Story Preservation Initiative®

Preserving the Stories of Our Lives by capturing the voices, words, and meanderings of artists, scientists, writers, poets, musicians, and eyewitnesses to history. Listen, learn, and be amazed! WEB:

What I Learned Today …

Pulling together primary source material for a Story Preservation LEARNING LAB project on African-Americans in the Military, HERE’S WHAT I LEARNED TODAY:

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment in 1890

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment in 1890

The term “buffalo soldiers” dates to post-Civil War conflicts with Indians who granted the honorific to an all-black cavalry outfit. Buffalo soldier units served in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Italian campaign of World War II, when elements of the 92nd Division were among a handful of black units in that war to serve in combat. The road to Italy passed through various posts in the segregated South and Ft. Huachuca, an isolated Arizona outpost where the 92nd assembled for the final push. As featured in the novel and film Miracle at St. Anna, the 92nd distinguished themselves on the battlefield, disproving skeptics and earning an honored chapter in the history of World War II. Two years after the war ended, President Truman signed an order to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces, closing the book on the buffalo soldiers.  Click on the link that follows to hear Bob Marley sing – you guessed it! – Buffalo Soldier.

An Upcoming Conversation with Stephan Lewy

11227902_1641491449397338_6117542500441936052_nA German Jew born in 1925, Stephan Lewy immigrated to the US to escape persecution. Upon arrival, he was given two options: serve in the US military or face internment as an enemy alien. Stephan chose the former and was assigned to General Patton’s Army with the 6th Armored Division. He landed in France ten days after D-Day and was present when Buchenwald was liberated.

Read on for Stephan’s story in his own words.

We will be recording Stephan in September. Photo: Stephan in his US Army uniform.

My name is Stephan H. Lewy (changed from Heinz Stephan Lewy). I was born in Berlin, Germany on 3/11/25. My father, Arthur Lewy, was Jewish and my mother, Gertrude Puls, was Protestant. When I was six years old, in 1931, my mother died of natural causes. My father was all alone and could not take care of me and his tobacco wholesale/retail business at the same time. Early in 1931, he put me into the Auerbach orphanage, at 162 Schonhauser Allee.

There were about one 100 children, all Jewish. Some had no parents and others just one parent. We stayed in the home all week, went to a public school nearby, and visited our family only on Sundays.

My father was also orphaned at 7 and a resident of the same orphanage between 1902 and 1909. On my mother’s side I had grandparents and two uncles with their families.

In late 1933, after Hitler came to power, my father was arrested and sent to Oranienburg, one of the first concentration camps situated near Berlin. Although this camp had not reached the extermination level of the death camps, he was still beaten to the point that he suffered a heart attack and lost all of his teeth – after which he was sent home.

Around 1935 the racial purification began in earnest and the Jewish children were separated from the gentile children. We were assigned to a school in the Kaiserstrasse, approximately a 45 minute walk from the orphanage. Our studies in this grade school consisted of the usual secular subjects plus Jewish religion and Hebrew lessons. Each afternoon when we left school we were met by two rows of Hitler Youth who whipped us with their belts. The police stood by to make sure that we did not defend ourselves.

When I came home on Sundays, I sometimes played with a gentile boy in the yard of the apartment house. His father one day approached my father and said we could not longer play together because a member of the Hitler Youth had reported that his son was playing with a Jew. If he continued to do so the authorities would withhold their meat and butter rations. Germany started rations early to prepare for the war.

In the years from 1936 to 1938, it became more and more difficult for Jews to own businesses, Jude and Stars of David were painted on stores, and the public was encouraged not to patronize these places. Also, in our orphanage, we had a synagogue that served the Jewish people of the neighborhood. Each Friday and Saturday, two Gestapo agents sat in the back in civilian clothes to make sure that no inappropriate remarks were made.

1938 is a year in my life I would like to forget, except that my father remarried. My new mother was Johanna Arzt. She was Jewish. I never referred to her as a step-mother. In March I had my Bar Mitzvah. The service and small lunch were held at the orphanage. About 10 guests went home for dinner to the two furnished rooms, only to be met by an SS-trooper who arrested my father for the day, returning him about 7:00 p.m. Needless to say, there was no celebration. Shortly thereafter, my father was forced to sell his business for a token amount. He continued working illegally at night. My mother was a bookkeeper.

