The Past, Present & Future of a Time Capsule

My good friend Don Falk was just telling me a goosebumps-inspiring tale about researching his family’s history.

He and his brother now have 56,000 names, and many stories, on their family tree; clearly theirs is not a casual endeavor, but an intense one filled with travel and heavy research. His brother Stephen Falk’s History of Genealogy blog details their research.

One of the goals is to keep a running account of new discoveries — discoveries which are as likely to be new interconnections between the Jewish families (or families of Jewish ancestry) of Breslau, towns in Silesia (e.g. Brieg, Namslau, Staedtel, Zuelz, Kreuzburg, Cosel, Kieferstaedtel, Myslowitz, Tarnowitz, Beuthen, Oppeln, Krappitz), and towns in Posen (e.g., Posen, Lissa, Rawitsch, Kempen, Inowroclaw), as discoveries of new ancestors or distant cousins. 

Don told me about visiting an archive in Berlin in 2011 and discovering at the very last minute – as the offices were about to close, on their last possible visit there before leaving Germany – that a distant, previously unknown half-great-great-uncle had given a multi-generational family tree to the archives.

He and his brother were so excited, he said. They were like excited little kids. They stayed up late putting newly-found ancestors onto their computerized family tree, saying each name aloud in an act of remembrance.

He says that it was as though Uncle Curt left them a time capsule.

A time capsule! This Uncle Curt from the past took what he held as important, and left it with an archive for – well, he did not know for whom he was leaving it. But he left it anyway, and generations later it was received with joy and delight and thanks, more than he probably ever would have imagined.

Leslie Lang Talk Story Press
Ida Jacobsohn (1857-1939), Liebstadt

When he did this, Uncle Curt didn’t know there were people yet unborn who would think about him because he’d done this. He didn’t know they would be so excited and so grateful. He didn’t know that, because of clues he left in this “time capsule,” his descendants would finally be able to locate their great-grandmother’s grave – to push back 70 years of ivy from atop her gravestone and find her.

All because of his information. His time capsule.

This is what happens when you go a step beyond. When you gather your family stories into a book that then sits on bookshelves in several homes, each volume being passed down through the generations, you are creating a time capsule for people not yet born.

You might never know them, but because of the gift you’ve left behind, they will know you – and your family, and your parents and grandparents and beyond. They will know what you know about how your family got to this point, knowledge that ordinarily dwindles with each generation. They will learn about your values, if you want to share those, and even what you hope for them, the ones to come after.

Leaving a written, family history “time capsule” is a way to leave a significant legacy, even if you are unable to pass along a monetary inheritance. It will probably last longer than most anything else you could leave behind, and be more valued.

Have you heard the saying that people die twice? One time when they leave this earth, and a second time when there’s no one left alive that knows their name.

Creating a “time capsule” – organizing what you know about your family’s history and leaving it behind for those to come – means that someday, your grandchildren’s grandchildren will know your family’s stories.

They will know your name.

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Saving Face, & Voice, & Stories

My father died in 1983, when I was 20 and he was only 50.

I don’t know of any recordings of his voice that still survive, but I’d sure love to have one.

He died way before we were all walking around with cameras capable of recording video and audio in our pockets (or our hands).  Apple II

How he would have loved this digital age, by the way. Because of him, my family was an early adopter of the Apple II, with its Pong game and all, but really my dad missed about all of this digital era. He was a “techie” type, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have loved it.

But nowadays, with all this readily available technology all around us, making it so easy, do we remember to videotape/audiotape our parents? Our grandparents? How often do we record our family moving around and talking, so we can show our kids and grandkids later? So that later they will still be real people, just like us, instead of just names on a page? So we ourselves can see and hear them again decades from now, like magic?

And if we do, I don’t know if we always make sure to back up the recording and store it separately. And put it on a DVD, and label it. Does everybody think to make a few copies, and give them to different family members, or at least store them in different places, so they don’t all perish in the same disaster?

It’s so easy to do, whether casually or professionally (if you don’t have the time, know-how or energy, we can help you with it here at Talk Story Press). And it’s priceless to have later.

Verlyn Klinkenborg (is there a better name, by the way?) writes in the New York Times about getting his old voice back, after surgery to remove a papilloma on his vocal cord. And about voices that “recover memory and emotion and loss itself.”

What would we know if we could hear the voice of Cleopatra? How odd would Napoleon’s Corsican accent sound to modern French speakers? And what if we had two minutes of the voice of Shakespeare, who managed to leave so little of his personal self behind?

We might feel awe at hearing these voices, but very likely the recordings would be mere artifacts, overwhelmed by legend, deed and word. And these figures would still be strangers. It would be nothing like hearing again the intimate sound of a voice that has gone missing in your own life, a voice that recovers memory and emotion and loss itself.

Read his whole New York Times essay So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved.

And don’t forget to take advantage of this great technology we have all around us, and record your family members – their faces, voices and stories. Someday, you, and others who come along later, will be so glad you did.

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Memoir Reunites Cousins Separated 70 Years Ago

This story, from the Miami Herald, is an amazing one — and it all happened because one of these first cousins, separated by the Holocaust when they were young boys, wrote a memoir that the other one happened to see. What a dramatic illustration of the power of writing down your family history!

Do you have a family story you need to preserve? Contact me and we’ll brainstorm about it.

Cousins who survived Holocaust reunite in Broward after almost 70 years

The two men, who last saw each other in a concentration camp, fulfilled a dream Sunday in Tamarac as they met again, thanks to a memoir that one wrote.

