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.

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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7 Replies to “Writing Family History”

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. Thank you for the comments so far which I resonate with.
    My reflections are perhaps longer than the remit but
    I’ve used this lockdown period to finally transcribe the 30 or so letters from my grandmother, Lina, to her son, my father, Heinz, after he came on the Kindertransport from Vienna to England 3 days after his 13th birthday. I’d like to pretend, like so many narratives I read on the subject, that these were newly discovered upon the death of a relative. But no, they were handed to me, fragile tissue-thin sheets of paper, approximately two decades ago by my father in a tin of Quality Streets. I made attempts throughout the years to have them transcribed from Sütterlin to modern German but each renewed attempt petered out. In the light of knowing her eventual transport to Theresienstadt and murder at Auschwitz, I could quite literally not bear their content, the letters full of hope (real or feigned for her son, I wonder) eliciting even more pain than those filled with despair. So, like my father before me, who refused to look at let alone discuss, the letters were consigned back to their now rusting tin and shoved to the furthest recess of the larder in my Devon cottage.

    And to me this ‘anecdote’ acutely reflects my ambivalence, and maybe that of many Second Generationers: as Elizabeth above, I’m both desperate to know more and equally horrified and repelled by the reality if not the idea. Give me normal! Again, like so many, I grew up with a silence, in an absence. I knew my father’s family had been murdered at Auschwitz, and of all the family members, just a single photo remained: one Lina sent of herself to my father to mark his 14th birthday in December 1939, one year after his arrival in the UK. From this creased and sepia image, I’ve concocted stories and fantasies, and now at last I am able to know her a little more intimately through her loving letters penned in her last years to her innigst geliebtes Goldkind.

    Up to now, I’d always thought of ‘it’ as my father’s loss. I remember my absolute amazement when decades ago I heard someone name their dead with themselves as the subject and thus victim: ‘their’ grandmother, ‘their’ great-aunt instead of their father’s mother, their grandparents’ siblings. It felt like a shocking act of appropriation. Only recently, in my forties, was I able or willing to see the loss as my own, or at least as including me. And not only acknowledge the actual loss but begin to explore the legacy this exerted on my own childhood and beyond.

    Now in my fifties, after the recent death of both my parents (my mother an earlier refugee in the mid thirties), does it occur to me that there has been a wider and perhaps unintentional significance for me to the term ‘Second Generation’. Namely, not only to denote we the children whose parents were affected by Nazi persecution, but also to describe that sense of belonging to nothing more extended than the previous generation. Of having been plucked out of thin air and landed somewhere, anywhere, without history or descendants, in a country whose customs even after all these decades can feel alien.

    Again, only now am I willing or ready to admit how and how much I’ve been haunted by this sense of rootlessness before I could even name it. The loss of lineage and tribe. Of belonging and assuredness. The loss of one’s birthright that forever casts a shadow however outwardly ‘successful’ or happy seeming.

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