This morning, after something like two weeks of working through it, I finished watching my grandfather’s Shoah Foundation video testimony.
Both of my grandparents were interviewed about their experiences back in November 1997, but I hadn’t seen either video. I borrowed copies of the DVDs from my parents last year, before my grandfather passed away, but I waited until my sabbatical so I could spend a serious amount of time with them.
I’m glad that I waited. These interviews are, not surprisingly, very difficult to watch. Even fifty or more years after the events, their emotions are right on the surface when they talk about their parents, their siblings, and the last time they ever saw them.
After nearly two hours of talking about unimaginable tragedy, my grandfather is asked about his life today. He says, “We have a nice, happy life here. Children, grandchildren. We are happy with what we got here.” The interviewer asks him if he has any anecdotes about his family that he wants to share and he proceeds to talk, for about five minutes, about my sister and me, telling a few stories from when we were little kids. It’s the only time, in two hours, that he smiles and laughs.
You might think this is the unexpected gift, those few minutes. And there’s no denying that I’ll watch him recounting those stories again and again for many years to come. The stories are ones that my grandmother always tells whenever she reflects on our childhood, but this time they are told by my grandfather; they are in his voice, with his laughter.
The larger gift, though, is really the entire two hours of testimony; it’s a tour of our family history and a permanent link to a past that could so easily be papered over or minimized with just a few words. When my children are older, I’ll show it to them to teach them this part of who they are and to connect them to great-grandparents for whom they, the next generation, were two of the most important people in the world.