Then, in November 1938, came Kristallnacht. That night, in Berlin, more than 300 synagogues were destroyed; hundreds of stores were vandalized and demolished; 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and interned, and ninety-one were killed. Our orphanage was also entered, the adults taken away, and all 100 young children locked in the synagogue. Because it adjoined some apartment buildings, it was not torched, but during the general destruction, the gas line that fed the eternal light was cut. As the smell of gas spread, one of the boys had the good sense to take a chair and break one of the beautiful glass windows. When we came out of the synagogue 2 days later to resume our schooling, the sights we saw were unbelievable; beautiful edifices burned out, Torah scrolls and prayer shawls laying in the streets, stores looted. It was then that we knew life would never be the same. The presence of armed guards on the rooftops surrounding our orphanage, the constant fear of loved ones being arrested, of possible beatings, and of not knowing whether one could escape from all this – this was a heavy burden to carry, especially for a 13 year old. My two uncles and their families, (my birthmother’s brothers, who were not Jewish), totally abandoned me.

After Kristallnacht, adult males were subject to arrest. My father left the apartment at 3:00 a.m. each morning and walked the streets of Berlin. Whenever he was not home, my mother had a signal to warn him of danger: If the Gestapo was looking for him, she would put a bird cage in the window, and my father would continue walking. If there was no bird cage, he would know it was safe to come in.

For a short period of time, you could avoid being arrested if you had booked passage on a ship. We were booked on no fewer than three boats: to the US, Cuba and Shanghai. My mother had a very distant relative in the US who provided us with an affidavit. We were finally called to the consulate, but my father flunked the physical because of his high blood pressure, the result of the beatings in the camp.

Conditions for the Jews got worse. Countries surrounding Germany, like Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France and England started to take in young children. My parents decided to send me to France. Our group of 40 left Germany in 1939 on a Kindertransport and traveled to a castle outside of Paris in a town called Quincy. When we crossed the border into France, we lost German citizenship and became “stateless.”

It was expected that the war would start in the fall of 1939. Germany always seemed to start a war after the crops were in the barn. And indeed, the war did start on 9/2/39 with the invasion of Poland. England and France declared war and I lost contact with my parents for almost 3 years.

In May 1940, Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and most of France. Our group of 40 children and our teachers left the castle and started fleeing south to escape the invaders. At one point, we boarded a river barge, but it did not take us far. Germans passed us, inspected the barge, lifted the covers and saw us huddled in a corner. Looking down we heard them say “They look like a bunch of Jews.” Fortunately, they did not use their machine guns on us. We returned to our castle and found it occupied by the Germans. We told them who we were and expected the worst. The commander simply said, “You sleep downstairs – and we sleep upstairs.”

Later in that year (1940), the Quakers transported us to unoccupied France to be taken care of by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a French refugee organization. We stayed at another castle at Chabannes, not far from Limoges. While there, I also learned the leather trade under the supervision of Organization for Rehabilitative Training (ORT). I asked the director of the home to contact the International Red Cross in Switzerland to find my parents either in Berlin or in Boston, the home of our sponsor. They found my parents in Haverhill, MA. Shortly after my departure from Germany, my parents had had a follow-up medical appointment and my father’s blood pressure had dropped. They received their visas, traveled to Holland, and boarded a ship in Rotterdam. When they were 3 days out at sea, Germany invaded Holland.

My parents and our sponsor provided a new affidavit for me, but a visa was denied even after an attorney pleaded the case in the State Department. Out of desperation, my mother wrote a letter to the President, promising that if a visa were issued, I would be the best American soldier. It worked, a visa was issued. Our family always felt that Eleanor Roosevelt had something to do with it. I left the castle in Chabannes in the spring of 1942, picked up my visa in Lyon, and went to Marseille to await our ship. The waiting period was 6 weeks. We left Marseille, stopped in Barcelona to pick up some Spanish (non-Jewish) refugee children. I was put in charge of them. We continued to Tunisia, disembarked, and continued by bus to Casablanca. We boarded a Portuguese ship, the Serpa Pinto, and steamed off to America, 70 Jewish refugees and fifty Spanish children.

Half way across the ocean, we were stopped and boarded by a German submarine. When it left, we expected to be torpedoed, but nothing happened. As we approached Bermuda, we were stopped by the British Navy and taken off the ship. It took them 7 days to inspect the ship and luggage. We then continued on to NY only to drop anchor in the harbor and wait for 2days because one person on board was running a temperature. This was a major hindrance as far as immigration officials were concerned. Finally, we landed on 6/25/42 in Brooklyn, and our family was reunited.

