Something Permanent to Hold On To
Oral history: In the era of e-mail and fax, a lot of family stories are being lost. Businesspeople like Ellie Kahn are capturing the tales on video and paper as lasting reminders.
|"It's important for people to know about their roots," says Ellie Kahn, who records oral histories in book and video form.|
It's not yet noon on a Sunday morning, and Marcia Berman has already recounted 100 years of history. As the video rolls, Berman, a children's songwriter, tells the saga of her family, from her Polish-born grandparents' arranged marriage to her parents' courtship at a Boyle Heights soda fountain to her own adolescent experiences in a socialist-Zionist youth group.
Prompting the narrative is Ellie Kahn, founder of the oral history venture Living Legacies. Sitting a few feet away in Berman's living room, she patiently draws out the multi-generational account, occasionally offering words of encouragement during a sometimes emotional session.
|Ellie Kahn, left, chats with Edith Meyer during a recording session. Meyer fled Nazi Germany in 1938; her son Ron Meyer, president of Universal Pictures, hired Kahn to document the family's history.|
|History was never one of Kahn's favorite subjects when she was growing up, but now she's helping to preserve it. Through Living Legacies, Kahn chronicles the lives of people not usually found in textbooks. Telling their stories--history with a small h--has become both her livelihood and her passion. "History is often written by people who didn't live what they're writing about," she says. "I'm interested in hearing the people who actually lived this history talk about it."Kahn's interest is shared by a growing number of individuals and institutions. Southern California is home to two of the largest oral history collections in the state, one at UCLA and the other at Cal State Fullerton, as well as dozens of smaller oral history projects run by museums, community groups and arts entities.|
|Kahn entered the field in 1988 and has since become one of the Southland's more prolific private oral historians, compiling nearly 150 histories either in book, video or audio format.The book versions, which include family photos and documents, are printed on archival paper and bound in hardcover leather. The videos often incorporate interviews with friends and family, along with footage from gatherings; they're edited either by Kahn or a professional editor. She also produces institutional histories for temples, social clubs and other groups.Some of the stories are extraordinary, like that of Golde and Abraham Maymudes, who met in the woods in pre-revolutionary Russia while plotting against the czar and went on to become union organizers in this country.
Many of Kahn's subjects are Holocaust survivors with grim tales of Nazi persecution, such as Helen Moss, who spent a year and a half in Auschwitz before escaping from the infamous Death March. Other stories are less dramatic but no less compelling, offering vivid insights into the nuances of people's lives.
Many of Kahn's subjects are elderly Jews whose children are interested in documenting their family's heritage.
"My father had told me stories through the years of his family, and I wanted to have it recorded so that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have it," says Sondra Smalley, who hired Kahn to interview her father, Isadore Familian, for his 80th birthday. "I felt it was very important to get that down."
Kahn's work has led her into the fields of documentary filmmaking and education. In 1996, she produced "Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto," the well received account of Boyle Heights' Jewish legacy, and last year she established a nonprofit foundation through which she has instructed children how to interview their grandparents.
"It's important for people to know about their roots," Kahn says. "So many people say, 'We waited too long to interview Grandma. She's gone now, and there's no one who can tell my kids about their heritage.' "
Born and raised in Cleveland, Kahn came from a tightknit Jewish family. After graduating from Ohio State University, she moved to Los Angeles and began a professional odyssey that would take her through several careers, including occupational therapy and journalism. While both had their rewards, she continued to search for her true calling.
"The thing that was missing for me in journalism was that once the article was finished and in the paper, I had no connection with the people who were reading the article," Kahn says. "In therapy, what was missing was that there weren't always results."
Kahn had long been drawn to seniors--"My friends always say that they have to stop me from picking up old people in the park," she says with a laugh--and when someone suggested that she look into oral history, everything came together. She could now integrate her interviewing and counseling skills into a career that fulfilled her need for human connection.
Kahn's subjects attest to the value of documenting their life experiences. "I believe that families can learn a lot from these tapes," says Familian, who grew up in Boyle Heights and went on to become a leading businessman and philanthropist. "When a young person has some hardships, a parent can play the tape and say, 'Your grandfather had some hardships. Look what happened to him.' I think it can be inspirational and educational."
The story of Helen and Julius Moss, recorded by Kahn in a leather-bound manuscript, is nothing if not inspirational. Each was married to a different spouse when the Hungarians came into what was then Czechoslovakia and sent most of the Jews, including Helen, to concentration camps. While she survived repeated encounters with Dr. Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz, Julius endured the rigors of a Hungarian labor camp.
Their spouses were not as fortunate, however, and when the two met in their hometown after the war, they married and eventually immigrated to the U.S. The couple settled in Los Angeles, where Julius became a baker at Gotham of Hollywood and Helen worked in real estate.
Though they had always found it painful talking about the past, the Mosses decided to record an oral history and give it to one of their grandsons as a bar mitzvah gift. "I was thinking about the family," Helen says. "It was really for the future."
While many people record oral histories with their children and grandchildren in mind, Kahn recognizes that her subjects also benefit from talking about their lives.
"I know I'm not doing therapy, but the experience is therapeutic," she says. "There's something called life review in the field of psychology, and it's based on the idea that if someone has a chance to reminisce about their entire life--to be acknowledged for what they've lived, to express the sorrows and the joys of their life--they don't end up in the last years of life with a feeling of incompletion."
Not only does oral history affect the immediate participants, it also has a larger sociological impact, observes Dale Treleven, director of UCLA's oral history department. Oral history creates a permanent record in an age when more disposable forms of communication such as faxes and e-mail are increasingly usurping letters, diaries and other traditional documents. Moreover, it serves as a corrective to the axiomatic truth that history is written by and about the powerful.
"It's a means to democratize the historical record," says Treleven, who oversees a collection of 800 interviews documenting everything from California's water wars to the Central Avenue cultural renaissance of the 1930s and '40s to the history of UCLA. "Oral history has a tendency to put people--the 'uncommonly common people,' as Studs Terkel might say--back into history."
Of course, not all oral history is created equal. Art Hansen, director of Cal State Fullerton's oral history program, expresses concern about the growing trend of contract work in his field, where individuals or institutions are paid to record history. He worries that such arrangements compromise the accuracy of the documents. Nevertheless, he is supportive of efforts like Living Legacies.
"Anything that encourages historical perspective is good, whether family-based, community-based or institution-based," says Hansen, whose department boasts a 3,000-interview collection that includes the Richard Nixon Project and the Japanese-American Project. "To think about change through time is important. There are many things operating in the culture to try and extinguish historical thinking and reduce the world to then and now."
For her part, Kahn continues to broaden the scope of her work. She recently completed a course at Palms Junior High teaching kids how to interview their grandparents, and this fall she will be instructing students at Milken middle school on interviewing residents at nursing homes. It all ties into Kahn's larger mission of preserving history, honoring elders and bridging the gap between generations.
"In ancient days, the tribal elders would tell the stories of the tribe," she says. "I think that it created cohesiveness for the family and the community to have this thread that went back in time, and to have this old person respected and admired as someone who the young people could go to. Old people were seen very differently--they were the keepers of the family stories--and I think that would be a really beneficial thing to have again in our culture."