the Nazi Party, he used his influence to assist her husband. Dr. Goldhammer was released from Buchenwald within nine months of his capture. He was given 48 hours to leave the country, and he fled by boat to Shanghai in May 1939. Mrs. Goldhammer was unable to accompany her husband at that time but managed to follow him to Shanghai several months later. They lived as refugees in Japanese-occupied China for seven years.
In 1947, the Goldhammers left China for the United States. They landed in San Francisco and were hosted for a time by cousins of Mrs. Goldhammer in California but were compelled to relocate to New York, where Dr. Goldhammer underwent the training required for him to obtain a medical license in the United States. His internship was entirely uncompensated, and the Goldhammers were able to manage during this time only through the generosity of the Jewish Federation in New York. Mrs. Goldhammer also took any work she could, which ranged from dish-washing to nursing. After several subsequent moves, the Goldhammers settled in Rome, Georgia, in 1952. There they remained until Dr. Goldhammer's death in 1966.
Following her husband's death, Mrs. Goldhammer came to Atlanta. She began voluntary service with the Veteran's Hospital in 1970 and continues assisting there even now.
After I submitted the bio for use in the “Celebration of Survival” program, it was edited and printed in the program for the evening, as follows:
Ginger Goldhammer, born in 1906 in Hungary, courageously obtained her husband’s release from Buchenwald. He fled Shanghai and she joined him months later, living among 20,000 Holocaust refugees in Japanese-occupied China for seven years. They came to the United States in 1947 and settled in Rome, Georgia in 1952. After her husband’s death, Ginger came to Atlanta and has given over 35 years of service to the Atlanta community. Honored in Washington as the Veteran’s Hospital’s longest serving volunteer, she is still politically active and outspoken and committed to social justice.
Like the video interviews, these bios present Ginger’s life as the life of a Holocaust survivor, adding the dimensions of service and social activism.
What follows is an “experiment” with life narrative methodology. It represents a beginner’s first attempt at applying theoretical knowledge in a practical situation. Though I am certain that “better” work can be done, I am fascinated with what has emerged in this first effort.
I met with Ginger Goldhammer on March 13, 2002, at the residential center where she lives. We had lunch together in the community dining room. Throughout lunch, we chatted and got to know each other. Upon learning that I was not Jewish but that my husband was Jewish, Ginger told me several stories of young women she knew who had converted to Judaism without the influence of “a boy.” She specifically told me about a girl she had known from Japan and another from China, both of whom had decided to become Jewish and were very religious. We also talked about food and travel. These conversations moved in and out of narrative, as Ginger told me some of her experiences in China and why she was very careful never to throw food away. She talked about relatives in post-Communist Hungary and about her amazement at the positive changes in China over a period of thirty years under Communist government.
After about an hour and a half, Ginger and I moved from the dining room to an adjacent lounge area. I explained to her that I was working on a project for school. On the telephone and when I first arrived, I had identified myself as a student of Professors David Blumenthal and Benny Hary, two dear friends of hers. I told her that I had seen the two video interviews with her, that I was interested in her “as a person,” and that I wanted to learn more about her life.
I had prepared a consent form for participation in my project, which I now removed from a black folder. Ginger commented that I was “very official,” and at this point our interaction seemed to gain a level of formality. I held the consent form up between us and began to read aloud from it. Ginger took the paper into her own hand and read it quickly, before signing. I placed a small cassette recorder on a table in front of the couch. She said she would answer any question I wanted.
However, I had not prepared an interview. I had thought of a few questions in advance, which I hoped would serve as points of departure. My intention was to record her story in a different way from the interviews I had seen. I had wanted her to frame her own story and to speak in her own “indigenous” genre. It now appeared to me that Ginger expected another interview, and I felt uncertain about what to do. I decided just to begin.
What emerged seems consistent with the way Kratz describes conversations about lives:
Conversations tack between different notions of what it [a life account] should be and how it should be told, and include shifts of form and tone responsive to the situation and episodes related. They include various forms of personal narrative and may have reflexive sections as bridges, transitions, interruptions, or codas.
Ginger wove narratives into conversation and conversation into narratives. She delivered a richly-textured and multi-layered “performance.”
Ginger Goldhammer and Sally Chambers – March 13, 2002
Note on the Transcription:
I have created a “frozen” written text from a situated conversation. Such a text cannot reproduce the conversation itself, which was an act of communicative interaction and not just words. I have attempted to achieve a balance between “faithful” transcription of the words, as I heard them on the audio tape, and creation of a written text consistent with the sense and feeling of the narrated speech.