When we got to Boston, where my parents had finally settled, we found out that the FBI had searched our apartment twice. In addition, the U.S. Government now considered me an “enemy alien,” meaning that I was required to carry a pink-colored passport. If I wanted to travel more than 200 miles, I needed to obtain a permit with two American-born citizens vouching for me.

In March 1943, when I turned eighteen, I registered for the draft and I was inducted in August 1943. Before final induction, I was advised that I was under no obligation to serve in the army, since I was an enemy alien. However, should I refuse, I might have to be detained on Ellis Island and shipped back after the war.

I received my basic training in the Medical Corps, and then was assigned to Camp Ritchie, Maryland to be trained as an interpreter. The camp had 2,000 German refugees and 200 Native Americans. Upon completion of our training, we were shipped to London and I was assigned to General Patton’s Army with the 6th Armored Division. We landed in France ten days after D-Day.

During the Battle of the Bulge, which was the Germans’ final attempt to win the war, Germany was successful in penetrating the American front lines. They took English-speaking German soldiers, dressed them in American uniforms, and had them infiltrate the American lines to disrupt communications. When the American commander found out about it, he issued an order that any soldier dressed in an American uniform who spoke with an accent should immediately be arrested and detained as a prisoner-of-war. There I was, a real American soldier, but still speaking with a heavy accent. During the next few weeks I spoke to no one, except those who knew me and could vouch for me.

Later on, members of the 6th Armored Division were the first American to arrive at Buchenwald concentration camp. While I had some general knowledge of what was going on, it was a great shock to me. I saw mountains of human remains; living skeletons walking or sitting in a daze; and children without parents, not knowing where to go and whom to trust. This picture has followed me and will continue to follow me all my life.

During the military campaign across Germany, I was notified that my father had a stroke and had died. Normally, I could have requested a return home. The family decided that I should not come home for fear that I may be re-assigned to the Pacific.

The war in Europe ended in May, 1945. I was 20 years old. After the war, I was assigned to occupation duty. One of the twice weekly assignments was to search out and arrest individuals who had held a certain rank in the Nazi party. There I was, with a big truck and two American military police, knocking on doors at 4:00 a.m. in the morning to arrest the men of the house. This task was most satisfying to me as it reminded me of the days when my father was subject to such arrests.

Our division received orders to return to the U.S. to demobilize, have a furlough, and be reassigned to the Pacific. Our troop ship was half way across the ocean when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Needless to say, I have some very selfish feelings about the bomb. Upon the conclusion of my army service I was awarded the Bronz Star for meritorious service. After the discharge, I returned to my job as an office boy at the mining company in Boston. Under the GI Bill I finished 3 years of high school in 17 months at night and my college education at Northeastern University in 6 years at night. The mining company job also required traveling throughout the western part of the United States and Alaska.

I then decided to take the CPA exam. After I passed it, I became a public accountant for 6 years. I then moved on to a job with Sheraton Hotels for 11 years until I joined Dunfey Hotels (now Omni) in NH for the next 22years. I retired in 1991 at the age of 66.

In 1949, I married Frances Silver. In 1999, we celebrated our golden wedding anniversary. In 1952 we moved to Randolph, MA. We have two children, Arthur and Ellen. Arthur and his wife, Bria, live in Seattle and have one daughter. Ellen and her husband, Bill, live in Wayland, MA and have two children, a son and a daughter.

Our lives are comfortable and basically healthy. I am most of all very appreciative of the many years I have spent with Frances. She has been a great support. She was always understanding when I had flashbacks and dreams of being chased by police. She helped me deal with the past.

Frequently, I speak in schools and to other groups, telling my story. I am often asked why I do this, why I willingly bring back unpleasant memories. Firstly, my generation is getting older – there are fewer and fewer survivors to tell their stories. Secondly, our stories show what can happened if people do not act. Perhaps if enough people hear my story, history will not repeat itself. I only hope that the world has learned a lesson.

The Plot to Assassinate Hitler

Helmuth and Jutta Cords.  Used with permission of the family.

Helmuth and Jutta Cords. Used with permission of the family.

Claudia Cords-Damon tells the captivating story of her parents, Helmuth and Jutta Cords.

Both German citizens, Jutta and Helmuth met during the Nazi era, fell in love, and eventually – wanting no part of Hitler’s Germany – joined the underground resistance movement and participated in Operation Valkyrie – the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.

Both Helmuth and Jutta were imprisoned, as were Jutta’s parents.  Somehow, miraculously, they all survived. A love story for the ages, theirs was the first wedding in post war Berlin.

