A good friend asked me what it felt like to help my mother actually write her very first story about her life in Czechoslovakia during the war.  I was surprised how many emotions flooded forward.  I felt so many things.

I believe the first emotion was a sense of accomplishment.  I have wanted to record some of our family stories for quite some time now and I was very happy to have one completed.  I really feel like this is just the first step of a very important journey, perhaps one of the most important things for me to accomplish in my life!

My mother has severe arthritis and can not really write or type so needs someone to record her words.  Writing as a team is not very easy, especially with mama’s train of thought. Sometimes she would begin the tale and be reminded of so many other stories during the telling of the first, it was hard at times to keep track of where we were.  Immersing herself in the details of the time brought other memories to the fore, and there were many starts and stops.  But this was wonderful, you see, as these are simply more stories bubbling up from the past and we will record those too.

My mother was very young when her own parents died. She was barely a child of four when she no longer had a mother.  “What was she like?”  I would ask my mama when I was younger.  Well, who knew?  There were no stories you see, to refer to.  No one alive left to ask, no tales written, no where to look for clues to what kind of person my grandmother Rose was.  This has always seemed to me to be a terrible loss.  What was life like for Rose?  What made her happy?  What were her dreams?  Was she funny or was she a good cook?  Was she anything like me at all?  What did she look like?  Is my own daughter a spitting image of Rose at the age of 17?  No one knows.  No one will ever know.

Sometimes I think we think of “history” as something that has happened to masses of faceless and nameless folks and a few special characters that we read about in books; leaders or other notable figures.  But “history” is really our stories.  My mama’s life, especially in Europe during the war is her story.  And so, it is my story and family’s story too and part of the fabric of history itself.

Don’t you wonder sometimes how history is recorded?  Who decides what was important to record?  Only the newspapers?  The television programs?  I feel like I am recording something worthwhile that might so easily be lost to the world; the life of one young German/Czechoslovakian girl, living a parallel life to the famous Anne Frank.  How differently the world might imagine that time without that one girl’s thoughts and voice?

There have been those few narrow minded people in my mama’s life that have chided “her part” in the shameful piece of history associated with Hitler’s Germany.  As if she had had a choice.  She was a child and a girl.  Czechoslovakia and Germany were in those days much like China or other oppressive countries are now.  The government decided what “news” you read or heard on the radio.  Rumor, whispers and official proclamations were often at odds with reality.  Friends and neighbors died or were killed mysteriously.  Fear was rampant.  Food and shelter tenuous.  Some people committed suicide to escape the horror.  Who was to survive?

Recording this story and others to come, helps my own sense of family integrity, even when others, so far past the events of the time, proclaim that mama was on the “wrong” side of history, and that, even as a teenager she could have “done something” to help the terrible plight of the Jews.  Her own father, a civilian, was killed by errant Russian sniper fire and she was left alone with a stepmother and little sister and not enough to eat.  Well she did something alright and soon we will record stories on how she essentially saved her stepmother’s life and her sister’s life too.  She set her sights on becoming an American as quickly as she could, and followed this dream single-mindedly.

And so becoming an American, was exactly what my mama did.

Collecting her stories before and after the war archives one young woman’s dream of freedom and allows future generations of our family to know how it was that they ended up being born here, in America, in the greatest country on earth.  Recounting the details of life then and now makes me a very patriotic person. America was my mama’s salvation.  It is my cherished home.  These stories allow us to understand others’ current dreams to immigrate to this country.

Every person has family stories to tell, historic or incidental, big or small, funny or sad, long discourses or short little tales.  And even if your family has heard these stories many times, if you don’t record them with the person who lived them, you will get things wrong.  You will mix up the details.  I know I would have done so, if I would have tried to tell the story of the first time my mama rode a horse after her death.

I am grateful that my mother is recording her stories with me because I feel that I am honoring her now, when she can appreciate that fact.  Also this gives her the opportunity to play a real part in how she will be remembered in the future.  My grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren will never have to wonder what “Baba” was like.  They will read her safely archived stories, hear her voice, and unlike my faceless and mysterious grandmother Rose, they will know her.

And so will history itself.


Candace Craw-Goldman is a photographer, artist and mother of teenagers.   

Her website, Inrepose.com, offers elegant multimedia Online Memorials, services to help you record your Last Wishes, and a comprehensive, interactive information Resource Forum where one can learn about end-of-life issues. InRepose Blog and the Resource Forum offer a unique online community for learning and sharing.