Occasionally, I have “corrected” Ginger’s grammatical variations, where it seemed that retaining them would tend to romanticize or belittle her way of speaking. I have sometimes omitted words in her speech that seemed extraneous, such as “false starts” to sentences. Also, I have omitted many of my own “listening words,” that is, one-word responses during Ginger’s speech; they seemed cumbersome in the written text. In every case, I have favored Ginger’s and my exact words over any alteration.
Ginger’s words appear in the Times New Roman font. My words appear in the Arial font. Comments not present in the audio recording are in italicized Arial.
Sally (starting the tape recorder): Okay.
Ginger: I didn't know I'm such an important person.
You're a very important person.
Hello, Rus, how are you? (to a man walking through the area where we are seated)
We can talk informally. That's fine. I'd just like to have a record of it.
(overlapping with my statement) Whatever you want, sweetheart, it's up to you… and your questions, if I am able to answer, I'll be glad to.
Actually, I'm interested in starting with your work at the VA Hospital. I'd like to hear more about it and how you got involved in it…
You like to know about the VA Hospital?
I'll tell you, darling, I am working there now thirty-two years. I used to… My favorite work was escort, which they call it, pushing wheelchairs and stretchers. But I cannot do it anymore. I was once very sick. I had cancer.
And after that when I recovered, they put me in the surgery, which is a light work because I did, like—in front of the surgical rooms—preparing tables, whatever they told me. And you get a list that, what, that person gets this surgery, that surgery, and you prepare on the table what they need. And then… but the problem was—I loved it—but the problem was afterwards that I had to wear all the time a mask, but I have congestive heart failure, then am I short of breath, and I cannot have the mask anymore.
So then I was still there, and I love it. The people are darling to me. Everybody knows me. And I work now in the office, whatever they let me. I used to also answer telephone, but I can't anymore. I have hearing problem. And I work whatev… as I say, whatever I can. I always tell them when I come in the morning, "Is there any work for me, or do you just want me to annoy you all the time?" So I do what they let me and you know preparing… I go xeroxing, putting things together. And I help for the office who… in the office the lady who takes care of all the real important things, and she tells me what to do and I -- slowly I do.
And I feel very good about it that I… I want to… my idea was really when I went there to give back America what America gave to us when we came. We were chased out from our country. And here we were accepted. My husband could work. We never became millionaire because the Georgia State doesn't pay big and then my husband was sick and didn't work long enough. But it's not important to be millionaire. It... maybe it's good, but I don't know, I never was... I'm working on it. I buy every week lottery tickets, and I hope and pray.
And there I have an idea that if I win I would give more than ninety percent probably for the starving people in Africa. In Africa. We don't need it. We are lucky in America; no one is hungry. So, luxuries... you have it, fine, but you don't need it. You need to eat. And the starving kids and the starving people in Africa... I would do that. That would be the greatest thing I would achieve in my life. Please, God, let me win the lottery! And I... I don't need anything anymore, darling. At that point, I eat little. Whatever I need I have.
You know... I don't know whether it is my age—I... whatever—I just think... Sometimes I say to my people, "I think I am a millionaire because I have everything I need." Right. I don't have what I want, but what I need I have, and not many people can say that, darling. Right.
And I'm fortunate. And about my health I also say I'm fortunate because here where I live, you can see everybody is on wheelchair, everybody [needs] a nurse. Some people cannot hear, some people cannot... hear. And when I first—a few years back—I stopped with a few ladies, and they were talking-talking and I apologized, I said, "Listen, I have to apologize, I don't hear well, so I cannot participate." So one lady said to me, "Ginger, you are lucky. I cannot see." And ever since, I think of it. I am lucky. Because I don't have to hear everything. It's some handicap, yes. I cannot go to lectures when I want. I love to go to lectures at Emory, but I cannot hear well. So it's a handicap. But it does not hurt, and nobody is perfect. So I have to live with that.
And I would say my greatest blessing is that I am blessed with friends. Just blessed with friends. Beautiful friends I have. And they tolerate me... (laughing) I don't know why. And some of them also love me; I also don't know why. I'm very fortunate, thank heaven for that. And I'm grateful. Really, my gratefulness is boundless. And at the VA Hospital, really everybody knows me. Just ask for Ginger, and they will know.