Here’s a Wikipedia overview of Operation Valkyrie:

Audio up!  (Run time: 57:00)

Mary Evelyn Tucker ⎥ Religion and Ecology

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Image from Religion and Ecology, Island Press, 2014

The relatively new alliance between religion and ecology is based on the belief that religions are a primary source of values in any culture and the environmental crisis that we face is fundamentally a crisis of values.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar at Yale University, where she teaches in a joint master’s degree program between the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies.  She directs the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim.

While environmental issues are most frequently viewed through the lens of science, policy, law, and economics, in recent years the moral and spiritual dimensions of this crisis are becoming more visible.

“Our current ecological challenges are such that they require the insights of the world’s religions to awaken moral passion and concern,” Tucker says. “And these voices are needed now.”

Her concern for the growing environmental crisis, especially in Asia, led her to organize with John Grim a series of ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard (1995-1998). Together they are series editors for the ten volumes from the conferences distributed by Harvard University Press. In this series she co-edited Buddhism and Ecology (Harvard, 1997), Confucianism and Ecology (Harvard, 1998), and Hinduism and Ecology (Harvard, 2000).

After the conference series she and Grim founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology at a culminating conference at the United Nations in 1998.

Books include: Ecology and Religion, John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Island Press, 2014 /  The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology, University of Utah Press, 2014 / Worldly Wonder, Open Court, 2013

For Mary Evelyn’s full bio and additional information on projects and publications, go to:

Information for this post was taken from numerous sources, including the Emerging Earth Community website.

We will have the honor of recording Mary Evelyn in the late summer 2015.

Meet the Folks!

… behind the scenes at Story Preservation  /  Board Members Paul Hodes and Bruce McEver


fullc46518d2009-01-01Paul W. Hodes  (Vice Chair) is an attorney, artist, community leader, two-term congressman from New Hampshire’s second congressional district and a consultant to businesses and not-for profit institutions. After graduating from Dartmouth College and Boston College Law School, Hodes began his career in New Hampshire as an Assistant Attorney General under then-Attorney General David Souter.

Throughout his career, Hodes has also devoted substantial time to community service and advancing the arts in New Hampshire. He served as a New Hampshire State Councilor for the Arts under then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen.  As Chairman of the Board of the Capitol Center for the Arts from 1990-1996, Hodes helped to lead the Concord community’s efforts to create a premiere, award-winning performing arts institution that now serves as an important economic engine for the city.

Hodes was elected to Congress in 2006, and became the President of the historic 2006 freshman class. He currently serves on the National Council on the Arts.


bmcever-cw_000H. Bruce McEver holds degrees from Georgia Tech, Harvard Business School, and Harvard Divinity School and is the Founder and Chairman of Berkshire Capital, NYC, a multi-national financial services advisory firm that pioneered the concept of providing independent merger, acquisition, and strategic advisory services to investment managers and securities firms.

He is also the author of two books of poetry Full Horizon (Jeanne Duval Editions, 2005) and Scaring Up the Morning (C&R Press, 2013).   His poems have appeared in many national publications including: Ploughshares, Westview, The Berkshire Review, Courtland Review, The Atlanta Review and others.

In 2002 Bruce helped to establish the Poetry at Tech Program at Georgia Tech.  In addition, he is the co-founder of The Foundation for Religious Literacy, which supports educational outreach programs that assist leaders in realizing how religion affects the global society in which we live.  Further, he was the visionary benefactor behind Harvard University’s Business Across Religious Traditions program.

This post is the second in our Up Close and Personal series! 

Up Close and Personal | You’re Only as Good as the Company You Keep

Meet Story Preservation Advisory Board Members Tom Wessels and David Grant – and check out a couple of recent books that they have written.

51XHwtWynAL._UY250_Story Preservation is absolutely delighted to announce the addition of Tom Wessels to our Advisory Board. He will be an invaluable resource as we work to strengthen the part of our collection that focuses on the environment and environmental education.

As taken from his bio on the Antioch University New England website:  Tom is an ecologist and the founding director of the master’s degree program in Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England. Previous involvements include serving as the chair of The Center for Whole Communities ( that fosters inclusive communities that are strongly rooted in place and where all people regardless of income, race, or background have access to and a healthy relationship with land. He is former chair of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation that fosters environmental leadership through graduate fellowships and organizational grants. Currently, Tom serves as an ecological consultant to the Rain Forest Alliance’s SmartWood Green Certification Program. In that capacity Tom helped draft green certification assessment guidelines for forest operations in the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. He has conducted landscape level workshops throughout the United States for over 30 years. His books include: Reading the Forested Landscape, The Granite Landscape, Untamed Vermont, The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, and Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to reading the Forested Landscape.

