Keeping history alive, one family story at a time

Many families have a “keeper” — a person everyone relies on to keep track of important records, photos and historic documents. By default, it falls to the most qualified individual: someone known for her impeccable organization, remarkable recall, ability to cite names, dates and places, and understanding of how all the pieces fit together.

That definitely describes me. Except for the remarkable recall and most of the other stuff.

Shortcomings aside, I am my family’s de facto keeper. I do like to keep things, especially historical things. And I keep meaning to do something amazing — someday — with all of the photos, letters and papers I have safeguarded in my house.

This role is both a great honor and a tremendous responsibility. I am holding many one-of-a-kind artifacts, such as the fragile papers that follow the immigration of my maternal grandparents, Necha and Moishe, to Cleveland in 1922. I got these after my aunt died and they are a treasure, considering how little I knew of their lives. I have their yellowed visas from Bucharest, their marriage license and their naturalization papers, among other documents.

There’s also a loving letter they wrote in August 1945 to my aunt, their youngest daughter, addressed to “Geneva-on-the-Lake,” a resort area outside Cleveland. “Dear Elaine, don’t work to hard take care of yourself, have a goot time.”

My mother and aunt didn’t share many stories about Necha and Moishe, who were 46 and 53 when they died. What I do know about these grandparents is that they were third cousins who hardly knew each other when they came to this country. They married two years after they immigrated. They were poor, observant Jews who ran a small grocery store in Cleveland and sent money home whenever they could. They left most of their family behind in Romania and Ukraine.

I wish the right people were still alive so they could tell me everything they know about this branch of the family tree. The documents fill in a few gaps, but they are no substitute for the stories that go along with them.

As a young girl, I most enjoyed hearing stories that helped me see my parents as real people, once young like me. I loved the ones about my mom stealing candy from her parents’ store and getting caught when the chocolate melted in her pocket, or seeing a romantic movie with girlfriends and gaily kissing every light post on the way home.

Then there were tales with real intrigue, like the one about my paternal grandparents fleeing Ukraine during the Russian Revolution. My aunt was an infant and my father not yet born when their parents departed in the dead of night in a small boat headed for a U.S.-bound ship on the Black Sea. When my aunt started to cry and threatened the operation, the men wanted to throw her overboard, but the women quickly muffled her cries with their aprons.

I used to think every word of this thrilling story was true, never questioning what didn’t make sense, like why all of the women in the boat were wearing aprons. But it was definitely a version of the truth. Stories told over time are mutable; people remember things differently, or embellish certain details, or skip over memories that are too painful to share.

Many family stories are lost forever, but it’s not too late. About a decade ago I did informal oral histories with three of my family members and discovered it took very little to get them talking (the hardest part was scheduling the time). Questions as ordinary as “What was the favorite dish your mother made?” sparked entire conversations that led in surprising directions — and, at times, disturbing ones, such as those about surviving World War II in a ghetto where people dropped dead on a daily basis.

Though I haven’t gotten around to transcribing those interviews, I plan to — someday.

In the meantime, when one of my kids or future grandkids asks me to describe what it was like in San Francisco in the ’70s, or how my parents made their way to California, or whether anyone in our family survived the Holocaust, I can tell them, “Yes, sit down and I’ll tell you a story about it.”

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at