Before you began working at the VA Hospital... 1970. Right. Before that, you worked as a nurse?—You were not a nurse... but what kind of work did you do? No, no, no. I was only a housewife.
I did take care of my husband, who was very sick. I had a very sick husband. I took him to work with my car and picked him up. And I three meals cooked because he was not allowed to eat that... I was very conscious about his food. Sometimes, I think I should have let him eat more, then on the other hand I would say to myself now, "I gave him everything, and I did not take care of him." You don't know what is right, whether you let him... he loved to eat, he loved my food. And I was very restrictive. He was not a big eater.
Some people used to tell me I definitely helped him to live a few years longer, because he didn't do anything. He never even knew how to boil tea. And I just spoiled him. I wish I could spoil him still.
He was extremely nice, and I was lucky because I had a very good husband. Very, very—extremely educated, over-educated. My husband read the whole Iliad in Greek. Wow. He spoke fluently French, and he was from Vienna, so German naturally, and Czechoslovak because his mother came from Czechoslovakia. And they had a housekeeper, and she spoke to him always Slovak... Czech, not Slovak, excuse me. I spoke Slovak, not he. Because in the part of the country Hungary, the population spoke Slovak. The schools were Hungarian—our government—we were under the Hungarian government, but the population spoke Slovak. So I spoke Slovak, same as Hungarian. I forgot it—I forgot everything. I'm dumb. (laughing)
Did you do some volunteer work when you were in Europe, also?
Did you volunteer in Europe, at all?
No, darling, I had family. Everybody: this old lady, that old aunt. That was volunteer, you know, that you went always when they needed you. But we didn't call that volunteer, no.
But not with the Jewish Federation, or anything like that...
No. Here in America, in Atlanta, I worked every Jewish organization there is. ADL, ORT—and afterwards, I worked for Red Cross, cancer. There is no organization, I guess, in Atlanta I didn't work. But my life I dedicated to the Veteran [Hospital] because that's the government. And I wanted to give back America, who was so good to us.
In what way was America good to you? What did America do for you?
I beg your pardon?
In what way was America good to you?
Well we came in, darling, chased out from our country. And then my husband could work, right away. Well, he had to take first examination—English—and then to repeat his whole medical. But he did it; he was very studious. In six months, he had already his M.D., back in New York. We came to America in July—3rd of July—in San Francisco. And our boat, when it came under the Golden Gate Bridge, that is a feeling that is unbelievable, and you cannot describe. There are no words that can give you that feeling. It was like you're going to heaven, and you know where you are. And then we were lucky, I... we had cousins there. And they tried...
My husband could not work in San Francisco, because San Francisco—not only San Francisco but whole California—had no reciprocity to us there, the medical [reciprocity]. We could not even study.
My cousin said, "Better go to New York."
We tried three weeks—we would have liked to stay in California—and then we went to New York. And in New York I had an aunt—God let her rest. And because I wrote to her from China that I didn't see chicken—only twice, I guess, in seven years—because it was too expensive, and we had no money. And my aunt prepared chicken soup, cold chicken, fried chicken, any-way-you-can-imagine chicken. Beautiful meal.
And then she said, "Now you can have all the chicken." Chicken was the cheapest in New York, and it was most expensive in China. And my... our relatives were all very kind, and you know and in the car showed us around taking, and what America is like. And it's a miracle. It's the best country in the whole wide world.
And... God bless America.
And I just wish people shouldn't take it granted or to be ugly to America. Which I met... Real Americans, they do not appreciate America. No, no, no. I don't think so. And... especially since last September the Eleventh, I went really into a shock, darling. My doctor said—my heart specialist—the shock was very bad on me. And I could not believe it that anybody dares attack us. And they did that, and they did attack us. And that's hard to get over it. And... I don't know, this whole hatred attitude, that is something [which] is very hard to cope with or to understand it when you are almost ninety-six, very hard to understand.
I don't know whether the young people cope with it better. Probably they do. Because the young people, they run the world. And... they have a different attitude, olderly people, but especially from the old country—and going through China, where we went hungry, were sharing the room with rats.
The rats were citizens... born citizens in China.
But I tell you, my sister, who came from Israel and lived in... She was a nurse, my sister, and she worked in New York. And when she traveled, she could not eat, she told me, because so many cockroaches were around. And she only bought for herself something and covered [it] up quickly in the icebox and they told her—once she had one lady who she took care of as a nurse; it was very funny—"Why, they are American citizens!" The cockroaches!
