At 2:50 pm Vienna time, Tuesday September 11, 2001, Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner sat in a glass phone booth at the central post-office. She was booking interviews for a personal project, to make sense of the complex role her family had played during the Nazi era in Austria.
At the same time in Brooklyn, Karen Malpede and her husband George were working in their basement office, applying for a grant to take Karen’s latest play to London. I Will Bear Witness is adapted from the 1933-1945 diaries of Viktor Klemperer, a German Jewish professor of literature. George plays the solo part.
Karen’s daughter, twenty-one, still slept upstairs. Karen remembers hearing – or feeling, she can’t remember which – a vague low rumble. Lying at their feet, Abby the spaniel began to bark. “Oh Abby, don’t be silly,” said Karen, “it’s nothing.” Abby was inclined to be excitable.
At the same time in upper Manhattan, Mary-Marshall Clark had just dropped her son off at school. The taxi turned north on Broadway toward Columbia University, where she was due to teach a class on oral history, theory and methodology. She directs the Oral History Research Office at Columbia. Suddenly the driver swerved, and nearly collided with several cars. Mary-Marshall recalls asking him, “Sir, are you ill? If so, please pull over until you’re feeling better.”
“Didn’t you hear?” he said, turning up the radio.
“Hear what?” she asked. The radio spoke a language she didn’t know.
“A plane went into the World Trade Center,” the driver said, then, “Two. Two planes.”
“Then it’s not an accident,” said Mary-Marshall.
From her office she called her son’s co-parent, to fetch him home. Then, since the administration had decided that classes would go on, she went to hers.
In the Vienna post office, Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner had just reached a historian in Linz, the city in Upper Austria where she grew up. Her cell-phone rang. “Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center,” said her mother, “and another one is headed for Chicago, another for Washington.” Elisabeth remembers saying, “It’s not possible.”
The World Trade Center towered over her neighbourhood, near Soho. Her favourite restaurant sat in its shadow, as did a tiny candy shop run by Genny, a Colombian woman who had been housekeeper and surrogate mother to Elisabeth’s step-children before she came to New York. Ten years ago, Genny had lost her sight. Elisabeth tried to call the store, but the line was silent.
Karen Malpede awakened her daughter, who wanted to go immediately to her new boyfriend’s house on Sixth Avenue, a twenty-minute walk. “Of course I wasn’t about to let her go alone,” says Karen. The two of them walked toward Park Slope, famous for its postcard view of the New York skyline. Now instead of the iconic gleaming towers, they saw a thick plume of dark smoke, untroubled by wind. At Flatbush Avenue they encountered people streaming off the Brooklyn Bridge from lower Manhattan. “Refugees,” says Karen, “That’s the word we both used. Small groups of people, completely silent, covered in white-grey soot – they looked like ghosts.”
At Columbia, only one students showed up for Mary-Marshall’s oral history class, an emergency medical technician. Like Mary-Marshall she was flat calm, despite knowing that her best friend was working at the World Trade Centre. “It struck both of us right off,” says Mary-Marshall, “that however many people were in those towers, it was highly unlikely that many bodies would ever be recovered. I began to think that we would need some kind of structured way for people to record the lives that were lost, and somehow to struggle with the meaning of this terrible thing.”
When Mary-Marshall Clark acquired her first tape recorder in rural North Carolina, she was ten. “The south is full of storytellers, my father among them,” she says. “They specialize in the art of the tall tale, where a strand of untruth is woven into an otherwise true story. As a child I was very shy and I would hardly talk to anyone, but I became fascinated with those stories, and trying to detect the hidden strand. That’s why I got a tape recorder, so I could listen to them again and again, to figure out what was and wasn’t true.”
Then she met Albert Baysdon, an elderly man, illliterate, with one tooth in his head, a great lover of people, says Mary-Marshall, but shunned by practically everyone. “He was dark skinned,” she says. “He may have been black, or Indian, I was never sure, but he lived on the edge of the culture. He believed he was the prophet Elijah come back to earth. We agreed to a barter – in exchange for him telling me his stories and visions, I would teach him how to read and write. It was a classic exchange of orality for literacy.”
The two of them sat for hours by the woodstove in her father’s insurance office, Albert talking, Mary-Marshall recording, mentally and on tape. “I had no way to interpret his visions,” she says, “those nightmares of his that overwhelmed him so – was he crazy, or saner than the rest of us? I know now that I had never met anyone who worked so hard at trying to make sense of the world we live in.” By the time they were done – when she went away to college – Albert could read and write, and Mary-Marshall had collected more than eighty hours of tape. Without knowing it, she had become an oral historian.
On September 12, 2001, she launched the Columbia September 11 oral history project. In the first few days when people were still floundering, before the drive for vengeance went into overdrive, politicians and media commentators kept asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’ Often the question was rhetorical, but to Mary-Marshall it was worth asking, and the answer no great mystery. “I suspect that very few Americans have any idea how the rest of the world sees us,” she says. “I had the advantage, if you can call it that, of growing up in the highly segregated world of the south, where I couldn’t help seeing the schizophrenia and evil in daily life that comes from excluding a whole people from your definition of humanity. It’s not hard for me to understand why America might be hated in the world, even enough to do this horrible thing.”
As she saw it, September 11 and its aftermath offered oral historians a unique opportunity to work in a radically new way. “Traditionally we’re accustomed to responding to things thirty, fifty years after the fact,” she says. “But here we had to respond in a few days, either that or risk losing people’s authentic stories in the media wash. It was instantly clear to me that this is where oral history should be moving, toward something that I would call bearing public witness.”