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Page last updated at 23:41 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 00:41 UK

Tales of the last survivors

Sam Lesser
Sam Lesser wants to keep the story of the Spanish Civil War alive

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

They have borne witness to extraordinary events that changed the course of history. But as eight British people are honoured by Spain for fighting in the country's civil war, how do last survivors help us understand the past?

Sam Lesser, 94, is part of a dwindling number of Britons with a unique story to tell.

He is one of only eight British people who fought in the International Brigades alongside the Spanish Government against General Franco more than 70 years ago, and are still known to be alive.

"I think it is important people know the truth," says Mr Lesser, who was made a Spanish citizen this week for his role in fighting fascism.

Other major events from the early 20th Century have already lost that human link to the present day. Millvina Dean, the last remaining survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, died last month aged 97.

Millvina Dean and her mother
Millvina Dean in her mother's arms weeks after the Titanic sank

John White, managing director of White Star Memories, who worked with Miss Dean at a number of Titanic events, believes she, as a last survivor, made a crucial contribution to public understanding.

"Millvina was a great ambassador and played a huge role in keeping the memory of Titanic alive," he says. "You can do so much through exhibitions and artefacts, but to have someone there who was part of that night when the ship went down was amazing for people."

Miss Dean was just nine weeks old when the ship sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912, and she remembered nothing of the fateful journey. But Mr White believes it wasn't important that she was too young to remember - she had a certain historical authority simply because she was there.

"I don't think it mattered because she heard the accounts from her family and rather than reading it from a book, we got a better understanding of how it must have been on board for ordinary people by listening to her."

Sam Lesser
I think our stories will live on
Spanish Civil War veteran Sam Lesser

This is why Mr Lesser wants to remind people of what it was really like for those fighting on the front line in Spain between 1936 and 1939.

The Londoner recalls how he entered the war aged just 21 as "a gesture of solidarity" after witnessing the rise of fascism in Europe. He describes how he was badly injured during the conflict and tells tales of poor equipment, intense battles and heavy losses.

He is confident his experiences and those of his fellow Spanish Civil War veterans will continue to educate people - in particular through their families, many of whom have joined the UK-based International Brigade Memorial Trust.

"I think we play an important part in informing people," he says. "But our sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters are now involved in the memorial trust and are brigadiers.

"Therefore, more and more people are getting to know about it and I think our stories will live on. We won't be like 1066, but there is real interest."

First-hand accounts told by those who lived through momentous events aid public understanding principally by bringing history alive, explains Dr Martin Johnes, history lecturer at Swansea University.

"It tends to give you a perspective that you can't get from written documents - particularly the emotional and personal stories.

"From records you get what was happening, but you don't get a sense of what it felt like. For example, with the D-Day landings, you don't get that emotion, that fear, that exhilaration - that's what oral history gives you, a fuller understanding of what happened."

Symbolic role

It is particularly important with events that affected many people, such as World War II, which are hard to comprehend, he says.

"Six million people died in the Holocaust - but they are just numbers. You have to have that human angle because the further away you get from an event, the harder it is to relate to."

If we want oral history now, we can look at such things as blogs - in the past that wasn't the case
Dr Martin Johnes
Swansea University

Although last survivors are unlikely to teach historians anything new about major periods in history, he says, they do play a symbolic role in reminding everyone key events are not just about those in power, but also involve ordinary people.

"People will connect better with history if they feel it is about people like you and me."

There has not always been such appreciation of oral history, however, and its use did not gain real popularity until the 1960s, when class and race became hotly contested political issues.

As the Civil Rights Movement gave a voice to the disenfranchised, people became aware that historical events were often described from one particular perspective.

Oral history aimed to change this, and the movement gathered pace in the 1970s with the arrival of the portable tape recorder. It now plays a major part in many museum exhibitions.

Henry Allingham
Henry Allingham, 113, is the sole survivor of WWI's Battle of Jutland

This week World War I veteran Henry Allingham celebrated his 113th birthday. He and Harry Patch, 110, are the only two living British people who fought in the Great War.

So with first-person accounts providing us with that crucial link with the past, what happens when the only survivor of a particular event like a world war dies?