So I consider now the rats were Chinese citizens, and they had more rights than I.
Tell me about your experience in China... I'd like to know more about your experience in China.
China was very hard time—very hard.
We were under Japanese occupation, and there was no food. There was no money. And I worked, I got paid. But the inflation! Let's say I just make... let's say I have ten hundred dollars for a week. By the end of the week was it not worth maybe five, six dollars. When I got them in a suitcase full with paper, all the Chinese money, and [it] had no value. We could not get anything of it.
And... Very hard, darling. We ate rice green with mildew. You washed it, you boiled it, you threw the water... But you were hungry, you ate it.
And... We shared that terrible misery with our friends. You make the best friends in misery. We all didn't... No one had anything, so we shared that nothing.
But very intellectual people from... European people are very educated. They speak languages. They [are] lawyers, doctors. And evening we [would] have tea, no sugar or anything. And maybe some dry, sliced bread with little pork fat on it. And they exchange their what happened and their lots of jokes—Viennese had lots of sense of humor. And still talked about music and still talked about theater and the high... the highest writers.
They had a great, great time, in spite of that misery. And we had not even chairs. We were sitting on suitcases or whatever. We had a tiny-bitty room with one sofa for two of us. And, thinking back, it was still very beautiful, that misery, that hunger. I don't know what—maybe because I had... definitely that my husband.
Well [there] was a time I wanted to commit suicide. I begged my husband. And he said, "No, you will make it, same like the other people."
And we made it. It was very hard. I said, "Let's go swim back on the ocean. I'd rather swim... What's the difference," I said, " whether you die here of hunger or [whether] Hitler will kill you?"
But I did not go back, and I survived.
My husband definitely helped me. And my friends... our friends made it possible to survive. And we survived, and then came the great, great celebration (I forgot now the date) when the Japanese surrendered.
That was terrific. And the windows were open—it was hot, God... hot—and I hear noise, noise. And... again bombs are coming. So he in pajama, I in nightgown, run down quickly, and they said, "No—It's peace! It's peace!"
So we joined some people as we were, in nightgown. That was some... unbelievable and unforgettable night. Which [we] kind of celebrated with nothing.
After that... I had some Hungarian friends, and they made a party. They made... We were invited. I still have one photo which was made of this thing. They and my husband. And we went there, and they were well-off. They were not refugees. They went to China way before—1918—because Europe was also, at that time after the First World War, was not easy to get a job or to work. Even... both were doctors, these friends of mine. And... there was a big, beautiful party celebrating the peace. Unforg... You know, there are many unforgettable things in my life which happened. What are some... I didn't do anything to it... that happened. Right.
What are some of the other unforgettable memories you have? What stands out for you...
The funniest? I'll tell you one of the funniest things... OK. That happened in Atlanta, could be three or four years ago. Well, I worked here for the night shelter, you know, with Shearith Israel night shelter. And... about three or four years ago—I can't remember, darling, could be four—I got an invitation to a bar mitsvah. Well, I looked at it back and forth, back and forth, and I said, "I don't know the people. How could I get that?" And then I just... (to a man walking through: "Hello, Arthur." Arthur: "How you doing?") So I said to myself, "Call up the A-A Synagogue, where I belong," because the bar mitsvah was supposed to be in the A-A.
So they told me, "Yes, there will be a bar mitsvah. Yes, he is a member of the synagogue."
... and I cannot remember... and then I said, "Would you be kind enough..." I couldn't find the... for why they did not put in the directory... Only the one who was a member of the sisterhood. His wife was not a member. They were not there. I said, "They are not in the directory."
She said, "But I have the telephone number," the office girl said.
I said, "Please give it to me." I called up her.
So I called the number and she... they answered, "That's Barbara Wexler."
I said, "Hello, Barbara. I am Ginger Goldhammer." I said, "Barbara, please excuse me, do you know me?"
I said, "Barbara, please excuse me, I don't know you either. But I have a beautiful thing from you. You sent me an invitation to your son's bar mitsvah, David. But I don't know who you are."
She said, "No, I don't either." And she said, "Wait a minute. Let me call up my husband, because he goes every Shabbos to the synagogue." Well, she called back—I gave her my number, she called back: "Ginger, my husband said you will remember. He spent the night with you."
