Writing Family History

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‘I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than half an hour of my life doing research’

Sir Tom Stoppard quoted in the Los Angeles Times (21 October 2016) regarding his last play The Hard Problem.

However the Czech born British playwright has spoken of the personal research he undertook for his current work Leopoldstadt, the story of a family set in the eponymous district of 20th century Vienna.

In March the run of Leopoldstadt in London was cancelled. Furthermore, the Second Generation workshop Writing Family History was cancelled.

( *There is a Zoom presentation on 24 June 2020)

Both were fully booked, casualties of the measures taken to combat the Covid 19 virus.

There is an opportunity to continue to research, reflect and write Family History in our own space, the Second Generation Network web pages.

This space is for your contributions.

Post your writing on your family history. We are open for contributions in whatever form – factual paragraphs, poems, micro fiction – of up to approximately 100 words.

What have you discovered concerning your family history? How? Did stories emerge from conversations with family members, have you received photographs, documents, diaries? Are there gaps in these stories you need to fill with your own research, by visiting places or working through real or virtual libraries and archives?

In the process of researching his play Sir Tom has spoken of how he discovered his own family history relatively late in life and his reactions in recognising this history in his own identity.

I too in later life explored through First, Second and Third Generation family conversation and contact with research institutes my connections to the past and present,  my mother’s journey by Kindertransport from Vienna to Yorkshire, my uncle’s journey to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

Does this interest change as one’s own life progresses? Do you want to know ‘everything’ or ‘enough’? How would you create and structure your story? Have you seen, read or heard plays, films, books, pictures, music on these themes which resonate with you?

Please send your stories to us for our website www.secondgeneration.org.uk


As Second Generation meetings and events have been cancelled the network wishes to make this space available to all. This is a pilot scheme devised in response to the current cancellation of Network events. If it is successful further topics may be added. We are always open to suggestions for developing our online presence. Ideas welcome. In addition any members who can provide technical assistance please contact us.

Follow the same guidelines for contributing to this site as you would for our face to face meetings or the print magazine Voices:

All contributors are to be equally respected, no personal or political remarks.

We have limited resources so ask that everyone takes responsibility for ensuring the proper functioning of site content. The site will be moderated by (volunteer) members of the Second Generation Network and Voices Committee who reserve the right in extremis to remove postings considered to be beyond the guidelines.

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9 Replies to “Writing Family History”

  1. Introductory article by John King, Second Generation Voices, UK, April 2020

    *Online events, topics
    June: Writing the Holocaust
    July: Internment of German and Austrian Jewish refugees in UK

    Introduction to September topic: Stolpersteine Commemoration

  2. I find it difficult to write my family history. My parents told me virtually nothing, and the research I needed to do has captured my interest so strongly that I can’t release myself from it (the research) to do the writing. I keep remembering things that I knew, but I’m unsure of the detail and lose myself trying to find that information. And then I have have an Everest of information, with more arriving weekly from old contacts and solicitations, that I don’t want to lose for future interested generations. But it will make this book 1000 pages long, if not more.
    Has anybody got any advice?

  3. Thank you John, for your opening article.
    I wanted to respond to the following: Does this interest change as one’s own life progresses? YES – it has for me, got steadily more interested as my adult life went by and now into my fifties.
    Do you want to know ‘everything’ or ‘enough’? – Everything is an impossibility, but even -‘enough’ is difficult to determine early on in the process – I don’t get bothered by this, and just keep going with my intuition, and being mindful of those relatives who are still alive, to speak.
    How would you create and structure your story? Have you seen, read or heard plays, films, books, pictures, music on these themes which resonate with you? Yes to both questions, and for me, only by immersing myself in a variety of media, can I keep highly motivated and stimulated to creative ideas of how to formulate and present my material. I have written poetry, am writing a play (with my mother) and often express myself through art, too.

  4. I agree that interest in our family origins, which can be difficult to face up to, varies: partly due to age (as a younger adult I think you tend to look forward rather than backward in time) and partly to a cycle I go through regularly between wanting to know and record as much as possible about my father’s background, and, on the other hand, wanting to live a ‘normal’ life without thinking about these awful events.
    Unfortunately the age aspect of my varying level of interest means that I left it late to find out more from my father. His brother, the only other relative of his who was old enough to know what happened, felt that it was unnatural for people like me, who hadn’t gone through what he and my father had suffered, would want to dig up the past.
    I want to write down what I know, but feel that I need some training in how to go about this, and have just enrolled on an online course about writing life history. Hopefully this will help me to get started!

  5. My father died young and, like so many other people, I left it too late to speak with him about his experiences. My brother has already done an incredible amount of research and managed to piece together the tragic story of our family. There is still so much more to find out but I am fortunate that my husband, who is not Jewish, has taken my family’s story to heart and is fully involved in helping us with further research.

  6. Hi John, thankyou for your article.
    As others have said I find the editing process the hardest.

    My two sisters and I have been researching my late father and grandparents’ escape from Vienna in 1939, via shelter in Muslim Albania, to Leeds under the sponsorship of the brother of the Lord Mayor; and my grandfather’s subsequent internment on the Isle of Man and service in the Pioneer Corps. I was interested to see that your mother came from Vienna to Yorkshire ( North Yorkshire coast then Leeds).

    Each strand of the story is compelling to us – but what should we include/exclude in an illustrated account we want to create for ourselves and our children- the third generation?

    I started the research at age 59 – decades after my sister had recorded 90 minutes of my grandmother’s reminiscences. I didn’t sit down to listen to the tape properly until 3 years ago. I think it is something one becomes interested in later in life. Having said that, my daughter in her mid-twenties is really interested in the story.

    I’m attending the Writing workshop on 24 June and looking forward to picking up tips.

  7. I have an significant amount of information on my family history, but now in my mid-60s after the death of my mother a year and half ago feel that I need to put it together in a coherent way or else it will just be overlooked. The depth of information is varied, but we now know much more about the family than my parents did, given what is available online. I signed up for the writing workshop because I want to minimize my learning curve in figuring out how to do this effectively. I have experience with technical writing, but don’t know much about writing to keep the reader’s interest; it will be a new challenge which I can hopefully accomplish within a year or so. I don’t want to spend more time than that on it.

  8. I only joined SG very recently and so I sadly missed this presentation from June 2020. My mother ( a child refugee aged 11, in 1939) , died in her 50s in 1982. About 10 years ago I acquired all the letters she wrote to her mother (who survived in Germany ) between the 1940s and the late 1970s… these had been with a cousin for years. I have been contemplating what to do with these for years and lockdown had finally given me time to sort them properly . I have made a start with a short piece, written for children, which I hope to expand.

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