"On a historical level, their testimonies will always exist, but on an individual level losing that direct access may lessen the significance of the event for people," explains Dr Johnes.

However, with the arrival of the internet and mass communication, such individual testimonies can still contribute to our understanding of history far beyond an individual's death, he adds.

"If we want oral history now, we can look at such things as blogs - in the past that wasn't the case."

And in 100 years, the youngsters of today could be blogging about what they saw in 2009.

Below is a selection of your comments.

In today's self obsessed and wrapped-up in immediacy, chaotic world it is really important to hear from those who lived witness to some of the most important historical events of the modern epoch.

As a schoolboy in Manchester, sixty years ago, I remember hearing a BBC radio broadcast of a man aged 90 plus, describing how he remembered events of the Crimean War. I think he said he was aged 6-8 at the time. This recording is presumably in the BBC archives-it would be interesting if it could be recovered.
M Stafford, Eastbourne

I grew up in Japan, and visited Hiroshima as part of a school trip - during which we got to hear the experiences of someone who survived the atomic bomb. To this date, I have never seen a room full of eleven-year-olds (and there were 175+ of us) go so quiet. I've never forgotten the experience.
JR, Oxford, UK

I presently work in flood risk management research. Our research team has found that oral histories, personal recollections and local knowledge about flooding can be a very useful resource in helping us understand how an environment works, and just as interestingly, how it has changed over the years. In my view, there is definitely a role in our scientific culture for these sorts of records and testimonies, since they can give a broader context to science not achievable through gauge and monitor data records alone.
Nick O, Durham

The "real person" connection will only really start to diminish once the relatives of those who were experience such events first-hand, start to die. My mother was born in 1934 in her native Holland and can recount heart-breaking and shocking stories, from her childhood, of the Nazi occupation of Holland. Even today I can see how these stories affect her. Her eyes fill with tears when she tells of how her father was forced to dig trenches for the Germans and neighbours and relatives 'disappeared' during the night from unannounced visits by the SS. The impact of these events so long ago clearly had a significant impression on my mother, despite her young age at the time. She is 75 years old this year and for me the "real person" connection will always be there - long after my mother has gone.
Ron, Ely, Cambridgeshire

The accessibility of blogging tools and online media such as facebook/twitter means that the feed stuff of real history, the mundane and everyday, not the great disasters and events, is copiously documented by thousands on a minute by minute basis. Sadly this online accessibility comes at a price: it provides a transient rather than material record written in electrons not ink. The handwritten diaries of Edwardian Gentlemen have survived the Millenium, how many webpages and blogs will still be accessible a century after they were posted? Will we ever see a hundred year old URL pointing to a long forgotten blog? I doubt it...
Dr J C Bullas, Southampton UK

My uncle Bob fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade within the International Battalion, was wounded, suffered amnesia, was thought dead but finally returned home and volunteered for the US Army. He spoke little of his experiences but did write home while in Spain. I read his letters and they are very difficult to read, with their vivid descriptions of the horrors of war. My father sailed with the American Merchant Marine. My ex-father-in-law fought in the American submarine service. My friend George flew bombers out of North Africa over Italy. I once met a member of the German Army who had fought at Stalingrad and described the conditions in the freezing cold where fellow soldiers froze to death next to him in the trenches. While quite young I met a man who charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Theodore Roosevelt. They are all gone now. I am glad I had an opportunity to know them and learn their stories.
I.B. Nelson, Grass Valley USA

My Dad's cousin - Jack Edwards was of the eight honoured by the Spanish Government. I think it is important to remind people and let them know what went on in Spanish Civil War. Not a lot is known or published because it was over shadowed by the 2nd World War. The men who went from the UK believed in a cause and were prepared to give up there lives. It is important that the younger generation realise that a cause is important and that by doing something they can be part of history.
Carol Holywell, Liverpool

Agreed; but as the author herself seems to admit, perspectives shape the truth one recounts. That is the limitation of oral history, especially about events like wars and genocide.
Sree, New Delhi, India

The Oral History Society is the leading charity for oral history in the UK and can offer support and information here:
S Trower, Plymouth

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