I said, "What?" (my laughter)
Yeah. I spent the night with... I said, "You are very gracious. And you still answer the phone?" (laughing)
I said, "He must have enjoyed it, that he remembers me with a bar mitsvah invitation."
And I said... He [She] said, "Give me your number. My husband will call you." I gave it, he called me back.
He said, "Ginger, I picked you up, and we went to work at the Shearith Israel night shelter." Oh. "We spent the night together."
I said, "That sound not so exciting anymore." Anybody can spend the night in a night shelter. So that it was.
I said... He said, "Remember? You asked me about David, the little boy."
I said—I remembered then—I [He] said, "You ask a little boy, David, and I told you he's getting bar mitsvah. And I told you he will be bar mitsvah in a few months, would you come to the bar mitsvah if I send you an invitation?"
I said, "I would be delighted." But I forgot the name, when I got the invitation. That was the problem. Oh... I completely forgot who Wexler is, who David is...
And I did go to that bar mitsvah. It was beautiful. And I still didn't know Barbara. And after the service and the meal, I went to him. I said, "Would you be kind enough... Introduce me to your wife!" I said, "I could be your mother, your wife's probably the grandmother." And she is lovely, a lovely lady, very gracious.
When we meet now, we still laugh about it, that I spent the night with her husband. And so that's funny, I guess.
I think that is one of the funniest thing it happened to me. But we are friends still. And David is now maybe eighteen, seventeen—I don't know how old. He comes and kisses me... That's the bar mitsvah boy, very handsome kid. Darling. And... I met them Sunday... last Friday. I was at the synagogue. Somebody invited me for Shabbat dinner. And they were there, and [we] just watch each other and start to laugh. Barbara said she will never forget that I ask her, "Do you know me?"
Yeah. I have some things happening to me but no one else... that's not funny, but real. And... the greatest achievement—I was ninety-three—I kissed President Clinton.
You didn't know...
You must be kidding. I kissed President Clinton maybe ten times. And he kissed me back maybe ten times. And Clinton is the most kissable guy in the whole wide world. But not only that, darling: President Clinton has the greatest sense of humor in America. I'll tell you why. I met him twice—I met him one year before... And I went to him, and I said, "Mr. President, when you were here for [ ? ] and I kissed you back three times. You never gave it to me back."
So he took me and kissed me right back eight or ten times! You have to have a sense of humor to kiss a old, ugly woman! (my laugh) Otherwise, why did he? Believe me, believe me, sweetheart, he is a very special person. And in my book, he is the greatest president America ever had.
And God loved him. Eight years. America had never so good as under him. Never, darling... From what Bush and Reagan accumulated... After he left, we had surplus. When was there [ever] surplus here? — Never! Everybody was working, there was barely... Employment was the highest ever in America.
And he had a terrible time coping with his sex problem and with Monica and all that. And he survived that all. And... You have to have... be very strong... I adore him, I worship him. And... That's some achievement with ninety-three—to kiss the greatest, the most powerful man in the world.
Do you have any... I have write ups. I was on the front page from the Constitution.
My apartment is full of Clinton. Wow. Full! I adore him. And they also wrote down the kiss, you know the article about it. And... I just... If I have one wish in this world before I die—one wish—would love to hit the jackpot, be a millionaire and save so many, many starving people in Africa. The second, I would love to kiss again Clinton. And the third, I would love to shake hands with Hillary. Great lady, who understood him, who stood next to him, who forgave him. And... I don't agree with that, what he did, but he was a human being. And there was the girl. She did it, you know, she... she approached him, he did not.
And she was not a saint. I don't like her because she ruined some other people's life. Did you know that? No. Monica destroyed the marriage in the college. There was a—Right, I heard about that—professor who had two children, and she was after him. Now she had a few interviews about [ ? ] ... She thought that Clinton will divorce Hillary and marry her—Ha, ha, ha. Stupid girl. And she paid a high price, my dear, because I don't think anybody has respect for her or anything else. That's... But that's her problem, not mine. I have enough problem of my own. (my laugh) And. But I, I just think the greatest... God bless Clinton. And God bless America. Definitely and...
What... What is your earliest memory? What is your earliest memory from your childhood?
Your earliest memory... Of what? ...from your childhood. Of childhood?
I cannot, darling, remember much of my childhood. You know I have to... I am stealing from... I'm reading a lot—a lot, yeah—so I read, two-three times I read it: Mark Twain. I like him. And I stole a sentence from him, and I... I just use it. Because Mark Twain said he remembered of the childhood—this, that, that. But when he was four weeks old or two weeks old... But, he said, but best he remembers things what never happened. And that's with me, too. I think so. I got now... I got—I stole that from him. That sentence. I love it and...
