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The first bar mitzvah speech to be delivered in Yiddish in Altoona was given in 1938 by Ed Schwartz, a Brooklyn boy transplanted to the middle of Pennsylvania.

This was one of the details that emerged from my interview with my mother’s first cousin, now 90 years old and living in an assisted living apartment in Rockland County.


I had never met Ed Schwartz or his daughter Marla until another mutual cousin that none of us had ever met made the connection through an online family tree. If we needed visible proof of the relationship, my grandmother Yetta gazed out at us from a group picture in Ed’s wedding album.

The Faust Family Band. Wolf Schwartz, also known as Wolf Zimbler, is seated on the right.
The Faust Family Band. Wolf Schwartz, also known as Wolf Zimbler, is seated on the right.

That afternoon in February I was pursuing a double quest: to explore my family history and to practice the skills of a personal historian. Every scrap of history and every memory were precious to me. By this time my nearer relations – grandparents, parents, uncles and all but one aunt had passed on, taking their stories and memories with them.

I was determined to discover as many details as I could about my immediate ancestors and their extended family. Amid the stories not told and questions never asked, I saw that my role was to become the story keeper for my family.

My interest in family history actually began back in the 1990s when my sister and I created a video to honor our parents on their 50th anniversary. It was a light-hearted romp through the decades, with pictures, music and silent-movie captions (all pre-digital technology).

It was a gratifying and enjoyable experience but I had no idea it could lead to something more.

It was about that time that the field of personal history began to take off as a profession. Over the next few decades public interest in genealogy and memoirs would be a growing trend – noted in feature articles, talked about on Oprah, inhabiting bestseller lists. The TV documentary “Roots,” about an African slave brought to America, and the book and movie Angela’s Ashes, the memoir of an impoverished childhood in Ireland, added to the public interest in the life stories of non-celebrities.

Today, Amazon lists more than 280,250 books under the category “memoir.”

According to a report by, one third of adults online have used the Internet to learn about their family history.

It may be that seeking to connect with the past is rooted in the impermanence and impersonality of modern life. In Judaism, however, the past is so much part of our identity that “You shall tell it to your children…” is a guiding principle for Jewish existence.

Stories about tzaddikim, about prominent figures in Jewish history, and about self-sacrifice and oppression fill our bookshelves. But we are also heir to the stories of people living “ordinary” lives, lives filled with challenges, transitions, journeys, hard work and extraordinary courage.

Holocaust survival stories, understandably, became a prominent theme in Jewish memoirs after a period of silence and denial that followed the war. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation’s interviews brought further attention to the subject. But no matter how much a theme or period of history is explored by others, the story that means the most is the one that is closest to home.

“It isn’t enough to have a large project like the Steven Spielberg interviews,” said Julie Miller, a personal historian and owner of Life Story Media in San Francisco. “It’s not the same as hearing it from your grandma or grandpa, to hear firsthand the living Jewish history of survival.”

Beyond The Interview

Memoir is about reminiscence, and personal historians usually rely on a series of interviews with one or more narrators for material. The simple anecdote, the remembered aroma of a special food or description of the way people lived in times past are the ingredients of a fascinating story. But what if there is no longer a living narrator?


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Tzivia Emmer, a personal historian, helps bring the branches of a family tree to life with stories and memories. For information visit