Here is an earlier blog post that references Tom’s work: The Story of New England is Written in Stone


static1.squarespaceAs taken from his biography on The Social Profit Handbook website: David Grant is the former president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in Morristown, New Jersey, where he was responsible for development and evaluation of programs in the foundation’s major areas of giving (Arts, Education, and Environment), as well as the foundation’s major initiatives (Poetry and Nonprofit Capacity Building). David now consults with people and organizations that have a social or educational mission, specializing in strategic planning, design of assessment systems, and board development. During his years at the Dodge Foundation, David delivered over a hundred keynote addresses on a range of topics, led workshops titled Measuring What Matters for over two hundred nonprofit organizations, and received numerous awards.

David’s career has centered on innovative teaching and learning. In 1983, he and his wife, Nancy Boyd Grant, cofounded The Mountain School of Milton Academy, a highly regarded, semester-long, interdisciplinary environmental studies program in Vermont for high school juniors from throughout the country. Previously, David was a national consultant to schools and leader of workshops on topics of curriculum and program design, professional development, assessment practices, and school climate.

His book The Social Profit Handbook was released in 2015 by Chelsea Green Publishing.

This post is one in an upcoming Up Close and Personal / Meet the Folks! series.

A Museum of Museums


Ever wonder what the kids in this village were doing while their parents were out haying?  Take a look!

Art Project takes you deep inside paintings (in this case Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder) to see things that Bruegel painted that you could never see with the naked eye.

The TED Talk video (see link below) explaining Art Project runs 5:32 and is worth a watch in its entirety, but if you’re a little antsy, best part: 2:37 through 3:34.

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Imagine being able to see artwork in the greatest museums around the world without leaving your chair. Driven by his passion for art, Amit Sood tells the story of how he developed Art Project to let people do just that.

Here’s the link: Museum of Museums / Art Project

William Zinsser | On Writing Well

Writer, editor, and teacher William Zinsser died on May 12, 2015. He was 92 years old.

Two of his books: “On Writing Well” and “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past” served as my go-to texts when teaching personal history writing classes at ILEAD at Dartmouth. They are considered classics on the craft of writing.

This post, from 2011, is one of the more popular on my blog – sought out and read consistently over the past four years. For those who have not seen it, I thought I would pull it up from the stacks and call it to your attention. He was a great writer and a great teacher. He made it all seem so easy.

From: How to Write a Memoir by William Zinsser  |  The American Scholar

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?”

Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into. That record can take many shapes. It can be a formal memoir—a careful act of literary construction. Or it can be an informal family history, written to tell your children and your grandchildren about the family they were born into. It can be the oral history that you extract by tape recorder from a parent or a grandparent too old or too sick to do any writing. Or it can be anything else you want it to be: some hybrid mixture of history and reminiscence. Whatever it is, it’s an important kind of writing. Too often memories die with their owner, and too often time surprises us by running out.

My father, a businessman with no literary pretensions, wrote two family histories in his old age. It was the perfect task for a man with few gifts for self-amusement. Sitting in his favorite green leather armchair in an apartment high above Park Avenue in New York, he wrote a history of his side of the family—the Zinssers and the Scharmanns—going back to 19thcentury Germany. Then he wrote a history of the family shellac business on West 59th Street, William Zinsser & Co., that his grandfather founded in 1849. He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite. He had no patience with any enterprise that obliged him to reexamine or slow down. On the golf course, walking toward his ball, he would assess the situation, pick a club out of the bag, and swing at the ball as he approached it, hardly breaking stride.

When my father finished writing his histories he had them typed, mimeographed, and bound in a plastic cover. He gave a copy, personally inscribed, to each of his three daughters, to their husbands, to me, to my wife, and to his 15 grandchildren, some of whom couldn’t yet read. I like the fact that they all got their own copy; it recognized each of them as an equal partner in the family saga. How many of those grandchildren spent any time with the histories I have no idea. But I’ll bet some of them did, and I like to think that those 15 copies are now squirreled away somewhere in their houses from Maine to California, waiting for the next generation.

