All too often, the idea of personal histories brings to mind an image of genealogical research, or a tedious list of dates, places and events. Perhaps a family tree, with some pictures of family members pasted on it. This is the wrong idea. Personal histories are the most exciting stories in the world – stories that mirror people’s lives and souls. They are true stories, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilariously funny, tales of the deepest human interest.
Everyone has a story. This unique, valuable tale expresses the thoughts, feelings, and events of an individual life. No one else can tell it – the deeply personal circumstances, the joys, the sorrows, the adventures can only be expressed by the person who has experienced them. You could write it yourself if you enjoy writing, and if not, you could share it with a personal historian. Working together, you will make this priceless information available to your family, friends, and perhaps – who knows? Even to a larger audience. Many personal biographies are published with great success.
Do you believe that only celebrities should have their memories preserved and published? So many people make this mistake! To those who love you, your story is more meaningful, personal, and exciting than the biographies of movie stars or political figures. Your biography, prepared and printed as a beautiful book, or preserved as a video, is a permanent legacy that will enrich your own life and stay with your family forever.
I have never done it professionally, though I once belonged to a wonderful organization of professional personal historians, named The Association of Personal Historians. I did it as a hobby, out of my love for personal memoirs, and here are some articles that I wrote for a few wonderful individuals.
Well and good, you say. But why bother? Would it really matter ten, twenty, fifty years from now? Yes, it would. It would matter a great deal. Unfortunately, many senior citizens or their families do not realize it until it is too late, and reaching the public, explaining the need, is not always easy.
The only way to reach people is to make them realize the horrible loss, the regret, and the sorrow, of not being able to record their parents’ or grandparents’ memories. Can you really tolerate the feeling that you could have had this priceless treasure trove of family history, adventure, life itself, and did not do so when you had the chance? Can you forgive yourself if you had the chance to preserve the memories, and you have not done so? For your children, your nephews and nieces, anyone in your extended family down the generations. This is why so many personal historians see their work as a mission.
I am a writer. I have written in many fields, including fiction, natural history, medicine, business writing, fiction, and children writing. But my favorite kind of writing is biography, oral history, and tales. One of my previous books was a biography of the philosopher Maimonides. Currently, I am working on a biography of Hillel the Elder. I am also a regular contributor to Encyclopedia Mythica, an award-winning, on-line encyclopedia of myth and folklore. I have written numerous articles for them on Judaic myths, but in addition, I retold various folktales that were told to me over the years by individuals who did not want them lost, but could not write them or publish them on their own. I feel that preserving these tales, memories, and oral histories is a privilege and a joy.
One of my greatest treasures was the body of stories my mother told me, since my earliest childhood, about her own childhood in Siberia. Being a story hound, I never could have enough of it and always demanded more. The touching tale of her brother Sasha, who planted a lemon seed that floated in his tea, was always very poignant to me. Sasha succumbed to a deadly childhood illness, and his dying wish was that his family, who planned to immigrate to Israel, would take his tiny lemon tree and plant it in an Israeli orchard.
The family indeed immigrated to Israel, carrying the little lemon tree on the Trans-Siberian line in cattle trains. They faced serious dangers, such as being shot by Manchurian officials, contagious diseases that had no cure in 1919, chasing a runaway train, being stranded in Shanghai and facing arrest in Egypt. This was a year-long journey of harrowing experiences and great hopes.
I persuaded my mother to write a few notes so that the story will not die. I was afraid I might forget something. Surprisingly, I never forgot anything. Every word she ever told me, and she was an extraordinary storyteller, was imprinted on my memory. Between the oral tales and the notes, I had everything needed for a good story. One night I reread the notes, quietly jotted down points from the oral stories, and realized that the tiny lemon tree provided a thread that could give me a book.
And so I finally had my story. All that remained to worry about were the family photographs. I had the opportunity to learn how to scan and repair the wonderful old pictures in my albums through Photoshop. Once this was accomplished, I had a finished book. It was published under the name The Lemon Tree and happily it was well received and had some very encouraging reviews.
People saw it, and suddenly a lot of information started reaching me from both the U.S. and Israel, telling me that other individuals were doing something very similar – writing family histories. In Israel it mostly, though not exclusively, deals with memories of Holocaust survivors. In America it can be anything at all; there are so many exciting personal histories in this country, experienced by such a diverse and dynamic population, waiting to be told. This is different from the biographies of celebrities. The lives of ordinary people are completely unique. The stories may be following a myriad of professions, lifestyles, religions, and hobbies. Living in towns, villages, cities, and rural areas. Having journeyed, escaped, immigrated, invented a cookie recipe, rescued dogs and cats, created a quilt, built a house, painted pictures, played chess with a chimp – the list is endless. All lives are diverse, dynamic, and exciting.
I will never forget a story I heard from an elderly woman who I met on a trip. She was well dressed, beautifully groomed, charming. I knew nothing about her but she seemed cultured and financially comfortable. I could have never guessed the story of her youth. I am not sure if this happened during the twenties or the thirties. She was orphaned when she was eighteen years old, and somehow no money at all was left when her parents died. She was entirely alone in the world, and few careers were open to young women at that time. In addition, this gently brought-up young girl was not educated in any skill that could have supported her at such a young age. Sure, she had her piano and painting lessons, and went to a regular high school, but where would these skills get her? And yet she was proud, independent, and determined to support herself. Finally she found a job at a meat packing plant. Her story detailed a scene of grisly horror. She stuck her hands into huge carcasses to extricate certain organs. She carried large buckets of blood. All day long she smelled the revolting products needed for the creation of sausages, mixed with the scent of blood and flesh. “No wonder,” she said quietly, smiling at my horror-stricken eyes, “that I became a life-long vegetarian.” How did she get out of this predicament? What events turned the tide for her? I don’t know and never will and it haunts me. What a pity that this woman’s memories are not properly recorded. What a book this could have made.
The fascination of personal memoirs can be in reading heroic deeds, but it can also relate to the details of everyday life. What games did grandma play with her brothers and sisters in Detroit, where they so happily grew up, and who taught her to bake her incredible cakes? Who came to Aunt Rachel’s sewing circle that had resulted in this magnificent crazy quilt that is still your pride and joy? How were the holidays celebrated in Budapest, before Uncle Joe had to escape and immigrated with his parents? How did your rural Irish family adapt so well to life in the Big City, after a harrowing ocean voyage? All that and so much more is part of the joy and the sense of mission a personal historian experiences every time he or she creates another precious treasure for a family or a community, for posterity, for ever. I simply cannot think about a single life that could not be the basis of a marvelous book.