We follow the same format each week in my writing and storytelling class. The students collectively decide on a writing prompt (I offer a list of ideas), then they go home and write about it. They share what they wrote the following week. Sometimes they haven’t written anything down – but they still have a chance to share.
The assignment had been to write a short bio about your life. We talked about the challenge of summarizing a lifetime into a few lines – about trying to capture the essential components of their lives.
The next week they told me they didn’t really understand what I was looking for. They were worried that they were doing the assignment wrong. What they did write was phenomenal, the life-stories, the challenges faced in that room took your breath away.
One student – who will be 100 years old this year – had not written anything down. She hadn’t understood the assignment, but she wanted to share. She told us how she was born in 1916 in Vienna Austria – how her parents’ lives were impacted by the changes in the government after World War I. She told us her mother was a medical doctor – among the first women to get their medical degrees in Vienna. She shared how she sat on her father’s lap at age 5 and watched her mother graduate.
She told us that her family was a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish – how her father recognized the dangers and in 1938 – when Hitler came to power – he knew he had to get the family out of the country. He found out about a lawyer – who had joined the Nazi party in order to help Jews escape – and who was able to expedite the paperwork to get them out of the country. She told us about packing up thousand of books.
She talked about going to England. About how her 18 year old brother enlisted in the British army. He served 6 1/2 years. “He came out OK” she said. “He came out an officer. He was important because he was smart and could speak German.” She told us he had to clean up the death camps. “He never ever spoke of it” she said.
She explained that her mother had to take exams to qualify to practice medicine in England.
The room was still. Everyone listening intently – ‘you could hear a pin drop’. The class was over but no one moved.
She continued her story. She spoke slowly – looking for words. No one jumped in – we let her have all the time she needed. Her eyes started watering when she shared how worried they were about their relatives still in Austria. “Many were killed” she said. “I was able to save 3 cousins – I helped to get them out with the children’s transport – but I couldn’t save the others.”
She knew we were out of time and tried to finish up quickly. She said she went to California via Greyhound – “which was a nightmare.” She added.
There were other stories in the room that day too. So much history, knowledge and wisdom in that classroom. It make one realize how very important it is to bring these educational opportunities to older adults – to give them a forum for self-expression. It is not only for their sake – but for us all.