What my father did strikes me as a model for a family history that doesn’t aspire to be anything more; the idea of having it published wouldn’t have occurred to him. There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

My father’s two histories have steadily grown on me. At first I don’t think I was as generous toward them as I should have been; probably I condescended to the ease with which he brought off a process I found so hard. But over the years I’ve often found myself dipping into them to remind myself of some long-lost relative, or to check some long-lost fact of New York geography, and with every reading I admire the writing more.

Above all, there’s the matter of voice. Not being a writer, my father never worried about finding his “style.” He just wrote the way he talked, and now, when I read his sentences, I hear his personality and his humor, his idioms and his usages, many of them an echo of his college years in the early 1900s. I also hear his honesty. He wasn’t sentimental about blood ties, and I smile at his terse appraisals of Uncle X, “a second-rater,” or Cousin Y, who “never amounted to much.”

When you write your own family history, don’t try to be a “writer.” It now occurs to me that my father, who didn’t try to be a writer, was a more natural writer than I am, with my constant fiddling and fussing. Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.

In my father’s family history he didn’t dodge the central trauma of his childhood: the abrupt end of his parents’ marriage when he and his brother Rudolph were still small boys. Their mother was the daughter of a self-made German immigrant, H. B. Scharmann, who went to California as a teenager in a covered wagon with the forty-niners and lost both his mother and his sister on the journey. Frida Scharmann inherited his fierce pride and ambition, and when she married William Zinsser, a promising young man in her circle of German-American friends, she saw him as the answer to her cultural aspirations. They would spend their evenings going to concerts and to the opera and holding musical salons. But the promising husband evidently turned out to have no such yearnings. Home was for falling asleep in his chair after dinner.

How bitterly his lassitude must have dawned on the young Frida Zinsser I can imagine from knowing her as an older woman, endlessly pushing herself to Carnegie Hall, playing Beethoven and Brahms on the piano, traveling to Europe and learning foreign languages, prodding my father and my sisters and me to cultural self-improvement. Her drive to fulfill the broken dreams of her marriage never faltered. But she had the German penchant for telling people off, and she died alone at 81, having scolded away all her friends.

I wrote about her once, many years ago, in a memoir for a book called Five Boyhoods. Describing the grandmother I knew as a boy, I praised her strength but also noted that she was a difficult presence in our lives. After the book came out, my mother defended the mother-in-law who had made her own life far from easy. “Grandma was really quite shy,” she said, “and she wanted to be liked.” Maybe so; the truth is somewhere between my mother’s version and mine. But she was like that to me. That was my remembered truth, and that’s how I wrote it.

I mention this because one of the questions often asked by memoir writers is: should I write from the point of view of the child I once was, or of the adult I am now? The strongest memoirs, I think, are those that preserve the unity of a remembered time and place: books like Russell Baker’s Growing Up, or V. S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door, or Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain, which recall what it was like to be a child or an adolescent in a world of adults contending with life’s adversities.

But if you prefer the other route—to write about your younger years from the wiser perspective of your older years—that memoir will have its own integrity. One good example is Poets in Their Youth, in which Eileen Simpson recalls her life with her first husband, John Berryman, and his famously self-destructive fellow poets, including Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz, whose demons she was too young as a bride to understand. When she revisited that period as an older woman in her memoir she had become a writer and a practicing psychotherapist, and she used that clinical knowledge to create an invaluable portrait of a major school of American poetry at the high tide of its creativity. But these are two different kinds of writing. Choose one.

My father’s family history told me details about his mother’s marriage that I didn’t have when I wrote my memoir. Now, knowing the facts, I can understand the disappointments that made her the woman she became, and if I were to take another shot at the family saga today I would bring to it a lifetime of trying to fathom its Germanic storms and stresses. (My mother’s family of New England Yankees—Knowltons and Joyces—managed to get through life without emotional melodrama.) I would also bring to it a lifetime of regret over the tremendous hole at the center of my father’s story. In his two histories his father gets scant mention and no forgiveness; all sympathy goes to the aggrieved young divorcée and her lifelong grit.

Yet some of my father’s most attractive qualities—the charm, the humor, the lightness, the bluest of blue eyes—must have come from the Zinsser side, not from the brooding, brown-eyed Scharmanns. I’ve always felt deprived of knowing more about that missing grandfather. Whenever I asked my father about him, he changed the subject and had no stories to tell. When you write your family history, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know.

This brings me to another question that memoir writers often ask: What about the privacy of the people I write about? Should I leave out things that might offend or hurt my relatives? What will my sister think?

