Studies show that our early learning and memories often occur casually when we begin to ask “who, what, where, when and why.” Our earliest caregivers taught us to talk but even before that, we listened. Children listen to things adults talk about and interpret words and events using knowledge they possess at the time.
The JFCS Oral History Project facilitates remembering. Originally started by then JFCS board member Ann Friedman, this project now sends volunteers to talk to seniors and really listen to their stories. They capture these memories and record them, leaving a legacy for families and the community. Some volunteers will begin videotaping these interviews in an effort to really get the whole story, body language and all, so that we will never forget these memories.
Some family stories become family legends, told over and over until they seem part of the fabric that holds a family together. “My sister told the guards that she needed me to sew the guards’ clothes and uniforms, so I was taken out of the line of women and children going to the ovens and allowed to assist her.”
Storytelling is often subjective and reflects a person’s state of mind when events happened. An adult telling a childhood story has gained perspective on that memory which now colors the retelling. “I remember Uncle Sol speaking Yiddish with my mother and my parents speaking Yiddish with each other so that we children could not understand what they were saying.”
Jewish families, whether native to Louisville or somewhere else, remember the past when “things were different.” Many families experienced instances of anti-Semitism and dealt with things that are illegal now. One story is of a starry-eyed, young newlywed couple trying to rent their first apartment. They were denied housing of their choice because they were Jewish – a heartbreaking but inspirational story in that they went on to prosper despite early hardship.
Jewish seniors today recall being forced to celebrate Christian holidays and sing Christmas carols in school. One senior said, “I liked to sing Christmas carols. I thought they were pretty but I could not understand why we never sang songs like the ones I learned in shul.” “I lied to a boy that I liked in middle school and told him I had a good Christmas rather than explain that my family did not celebrate Christmas.” “In school, I drew my family’s Christmas tree for an assignment because I was too embarrassed to admit that we did not have one.”
To set the record straight, the Oral History Project is not Hollywood’s or history’s version of history, but the first-hand, personal versions of the lives of Louisville seniors as they grew up, went to school, married, had children and made lives for themselves. To get this story, we must ask seniors themselves.
Volunteers ask seniors questions like: “How did your family originally come to this country?” “How were holidays and rituals observed in your family and your community?” “Do you recall anti-Semitism in your school or your community?”
“I hid in a French monastery to avoid the Germans and since then have had a soft spot for priests and monks. I like teaching students about the Holocaust and have taken over 50 school groups to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.” The senior who recalled these and more painful memories did so with humor, humility and eloquence and is no longer with us. His memories are priceless.
For more information about JFCS’s Oral History Project, contact Kim Toebbe at JFCS, 452-6341.