According to the Organization of American Historians, “all people have been significant actors in human events…history is not limited to the study of dominant political, social, and economic elites…It also encompasses the individual and collective quests of ordinary people for a meaningful place for themselves in their families, in their communities, and in the larger world.”
With the epic truthfulness of that quote in mind, I would like to hear about your personal histories. What historical events did you or your parents or your grandparents live through? How did they interact with it?
Although I love sitting down and reading works of academic history, sometimes it’s even more fascinating to just sit down and talk to people and discover how their lives, and the lives of their family, intertwine with what we now think of as historical events. We all know that they happened, but hearing about them in terms of ordinary people just makes them come alive in a whole new way.
I’ll get the ball rolling with a story of the events my maternal grandmother lived through. She was born in Krakow in 1928 to a wealthy Jewish family. They had a nice life there, and even after Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union (as a stipulation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), most of them weren’t too worried; they were on the Russian side of the border. My great-grandfather, however, was very worried, and though the rest of the family assured him that Hitler would never reach them in Warsaw, he decided not to take any chances.
Less than a week before that part of Poland was captured by the Germans, he illegally crossed the border into Lithuania along with his wife, sisters, father, and daughter (my grandmother). As for the family they left behind, they were all killed. I only know the specifics of what happened to three of them: one died two days after liberation, one swallowed a cyanide capsule in the train which would have taken her to a camp, and another was drowned along with a boatload of other Polish Jews.
After crossing the border into Lithuania, they crossed into Latvia, and proceeded to make their way across Europe, somehow staying about a week ahead of the German army the entire time. After about two months, they made their way to what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. They stayed there for nearly two years while trying to attain a US Visa. By 1941 they had begun to fear that Hitler’s army would reach them, so they fled south and found themselves stranded in Cairo. Italy bombed Tel Aviv—where they had been living—two days later.
In Cairo, they managed to gain passage onto a British controlled Polish ship carrying Italian POWs to Sudan, and sailed down to South Africa. It was in South Africa that they attained US Tourist Visas, and made their way to the United States. They had to re-enter the country from Canada to begin the legal citizenship process after their Visa expired, and they settled just north of Manhattan in Westchester County.
If you are wondering how a bunch of Polish Jews in managed to get the Visas necessary to gain entry to all the Western European countries they crossed through in 1939, the answer is that my great-grandfather probably bribed an official or three.
Now it’s your turn. If you’d like to share some stories of the historical events that you or your family members experienced, then just reblog this post, and add your story. I look forward to reading them!