Hard to remember. No, I don't think I have good memory.
Do you remember you parents well? Do you remember your mother and father?
Oh yes, I remember my... I lost my mother when I was very young. Then... she died real death. She had cancer; she did not see fifty. Forty-nine when she died, of the cancer. And yes, I remember even that—and very clearly, that day—clear as a... clear as can be.
And I remember many... Well, my father was very bright, and...
You said he was very religious... Your father was very religious?
Very. In a way... There are things which I don't want to tell about him. David knows about it. I told him. I don't... but...
I would say—to give you an idea, darling—very much the problem of Clinton. And that's why I say I don't owe anybody, anybody anything in this world. Only Clinton. Because I forgave my father. I used to be very critical, maybe even worse than that. And I forgave him. I don't hate him. Anymore. Because I see now with... I understand—not much, because I'm dumb—but as much as I understand Clinton's problem with sex. And probably that was the problem of my father's.
Because he adored my mother. But he did cheat on her. And my mother cried, I remember that. And then to the rabbi, I remember that. Nothing helped!
It's not easy to go... to be ninety-five, darling. We have a rough road to get here. And you have to understand, you have to forgive, you have to... There are many things in this life which you have to... I don't know how you learn it, how you cope with it. But somehow we do. I don't know about other people, you know...
I have my family, very lovely two nephews in New York. For my brother the two sons and the darling little girl. He had two grandchildren, and they are lovely: Ashley is only eleven years old, very lovely. Also, my two nephews married non-Jewish. So Ashley is also half, you know, her mother is Italian—Catholic. And I always say... I probably have... That's why [I am] comfortable with any religion. Because of the family. As I told you already, my mother's two sisters married already no-... [non-Jewish]. And they produced even a guy who is an Olymp... what has a gold medal, in the family. Something to be proud of; something not to be proud of. Like every family, I guess.
We have shortcomings and... I don't think my husband had shortcomings—I think my husband was a saint. I am not kidding, darling. Unusual good. And (to a person walking through: Hello!) Very, very good person. And he was terrific to his patients. The rabbi, when he said the eulogy, he said he never thought he will meet in his life a saint. He did, he said: "I met Dr. Goldhammer. He is a saint."
And I have still letters people wrote to me—these nurses and office ladies—when he died. And they said he was a saint. He was very kind: to the patients, to the nurses, treated everybody very well. And I was there very lucky, to have such a good husband.
In his family, yes, there are things which he was not proud of it, I am not proud of it. Like every family, there are shortcomings, and they do mistakes. They do make... we are human beings, and we do make mistakes. And we don't want to, but we do, I suppose. And I always say it's a hard road to get to ninety-five. Very rough road.
When you get there, darling, it's no picnic, either! No, it's definitely not a picnic. But what can you do? We don't choose. If I would have chosen, I wouldn't be here. I tell you that. Which is... I don't know whether you would put it a "coward" or just "no good", whatever.
I don't know how to say it. (laughing) It's hard. Yes. And I... I should learn English better, but I don't think I have anymore time.
And... and my accent is free, and I want to give it away. No one wants that, either.
And I'm very lucky, sweetheart, I met you. I wish I would have met you much, much earlier. I hope I will see you soon. Yes. I hope... I love you, and I hope I... you'll bring your husband. But you be careful: if he's handsome, I might steal him.
I think you'll like him very much.
Yeah. Well, I warned you, so you know now. You can't say I did not warn you. Yeah, I love to flirt... Whether he will flirt with me, I don't know. But let's... let's take a chance. And you bring him, OK?
I will, OK.
Yeah. And... I'm very fortunate, you know. God bless my friends. All of them. That's the greatest thing that happened to my life, my friends. I probably couldn't have made it without them. And that the good Lord helped me to be able to work, you know, that I am... can work at the VA Hospital. Mondays and Fridays, I feel wonderful. Sometimes I get deadly sick over there—(laughing) they have to put me on a wheelchair and then take me to the Emergency. But I... Not many times, but it happen several times. And... But they take good care of me and I... I love America. And I am privileged to work for the VA Hospital. Yeah. Very privileged. Great.
Well, I've enjoyed meeting you. I'm very glad to meet you.