[Photo deleted]

Leo Adler, left, looks at a picture of his mother with Leon Schagrin. Adler recently found his first cousin, Schagrin, after Adler saw this photo of Schagrin’s mother in a memoir that Schagrin wrote and realized their mothers were sisters. On Sunday they met for the first time in 70 years during the South Florida Holocaust survivors Purim party in Tamarac. Photo by Joshua Prezant

BY ELINOR J. BRECHER

For almost seven decades, Leo Adler looked for the cousin he knew only as Lemel, last seen in a Nazi death camp in 1944.

This Lemel, the son of his mother’s sister, would be Adler’s only living close relative. Everyone else died in the Holocaust.

Adler, a Hallandale Beach/Long Island snowbird, couldn’t remember his cousin’s last name, so his searches always hit a dead-end.

But in late February, a friend gave Adler a copy of another South Florida survivor’s memoir. She figured he would be interested because the author, Leon Schagrin, hailed from a town in Poland close to Adler’s native Tarnow….

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Record a Personal History & Stop the World

When I read this excellent essay at NPR’s website, I thought: That is why we take the time and make the effort to record people’s stories, their personal histories. Because it’s the stories that keep our parents, our grandparents, our siblings who died too early and cherished friends and great-grandparents and others from winking out of our memories.

From npr.org:

September 20, 2010

by ROBERT KRULWICH 

Now that it’s almost fall and there is a hint again of things passing, I think about a boy who once looked out a window, and wistful about time slipping by, he made it stop. Yes, he stopped time.

I love this story. It was told by Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist and one of my favorite science writers. Eiseley grew up in Nebraska and one day, when he was in high school, he happened to glance out the window and saw a junkman heading up a city street.

In 1923, junk men collected potentially valuable garbage and hauled it off for resale. This particular junkman, Eiseley wrote, had “a broken old horse plodding before a cart laden with bags of cast-off clothing, discarded furniture and abandoned metal. The horse’s harness was a makeshift combination of straps mended with rope. The bearded man perched high in the driver’s seat looked as though he had been compounded from the assorted junk heap in the wagon bed.” 

A few moments later, when the junkman and his wagon were about to round a corner at the intersection of R and 14th streets, Loren says he “leaned from a high school window a block away, absorbed as only a sixteen year old may sometimes be with the sudden discovery of time. It is all going, I thought with the bitter desperation of the young confronting history. No one can hold us. Each and all, we are riding into the dark.”

That is when he stopped the world….  READ THE REST

This story fascinated me, and well-illustrates why I help people organize, record and publish the personal or family histories that are most important to them. It is so satisfying to help people keep their stories from disappearing. So the people in their stories stay alive for the people still to come.

So they don’t wink out.

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Personal Historian

Before It’s Too Late!

personal history, personal historian, Leslie Lang, writer, Hawaii writer

Have you dreamed about recording a parent’s story? Or writing about the history of your family, and the path it took over the decades – now, while your grandparents can still tell you what they know? How about documenting the history of a company you built up from nothing, or recording the life of a long-beloved family home?

Lots of people consider such a project, but often don’t actually get around to doing it — either because they lack the time, and/or, very often, because they don’t have the know how or specific skills to pull it all together. And once someone is gone and it’s too late, there is often such a feeling of regret.

This is where a personal historian comes in.

Personal historians are storytellers, often (but not always) hired by a younger generation to capture, organize and preserve the stories of an older one. They are experts who know how to carry such a project to completion.

The Association of Personal Historians defines a personal history as:

…the story of a life, or stories from a life. It may be a memoir, a tribute, a life story, an autobiography, a biography, a video biography, or an oral history. It may also be a legacy letter or ethical will, expressing one’s values, wishes, regrets, observations about life, lessons learned, and so on. Many personal histories are books, a growing number are captured on video, and some are still simply audio.

Personal historians are creative professionals who help both celebrities and “ordinary people” tell their life stories. A personal historian may be engaged to help individuals, families, communities, or organizations preserve memories, images, voices, stories, and histories – often (but not always) in narrative form.

personal historian, personal history, Hawaii writerAs a personal historian, I use my many, many years of personal interviewing skills to sit down with someone and glean the story they have within them and want to preserve. They review everything, and then I put it all together in a professional, finished format.

Your stories and photos can end up as a high-quality, professionally designed book for your family or organization.

Another option is to put together a video project, using whatever combination of recorded audio, video clips, photos, musics, effects and narration work. The result is a polished multimedia project you can share by computer or disk, show at a celebration, memorial or other special get-together, and keep forever.

Why hire me, specifically? I have decades of experience working as an interviewer, writer, journalist, author, editor, cultural anthropologist and historian. I am a digital “junkie” who enjoys putting professional projects together on the computer. My friends say I am a Storyteller.

Please let me know if you have a project in mind and would like to discuss it.

And if you’re not ready to do your personal history yet, I’d like to encourage you to sign up for my quarterly newsletter. You’ll also get email notifications when I post here to the blog. It’s a way to get more comfortable with who I am, and the work I do, before jumping into a project of your own. (Do not be afraid! Girl Scout Promise: I will never abuse your email address, and I work hard to make my monthly newsletter interesting and worth reading.) 

Thanks for checking out my website, and I’d love to talk to you about a personal history project when you’re ready.

top photo © Mikle15 | Dreamstime.com  / middle photo © Karin Hildebrand
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Why Personal History Projects Are Important

This documentary video of a woman telling her grandfather’s story is well worth a watch.

In it, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes gives a presentation on the WWII event named for her grandfather, the “Jimmy Doolittle Raid,” at the Historic Flight Foundation.

It’s an interesting story in itself; a fascinating piece of history. But at the beginning and end of the video, she really captures why personal history projects matter.

She nails why we should take the time to tell our stories, whether we connect with a personal historian who will put that story into book or video form, jot it down ourselves, or send it as a series of letters to the grandchildren.

I’m glad I got to see this.

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