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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

This Pandemic is the Time to Preserve Your Family’s Stories

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Everyone has a story. It is not only those who have experienced terrible suffering or accomplished something extraordinary. Wouldn’t we all love to have an ancestor’s memoir to give us insights into his or her life and times, the challenges faced, family traditions and his or her values?

Staying home because of COVID-19 has created chaos for most of us − and fear for many. This especially may be true for older adults, who might feel greater senses of isolation and vulnerability.

However, this could be the perfect chance to record the life stories of your older relatives.

Many people recognize the importance of such stories. They give their parents books to fill out or ask them to write memoirs. However, most recipients never get around to doing this. Children and grandchildren plan to sit down to record these stories − but they don’t actual do it. “We kept meaning to interview my parents, but we just didn’t get around to it. Now, it’s too late.”

This is a tremendous loss for future generations, who won’t have the details — beyond names and dates — about their heritage and those who came before them. It’s also a loss for the older relatives who didn’t have the chances to reflect on their lives and experiences, or to know their families valued their memories and stories and wanted to save these for future generations.

My father was a wonderful storyteller. At every family gathering − whether a holiday, Sunday brunch, or a walk in the park − he entertained my sister and me with his recollections. One of my favorite stories involved his maternal grandparents, Leba and David Klein, who lived with Dad and his family during the Depression.

“Occasionally, I would come home from school and find a strange, unshaven man dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table,” Dad recalled. “Your Great-grandmother Leba would be serving this man an entire meal − from soup to dessert. One day, my mother came home from work to this scene. Though Mom was generous and cared about everyone, it horrified her that Grandma Leba, a tiny, frail woman, let strangers into the house when she was alone. When my mother asked Grandma how she could this, Leba simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.’ ”

Everyone has a story.

I never knew Leba Klein, but when my parents or grandparents shared such memories, I learned something real and precious about them, and about my ancestors — so much more than just names and dates. I wish I’d thought to record my grandparents’ memories, but it never occurred to me to do so. Fortunately, when I started my work as an oral historian 30 years ago, my parents’ memories were still intact, and I practiced by interviewing each of them. I have many hours of their stories, something that is precious to me and my son, now that they both are gone.

If you are fortunate enough to have older living relatives, and their life stories have not been recorded, I encourage you to do that soon. With physical-distancing requirements these days, my interviews are being done remotely by phone (recording from the speaker) or online applications such as Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. What’s wonderful about remote “meetings” is that many people can be in the conversation together, so various relatives can take part in the interviews, and you can record the conversation.

If someone lives in the same home as the person being interviewed, use a voice recorder or video camera. Regardless of how you record the interviews, first test your equipment or the online application.

Author’s mother’s elementary school class in 1927. Photo courtesy of Ellie Kahn.

What follows are some suggestions for getting started. Some of these points may seem obvious, but they are included for those who might feel a bit unsure of how to conduct an interview.

Choosing the Interview Subject(s)

Typically, these are the oldest relatives: parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents, an older sibling or cousin. It might be the uncle with fabulous stories, but don’t rule out someone who often is quiet at family gatherings but still has a lot to say if given the chance. You may interview as a group siblings and/or cousins who grew up together about shared experiences.

Whichever relatives you pick, keep in mind some might be thrilled, but some might be hesitant. Many people don’t see their lives and experiences as “interesting” or worthy of recording. Let them know how precious their memories are for grandchildren and future generations. If they’re nervous, reassure them that this isn’t a performance; it’s just a conversation − one you’ll make even easier by asking them questions. Assure them that anything they don’t want to talk about, they don’t have to. You also might assure them this is only for the family, not for public view.

Some older adults are early risers, while others get going in the afternoon. Plan interviews at times when they’ll be most comfortable. Also, I recommend a time when there is no gardener blowing leaves outside!

In general, I have found most people love the chance to reminisce with someone who is there to listen. They feel honored their family wants to hear, and save, their stories.

Suggested Interview Questions

The goal for oral-history interviews is to elicit as much detail and as many memories and stories as possible. The more, the better. Invite members of the extended family to participate by brainstorming and listing numerous questions. What are they curious about? What would they like to know about the lives of their parents, grandparents or ancestors? Are there favorite stories these relatives already told that could be recorded?

Some questions might be: “What did you hear about your grandparents’ lives?”; “How did your parents meet?”; “What are your earliest memories?”; “What were the most impactful world events during your lifetime?”

Involve children. Ask them to come up with some questions, too. For example: “What were your favorite toys?”; “What did you like best in school?”; “Did you ever get into trouble?” Having grandchildren ask their own questions creates a meaningful connection between them and family elders − something that doesn’t often happen these days. In addition, they will learn about their roots from a living person.

