Personal testimonies illuminate Europe’s most pivotal events

On World Storytelling Day on 20 March, why not dive into the European Parliament’s ‘My House of European History’ and find out about Luxembourg’s Christian Calmes, the first secretary general of the special council of ministers for the European Steel and Coal Community, told by his daughter, or hear how one Latvian woman missed her maths class as a student to fight for her country’s independence.

The oral histories represent thousands of first-hand experiences from those who witnessed key historical milestones in the 20th and 21st centuries across Europe. The project hopes to create a mosaic of memories that captures the pivotal events in European history.

Written, video or podcast formats

Each micro-story is no more than 2,255 characters and recounts a personal experience or family history.

“It’s a multilingual initiative managed by the European Parliament to create a digital collection of testimonies about the history of Europe,” explained Iveta Madarova, who works at the institution’s communications team and manages the project at the European Parliament, which has collected almost 1,000 personal stories.

These stories shed light on aspects of life in different European countries and on memories linked to historical events. The most compelling ones are formatted as podcasts or video interviews which include personal photographs and are translated into the 24 languages of the European Union, Madarova said.

Iveta Madarova works in the communication team of the European Parliament © Photo credit: European Parliament

“If you imagine a timeline of European history as we know it from textbooks and records that document it, what is missing is people’s actual memories and experience. How did a regime or government affect people’s lives. We’re documenting history from the bottom up,” said Madarova.

The people’s role in Europe’s history

‘My House of European History’ acts as a forum for people to share what Europe means to them and how they feel or felt about their role in its history, she said.

The podcasts and video interviews are all produced in-house with the help of the European Parliament’s language professionals. They are recorded by native speakers in studios but also at public events that are held at the European Parliament locations in Brussels and Strasbourg, for example during Europe Day.

Creating a stronger community for Europe

“In order to feel closer to each other, we need to know the stories of people in Europe who may have had similar but different experiences to us,” said Madarova, explaining that the project also documented testimonies during the Covid-19 pandemic and various lockdowns.

During the pandemic, video interviews were made with artists, teachers, students, seniors, and essential and medical workers in Romania, Italy and Sweden. “We chose these three countries because of their very different approach to combating the spread of Covid.”

“Oral history creates a mosaic of different perspectives surrounding the same events and this enriches education and honours the experiences and sacrifices of people,” she said. “Citizens sharing life lessons through anecdotes makes the stories more real and authentic and keeps the memories alive for future generations.”

EU’s only collection of citizen stories

‘My House of European History’ as a platform is the world’s only collection of citizens’ stories in all 24 official languages of the European Union. Madarova’s team works in close cooperation with partners and collaborators including cultural, historical and academic institutions, archives, museums and foundations.

Memories of a cameraman from the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 © Photo credit: My HEH Platform

Many recollections illuminate history and offer a personal experience and perspective on a historical event. “When someone submits a story, if we decide it’s important to explore it further, we conduct an interview and produce a podcast or video with the author telling their story,” she said.

One such story is that of Lāsma Lubāne, whose mother chose to fight for her country, Latvia, instead of going to maths class in 1991. “This story is a testament to the courage of a 17-year-old girl who played a role in her country’s historical journey toward liberation.”

A podcast follows in the footsteps of Otillia through the streets of Bucharest during the 1989 Romanian revolution. In it she talks of her childhood school and the fall of the regime. “It’s one of the most emotive and captivating stories we’ve collected.”

“We actually have a beautiful, very touching and moving story about the author’s grandfather from Finland, who shared his memories from the Second World War, when Russia invaded Finland,” said Madarova.

Luxembourg stories in many languages

The story library contains memories from Luxembourg and the Greater Region, collected originally in a number of languages representing the diverse community, including French, German, Portuguese, Italian, English, but also Bulgarian, Czech and Irish. Many cover historical places including castles or old railway stations but also living abroad for the first time in Luxembourg, and the life of immigrants.

If you want to browse stories on the platform you can do so by country, by language or by topic by entering key words.

Submitting a family or personal history

If you have a story – yours or one of your family members – that you would like to add to this collective memory archive, you can do so on the website by registering (top right-hand corner of the home page). Anyone over 16 years can submit their story, but it should be personal and about historical events in Europe or the UK and be given in one of the EU’s 24 official languages.

You can submit up to 2,250 characters including spaces and it can be accompanied by up to five photos from family albums. If you prefer to record an audio or video file, you can upload this too.

Teacher/student learning kits

Madarova and team have created three student kits to make this multilingual collection available as an educational resource for teachers. The kits can be used in language, history, social science or civic classes, and all of them are designed to connect European history to the contemporary world.

The learning kits cover the following topics:

“The kits help to foster mutual respect and understanding, which is a key competence for our young citizens. They are written in clear language, so every translation is adapted by culture including any metaphors and symbols,” said Madarova, who highlights that audio visual files are also available, and each kit comes with questions designed to develop critical thinking in students.  

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