By Jack Levine
Let’s resolve to learn the lessons of our family historians, our tour guides to another time and to places we have never been.
When my Grandma Minnie would raise her eyebrows and begin telling tales of her childhood “in the old country” I knew it was time to lean in and listen. Her vivid images of the people and events captured my attention like a powerful magnet. I was stuck to her every word.
“I never knew my mother or father,” she began, with a wistful shaking of her head. “In those days people would catch a fever and die in a few weeks. That’s what happened. After they died, my mother’s father and mother took care of my brother and me.”
“When I was a girl, there were maybe 120 or a few more people in my village, which we called a shtetle. Everyone I knew was poor,” Minnie said.
“We lived in one room shacks of wood with a hard dirt floor. For heat in cold weather there was an iron wood stove to one side with a pipe for the smoke to go out through the roof, and a few pieces of handmade furniture grouped together on the other side. My brother and I slept in one small bed, and my grandparents were in the other bed. There was a table, four chairs, and some open boxes for clothes, pots, pans and plates.”
“The cooking was done in another shack, used by women from other families, too. And there was a well for clean water and a stream for washing and bathing. We all worked, growing vegetables and feeding the chickens, one cow, and a few other animals.”
“The boys sat with a man we called Rebbe, who was wasn’t a real rabbi, but he knew the prayers and could read and write. He traveled around to many other shtetles, eating with different families, and staying a week or so to give lessons. The girls didn’t learn the prayers from Rebbe, but the boys would tell us the parts they remembered. This was my first taste of discrimination for being a girl.”
“When I was 12, everything changed. In 1905, there was a failed revolution in Moscow, an attempt to kill the Czar and take over the palaces. We didn’t know where Moscow was, we had only heard of the Czar from traveling peddlers. We didn’t care about any talk of revolution, but our lives were never the same.”
“The Czar believed the trouble in Moscow was being bred in the countryside. In a few months’ time, the pogroms were launched. Bands of soldiers on horses, the Cossacks, swept through the villages, burning the shacks, killing the animals, violating the girls, torturing the boys and forcing us all to run for our lives. And run we did.
We were uprooted, walked hundreds of miles and embarked on a steamship journey on our way to a new country…the United States.
As Minnie told her history, I’d wonder how people could just move around from place to place, carrying what they owned in burlap sacks, and live to tell the tale.
I was astonished that the words coming from her lips were not made up stories, but real life struggles and tragedies. How could this be? As a child of comfort and contentment, all of this was so different from anything I could ever imagine.
Minnie’s stories of her immigrant experience are among my most cherished family treasures. I have no photographs of the people or scenes she left behind, only her vivid word pictures. This small woman’s story, in an almost matter-of-fact narrative, was eloquent testimony to courage and survival.
Hearing her history created for me a core belief that I needed to appreciate who she was and what she went through. She didn’t ask for this adoration, but certainly deserved it from my perspective as a child.
I am not alone in receiving the gift from my elders’ life treasury. Family history is a living legacy. It’s not only the story of who our elders were, but it defines in many ways who we are.
The history of forced emigration is so pervasive among people from diverse lands. Over the centuries, this nation has been, and continues to be populated by those whose life’s story is worth telling. Whether they came for freedom or by force in slavery, the values our grandparents brought with them are heirlooms which our children deserve to inherit.
Those who survived became advocates for causes and people who needed them…..their life’s mission was to make the world a bit better than the one they experienced.
In Minnie’s case, women’s suffrage was her cause, rooted in the discrimination she experienced as an immigrant teen who resolved to become a citizen and an active participant in what American democracy offered.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 our nation’s women won the right to vote….at least those of European heritage.
Minnie cast her first vote in November of that year…and never missed a vote in her life. In 1982, at age 91, she had to be helped into the voting booth, but found the energy to do so, casting her last vote. Her pride of achieving justice was a life-long mission.
While I’m not yet a grandparent, my appreciation of family history is translated to our sons, and perhaps someday, they will in turn have the opportunity to pass along the gift.
Never hesitate to exercise your advocacy voice…in respect for those who paved our path to a better future….our valiant veterans, ardent activists and champions for causes which deserved passion.
Please consider recording your family history, share the stories with your children and grandchildren, and make sure that treasured family photos are duplicated and records are kept safe and out of harm’s way.
If you wish, I will send you a document that guides you to ways to capture your family history….Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with Family History in the subject line and I pledge to send it your way…..along with a photo of Minnie I captured when she was 88… gifts for recording your family’s unique heritage.
My service as the advocates’ advocate is a role I cherish. I feel so fortunate to have the friendships and allies I’ve nurtured over the years. I value our communication and sincerely appreciate your good works.
Please keep me in mind for an inspirational keynote speech and strategic seminars on behalf of your organization, agency, cause or community network.
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Tell me what you think!
Jack Levine, Founder 4Generations Institute
The Advocate’s Credo:
Thou art my child, my parent, and my elder,
I love thee best,
But could not love thee half as much,
Loved I not all the rest.