Thank you, sweetheart. You took a chance. Thank you. Thank you. You're very pretty. And understanding—so young, unbelievable. I don't know whether I was with twenty-five as that dumb as now, or maybe more. I can't remember. But I was lucky: my husband found me anyway.
That was a big love affair between my husband and me. Big. That's the saddest part. He was too short here. But he was so sick [because of] Hitler... When he came from the concentration camp, he was a very sick man. And that's the saddest part of my life.
And I begged God, when he was so sick, "I will push the wheelchair. I will do everything," that He shall let him stay here. But he died. Some people... Some of my friends said I'm—I am—what was the word... It's not nice because, they said, he wouldn't have liked to be in a wheelchair. I said... just let him be here.
I, now I think of it, that was not nice of me. Because now I see—I am not in a wheelchair, but I—I can see I am a burden. So he wouldn't have like that.
Wish you could meet the director of the hospital in Rome, Georgia. He was not Jewish. And he used to say... He told me always, about my husband, he's the most beau-... I quote, "Most beautiful person I ever met in my life." And he was not beautiful physically. My husband was not handsome—was not handsome like Clinton or, or Kennedy. But inside, he was a beautiful person. And that director told me, "[He] was the most beautiful person I have ever met in my life." And that's something. And... I know it is. I know it was. I only repeat it, darling: he was a saint, really.
But he went through in life, you know, and Hitler time and all that, and... And he was never bitter. Never complained. He never talked about what happened in Buchen-... he was in Auschwitz first. Bu... but... I can't quite remember whether he straight went to Buchenwald or Auschwitz. Because Auschwitz, my father and my step-mother and nine sisters and brothers perished. My mother-in-law was shot in Riga [?]. One of those trains, you know, when they just put in, and then the people got off, and they just shoot them right away. And... that's where my mother-in-law died.
The Jewish people and the... living in Europe... had a very hard time. The Hitler time was... so many did not... We have here one lady whose husband was a professor. Her son is working—is a doctor at Emory. Well she is slightly... not quite... you know, sometimes I can see she's kind of mixed up. She had only two children. The little boy survived. I can't remember did she say the boy was... but a little granddaughter, three years old, was taken out of her arm and killed. In Auschwitz. So you know, and I live now here and... my heart goes out to her.
* * *
Ginger continued to speak for five to ten minutes more, but the cassette stopped here. At this point, I was sitting near her and holding her hand as she spoke. It felt inappropriate to me to disrupt her, in order to flip the tape. She went on to mention her affection for Alex Gross, a Holocaust survivor known to the Atlanta community. She called him a "saint". Ginger also spoke about her discomfort with God because of what she and others had experienced. Later that day, I wrote in my notes what I remembered her saying: "After Hitler time, I had problem with God. Then, even worse, with September Eleven, I had bigger problem with God. Where was God? How can he let this happen? ... I want to rebel. But I can't rebel very much, I don't have the strength."
Finally, Ginger and I took leave of one another, and I promised to return soon with my husband. She called me later that afternoon, to thank me again for a bouquet of flowers I had brought. If I remember correctly, she told me they were sitting in her apartment "next to Clinton"—that is, next to a photograph of her kissing Clinton.
Were I to do this project again or, rather, were I to continue with it, I would do some of the following. I would, first, endeavor to spend time with Ginger in everyday settings, for example at the VA Hospital and at Jewish community gatherings. This approach might allow me to observe ways Ginger talks about her life in various social situations. If possible, I would like to audio-record some of her interactions with others. Linde provides some theoretical basis for this approach in Storied Lives. She argues the existence for most people of multiple life accounts: “[A]t different times, on different occasions, and to different people, individuals give different accounts of the same facts and of the reasons why they happened.” Moreover, a person may tell about different events on different occasions and to different people, or she might perform life narratives differently.
Two additional methods might contribute to the project. First, asking Ginger explicitly for a life story might yield a relatively coherent account, which Ginger, herself, could frame. Further, I might take into account Ginger’s material surroundings, asking her to tell about the material objects with which she surrounds herself. This might involve a “tour” of objects in her apartment, including articles she has knitted and photographs she has collected.
The project would also benefit from interpretive work, including performance analysis. This analysis would include attention to the way Ginger’s “performance” of life narratives might vary in response to variations in context and audience. It would likewise entail consideration of Ginger’s choices of genre with different audiences. Such performance analysis might lead to generalizable insights, particularly concerning the repertoire of genres available within American Jewish culture. (Who can tell what stories, and under what circumstances?)