Don’t worry about that problem in advance. Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now. Don’t look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue. If you wrote your family history only for your family, there’s no legal or ethical need to show it to anyone else. But if you have in mind a broader audience— a mailing to friends or a possible book—you may want to show your relatives the pages in which they are mentioned. That’s a basic courtesy; nobody wants to be surprised in print. It also gives them their moment to ask you to take certain passages out—which you may or may not agree to do.

Finally, it’s your story. You’re the one who has done all the work. If your sister has a problem with your memoir, she can write her own memoir, and it will be just as valid as yours; nobody has a monopoly on the shared past. Some of your relatives will wish you hadn’t said some of the things you said, especially if you reveal various family traits that are less than lovable. But I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.

What are the wrong reasons? Let me take you back to the memoircrazed 1990s. Until that decade, memoir writers drew a veil over their most shameful experiences and thoughts; certain civilities were still agreed on by society. Then talk shows came into their own and shame went out the window. Suddenly no remembered episode was too squalid, no family too dysfunctional, to be trotted out for the titillation of the masses on cable TV and in magazines and books. The result was an avalanche of memoirs that were little more than therapy, their authors using the form to wallow in self-revelation and self-pity and to bash everyone who had ever done them wrong. Writing was out and whining was in.

But nobody remembers those books today—readers won’t connect with whining. Don’t use your memoir to air old grievances and to settle old scores; get rid of that anger somewhere else. The memoirs that we do remember from the 1990s are the ones that were written with love and forgiveness, like Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life. Although the childhoods they describe were painful, the writers are as hard on their younger selves as they are on their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived without resentment to get on with our lives. For them, writing a memoir became an act of healing.

It can also be an act of healing for you. If you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain they caused you or you caused them, readers will connect with your journey.

NOW COMES THE hard part: how to organize the damn thing. Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all.

What can be done?

You must make a series of reducing decisions. For example: in a family history, one big decision would be to write about only one branch of the family. Families are complex organisms, especially if you trace them back several generations. Decide to write about your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side, but not both. Return to the other one later and make it a separate project.

Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. Like siblings.

One of my students in a memoir class was a woman who wanted to write about the house in Michigan where she grew up. Her mother had died, the house had been sold, and she and her father and her 10 sisters and brothers were about to meet at the house to dispose of its contents. Writing about that task, she thought, would help her to understand her childhood in that large Catholic family. I agreed—it was a perfect framework for a memoir—and I asked her how she was going to proceed.

She said she was going to start by interviewing her father and all her brothers and sisters to find out how they remembered the house. I asked her if the story she wanted to write was their story. No, she said, it was her story. In that case, I said, interviewing all those siblings would be an almost complete waste of her time and energy. Only then did she begin to glimpse the proper shape of her story and to prepare her mind for confronting the house and its memories. I saved her hundreds of hours of interviewing and transcribing and trying to fit what she transcribed into her memoir, where it didn’t belong. Remember: it’s your story. You only need to interview family members who have a unique insight into a family situation, or an anecdote that unlocks a puzzle you were unable to solve.

HERE’S ANOTHER story from another class. A young Jewish woman named Helen Blatt was very eager to write about her father’s experience as a survivor of the Holocaust. He had escaped from his village in Poland at the age of 14—one of the few Jews to get away—and had made his way to Italy, to New Orleans and, finally, to New York. Now he was 80, and his daughter asked him to go back with her to that Polish village so she could hear about his early life and write his story. But he begged off; he was too frail and the past was too painful.

So she made the trip on her own in 2004. She took notes and photographs and talked with people in the village. But she couldn’t find enough facts to enable her to do justice to her father’s story, and she was deeply upset about that. Her despair hung over the class.

For a few moments I couldn’t think of anything to tell her. Finally I said, “It’s not your father’s story.”

She gave me a look that I still remember as it dawned on her what I was saying.

“It’s your story,” I told her. I pointed out that nobody has enough facts— not even scholars of the Holocaust—to reconstruct her father’s early life; too much of the Jewish past in Europe has been obliterated. “If you write about your own search for your father’s past,” I said, “you’ll also tell the story of his life and his heritage.”

I saw a heavy weight drop off her shoulders. She smiled a smile that none of us had seen before and said she would get started on the story right away.

The course ended, and no paper was handed in. I called her and she said she was still writing and needed more time. Then, one day, a 24-page manuscript arrived in the mail. It was called “Returning Home,” and it described Helen Blatt’s pilgrimage to Plesna, a small rural town in southeastern Poland that wasn’t even on the map. “Sixty-five years later,” she wrote, “I was the first member of the Blatt family the town had seen since 1939.” Gradually making herself known to the townspeople, she found that many of her father’s relatives—grandparents and uncles and aunts— were still remembered. When one old man said, “You look just like your grandmother Helen,” she felt “an overwhelming sense of safety and peacefulness.”