Many people don’t see their lives and experiences as ‘interesting’ or worthy of recording. Let them know how precious their memories are for grandchildren and future generations.

Ask the people being interviewed to make a list of topics they would like to talk about. What do they want their grandchildren and future descendants to know about their life, the family’s background, the values that are important to them?

I typically start my interviews with either the maternal or paternal side of the family and organize my questions, going generation by generation, starting with ancestors. You might ask, “What do you know about your father’s side of the family, as far back as you can go?”; “Did you know your great-grandparents? If so, how would you describe them?”

If they know nothing about that generation, then move to the next generation, with similar questions such as “What do you know about your grandparents’ lives?”; “If you knew them, how would you describe them?”; “What is the sense you have of the family’s life while your father was growing up?”

Move to the interview subject’s own life, from childhood to the present, with questions such as “What are your earliest childhood memories?”; “What did you want to be when you grew up?”; “Who were adults who influenced you the most?”; “What was the importance of being Jewish in your family?”; “What were parents concerned about when you were a teenager?”; “What have been your biggest challenges and how did you manage them?”

It helps to ask follow-up questions to get more detail and stories. If you ask, “What do you know about your father’s family in Poland?” and the person says, “Nothing,” try asking the question a different way: “Did you hear any stories about them?” This isn’t to pressure the person, just to invite him or her to think a bit beyond an immediate response.

No matter how many years older relatives have lived, they have seen many changes. You might ask about those and how they were impacted. I usually end my interviews by asking interviewees what their hopes are for their grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and words of wisdom they might pass along.

As much as possible, ask open-ended questions versus ones that can be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Instead of “Did you like school?” you might ask, “What did you like best or least about school?”

There are many resources on the internet for questions to ask during oral-history interviews. One of these is offered on the Dallas Jewish Historical Society’s site.

Some years ago, I taught 7th graders in Los Angeles to interview their grandparents. I realized most children had very little quality time with older relatives. At the end of the six sessions, the students came up with a list of questions to use in their interviews with their family elders. Most of the students said they learned a great deal about their families, and their grandparents loved the rare connections the process afforded.

I’m often asked how long an oral-history interview should last. In my experience, with two- to three-hour sessions, the entire interviews can last four to 22 hours. This range primarily depends on how detailed a person is in responding to my questions, and on their life experiences.

Once you’ve completed the interviews, depending on how they were recorded, you’ll have audio or video files you can send to the entire family. Some people prefer DVDs.

Whether the recordings are voice or video, you can transcribe them to make a book for the entire family. An older grandchild might take on the project of organizing and editing the written document, then incorporating photos and documents into the manuscript.

Comments and Observations

Some families’ gatherings can be loud and overwhelming, especially for quieter relatives. Conference calls and other remote meetings with more than two people talking can be like that. You might agree to have a little socializing time for 10 minutes, then take turns asking questions, or have someone in charge of managing the meeting — like leading a seder. The goal is that everyone, especially the person being interviewed, can be heard. If you plan to transcribe the interviews, a transcriber will need to hear each voice clearly.

If your older relatives are starting to have gaps in their memories, please be patient with them. If they seem frustrated that they can’t answer a question you’ve asked, reassure them that it’s fine, and move on. During this kind of interview, dementia can show up more than in the brief conversations many have with their parents or grandparents. It can be a shock for the family. If you know that one of the person’s answers is not accurate, you might gently add to it, but it’s important not to sound critical or impatient.

Within reason, don’t interrupt your storytellers. Even if the person goes on tangents from the original question, I’ve found some wonderful stories might emerge. This might take more time, of course, but it’s usually worth it. On the other hand, if the tangent is entirely unrelated, you gently could say something such as “Mom, can we go back now to your mother’s cooking?”

Be mindful of possible fatigue in older relatives — although some people in their 90s have more energy than their younger relatives.

If the person being interviewed experienced painful or challenging events in the past, you might consider asking him or her ahead of time if he or she is willing to share these memories. Often, parents and grandparents protect their family from hearing about their difficult times, but if they know you want to hear and understand their experiences, they probably will be relieved to talk. I find this to be especially true with Holocaust survivors.

Whether your relatives’ stories are entertaining or not, please let them know how grateful you are for the chance to hear and save their recollections. It’s one of their most important legacies.


Ellie Kahn is an oral historian and documentary filmmaker. She welcomes questions about how you can save your own family stories, and can be reached here or [email protected].

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