I recommend that a fuller life narrative project be done with Ginger Goldhammer. Through application of the methodological and analytical insights of life narrative scholarship, a very interesting life account could emerge. Ginger’s life could become a “book.”
Abu-Lughod, Lila. Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1993.
Cumings, Susan. “Performing Selves: Contemporary Women’s Autobioexpression.”
Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 2001.
Goldhammer, Ginger. Interview, videorecording, 15 Feb. 2001. The William Breman
Jewish Heritage Museum.
Goldhammer, Gyöngyi. “Survivors of the Shoah.” Interview, videorecording, 15 Feb.
1996. Visual History Foundation.
Kendall, Laurel. The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman: Of Tales and the Telling
of Tales. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1988.
Kratz, Corinne A. “Conversations and Lives.” In African Words, African Voices: Critical
Practices in Oral History, ed. Luise White, Stephan F. Miescher, and David
William Cohen, 127-61. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Linde, Charlotte. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. New York: Oxford University
Ochs, Elinor and Lisa Capps. “Narrating the Self.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25
Peacock, James L. and Dorothy C. Holland. “The Narrated Self: Life Stories in Process.”
Ethos 21, no. 4 (1993): 367-83.
Rosaldo, Renato. “The Story of Tukbaw: ‘They Listen as He Orates’.” In The
Biographical Process, ed. Frank Reynolds and Donald Capps, 121-51. Paris:
Rosenwald, George C. and Richard L. Ochberg. “Introduction: Life Stories, Cultural
Politics, and Self-Understanding.” In Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-
Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
You are being asked to participate in a documentary project.
The project will be carried out by Sally Chambers, a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Emory University. She would like to talk with you and document stories from your life.
With your permission, Sally will tape record her conversations with you. She will later use the recording to create a transcript of some of the conversations.
If the recording and transcript are of good quality, they may be copied or published with your name on them.
Information you provide for the project may not remain confidential.
This project might not benefit you personally, but the knowledge you provide could benefit others.
Your participation in the project is completely voluntary. At any time, you are free to withdraw your participation.
If you have questions about your rights as a participant in this project, you may contact:
- Sally Chambers, 404-486-7672
- Dr. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, Associate Professor, Emory University, 404-727-4642
- Dr. Karen Hegtvedt, Chair of Social, Humanist, and Behavioral Institutional Review Board at Emory University, 404-727-7517
You will receive a copy of this consent form to keep.
If you are willing to volunteer for this project, please sign below.
Participant's Signature Date
 Ginger Goldhammer, during a conversation on March 30, 2002.
 Corinne A. Kratz, “Conversations and Lives,” in African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History, ed. Luise White, Stephan F. Miescher, and David William Cohen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).
 Although Professor David Blumenthal strongly recommends decapitalizing both “shoah” and “holocaust” (on ethical grounds), I have opted to keep the capital letter that usually begins a proper noun.
 Held on March 19, 2002.
 Ginger later recalled Professor Lipstadt’s remark to me, during a dinner conversation on March 30, 2002. She also adopted it as an interpretive frame for her life, restating in the first person, “My life is a book.”
 During our conversation on March 30, 2002.
 I was later told that she had forgotten the notes she had prepared for the evening program. Ginger did, in fact, talk for a few minutes but was not as articulate as I have known her to be in conversation.
 Kratz, 128.
 See James L. Peacock and Dorothy C. Holland, “The Narrated Self: Life Stories in Process,” Ethos 21, no. 4 (1993): 368. Quoted below.
 Renato Rosaldo, “The Story of Tukbaw: ‘They Listen as He Orates’,” In The Biographical Process, ed. Frank Reynolds and Donald Capps (Paris: Monton, 1976), 121.
 Kratz, 138.
 Peacock and Holland, 368.
 Charlotte Linde, Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 39.
 Ibid., 40.
 See Linde, 42.
 Ibid., 39.
 Kratz, 134.
 Kratz, 128.
 Laurel Kendall, The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman: Of Tales and the Telling of Tales (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1988), 15.
 The form is attached as “Appendix.”
 Kratz, 136.
 Linde, 4.
 Our course did not include readings on “material culture,” but Professor Flueckiger recommends the following: Susan Cumings, “Performing Selves: Contemporary Women’s Autobioexpression” (Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 2001) and Kay Turner, Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (1999).