This is how her story ends:

After I returned home my father and I spent three straight days together. He watched every minute of the four-hour video I made as if it were a masterpiece. He wanted to hear every detail of my trip: who I met, where I went, what I saw, what foods I liked and disliked, and how I was treated. I assured him that I was welcomed with open arms. Although I still have no photos of my family telling me what their faces looked like, I now have a mental picture of their character. The fact that I was treated so well by complete strangers is a reflection of the respect my grandparents earned from the community. I gave my father boxes of letters and gifts from his old friends: Polish vodka and maps and framed photos and drawings of Plesna.

As I told him my stories he looked like an excited child waiting to open his birthday present. The sadness in his eyes also disappeared; he looked jubilant and giddy. When he saw his family’s property on my video I expected to see him cry, and he did, but they were tears of joy. He seemed so proud, and I asked him, “Daddy, what are you looking at with such pride? Is it your house?” He said, “No, it’s you! You have become my eyes and ears and legs. Thank you for taking this trip. It makes me feel as if I’ve gone there myself.”

MY FINAL REDUCING advice can be summed up in two words: think small. Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.

That turned out to be the main lesson I learned by writing a book in 2004 called Writing About Your Life. It’s a memoir of my own life, but it’s also a teaching book—along the way I explain the reducing and organizing decisions I made. I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey. On the contrary, many of the chapters in my book are about small episodes that were not objectively “important” but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.

One chapter is about serving in the army in World War II. Like most men of my generation, I recall that war as the pivotal experience of my life. But in my memoir I don’t write anything about the war itself. I just tell one story about one trip I took across North Africa after our troopship landed at Casablanca. My fellow GIs and I were put on a train consisting of decrepit wooden boxcars called “forty-and-eights,” so named because they were first used by the French in World War I to transport forty men or eight horses. The words QUARANTE HOMMES OU HUIT CHEVAUX were still stenciled on them. For six days I sat in the open door of that boxcar with my feet hanging out over Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It was the most uncomfortable ride I ever took—and the best. I couldn’t believe I was in North Africa. I was the sheltered son of Northeastern WASPs; nobody in my upbringing or my education had ever mentioned the Arabs. Now, suddenly, I was in a landscape where everything was new—every sight and sound and smell.

The eight months I spent in that exotic land were the start of a romance that has never cooled. They would make me a lifelong traveler to Africa and Asia and other remote cultures and would forever change how I thought about the world. Remember: Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance—not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

AS FOR HOW to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.

American Landscape Painter Susan Swartz

Used with permission of the artist.

Used with permission of the artist.

As taken from Susan’s website:  Susan Swartz explores the landscape through potent colors and richly layered abstract paintings. With her evocation of coastal splendor and mountain drama, Swartz follows in the tradition of the great German painters, 19th century Romantic sage Caspar David Friedrich, and 20th century icon Gerhard Richter. She is inspired by the intersection of art, nature and spirituality.

Swartz’s distinctive style has been recognized with solo exhibitions at the Kollegienkirche in Salzburg, Austria; the Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C in 2011; the Springville Museum of Art in Springville, Utah in 2010; and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2008. Her works are in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; the Springville Museum of Art; Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and the International Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In 2005, Swartz was published in the Gibbs Smith collectors book Painters of the Wasatch Mountains alongside Wasatch Mountain School artists Maynard Dixon, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. The same year she was honored by the Harvard Divinity School for a career that continues to blend artistry and faith. Swartz was the Official Olympic Environmental Artist for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

The underlying energy and tension to Swartz’s work hints of her complex relationship with the natural world. Her decade long struggle with mercury poisoning and Lyme disease transformed her as an artist and as a citizen. She now works from a place of impassioned reverence for the earth, and of fierce determination to inform and educate. Partnering with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Louie Psihoyos and Dr. Jane Goodall on a number of their environmental campaigns, Swartz also supports the vision and production of documentary films  that seek to shed light on social and environmental injustice. Films touched by her include Academy Award-winners and nominees, as well as Sundance Film Festival award winners.

Swartz serves on the National Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Dean’s Council of the Harvard Divinity School and is the co-founder of charity-based The Christian Center of Park City  She is on the board of the Utah Film Center and a founding member of the documentary film organization Impact Partners.


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