"There is no such thing

as an

uninteresting life"

            ~ Mark Twain



    "To be a person

   is to have a story
          to tell."

                ~Isak Dinesen

"We have the power to change what we do with our life and turn it into our destiny."

               ~Elie Weisel



"Stories are . . .

how we make

meaning of life."

  ~ Pamela Rutledge



" . . . we learn best--and change--from hearing stories that strike a chord within us."

             ~John Kotter


"A Kristallnacht Miracle"

Sometimes, an historical event can have very personal ramifications decades after it occurred. Here's a Personal History vignette that has meaning on multiple levels:  

        I recently went to a garage sale held by an elderly neighborhood couple whom I'd never met before. Eleanor and Ben were moving from their home of 25 years to an assisted living facility. It was a very emotional time for them. After I'd bought some household items that I needed, Eleanor and I started chatting, we seemed to have made a connection on a level beyond the buying/selling. She asked me if there was anything else I needed. 

For some reason, I mentioned that I happened to be looking for the kind of apron my Grandmother used to wear — one with a top and bottom and pockets. I described how my Grandmother’s apron pockets were always filled with hard-candy, safety pins, Kleenex, rubber bands, and whatever odds and ends she had collected during the day. I explained that I needed it for a work-shop I was conducting on preserving Jewish family histories. The woman's lovely soft-blue eyes lit up, and she insisted on climbing up a ladder to a reach a cabinet. On tiptoes, she burrowed into its depths to find a particular box. I held my breath in terror that she would fall. With the box in her hand, she slowly backed down the ladder. Safely on the ground, she opened the box and from under yellowed tissue paper, tenderly extracted a very old apron. When she held it up I gasped—absent the pins, Kleenex, and candy, it was exactly like my Grandmother’s.

Eleanor told me how this apron had been her Grandmother’s and then her mother’s. We shared stories about our Grandmothers, and the horrors they’d experienced. I told her how my work as an author and Holocaust educator was in honor of my Grandmother, and my relatives who had been killed when the Nazis liquidated the Jews of Vilna, Lithuania. Taking my hand, she insisted that I borrow this precious apron for my presentation. A total stranger she was lending her beloved mother’s apron to.

Still holding my hand, she motioned me to follow her through her spotless, house. On a credenza in the foyer, stood two tall, beautiful crystal candlesticks. Staring at them, I knew what she was about to tell me . . .

. . . Early on the evening of November 9, 1938, when Eleanor was just 10 years old, her father had rushed into their home shouting that the Nazis were coming—and that they had to leave immediately. She’d never heard her father even raise his voice, so this screaming terrified her. She grabbed her mother’s hand, ready to leave. With no way to imagine what was about to happen, however, Eleanor’s mother decided she needed to do something before they could run. She grabbed her own Grandmother's beautiful crystal candlesticks and hastily buried them in the backyard.

Then, Eleanor and her parents fled to the countryside, thinking they'd return to their home soon when things calmed down. Tragically, things never calmed down. And they never went home. The brave little family, carrying only what they’d been able to bring as they rushed out of their home, embarked on a long, dangerous journey to escaped Germany. In 1948, they settled in the US, where the Eleanor grew up and married. 

      On a trip to Germany in 1957, Eleanor’s mother decided they should go see their previous home. Without even asking permission of the current owner, they strode into the backyard and right to the spot where Eleanor’s mother had buried the candlesticks, hoping they might still be there.

And that’s why, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2017, because I needed a few garden tools, I stood with tears streaming down my cheeks, holding the hand of an elderly woman—who wasn't a stranger anymore—looking at her Grandmother's beautiful  candle sticks that her mother had buried on Kristallnacht.

© 2018 Joanne D. Gilbert. All rights reserved.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Sometimes a random topic from a writing group can trigger memories that become the basis of a Personal History vignette. Here's a poignant memory that was evoked by the topic, "Directions."
  ___________________ ~//~ ___________________


Personal Histories can take many forms 

from narrative 

to expository 

to poetic. 

They can include images of all types.

They come alive 

when inspired by anniversaries--

both personal and historic. 

Readers become actively engaged 

when you combine the two.

Be sure to include sensory references,

as well as cultural references

so your reader will be brought into the experience

on several levels.

Here's a vignette inspired by the 

upcoming anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riot:


Sunday, July 23 Friday, July 28 -1967

50 years ago. 


Unbelievable that it happened.

Unbelievable that it’s been 50 years.

We were right there—

going to Wayne State, 

by bus, 

at night—

living at Six Mile and Hamilton—

not far from the eruption

Helicopters' deafening relentless clackety-clacking 

right over our apartment 

their high-powered search-lights 

flashing through our night-time windows.

Sirens and people screaming non-stop in the streets.


Smelling the fires, 

the smoke.
Watching the ashes floating down from the sky. 

Can’t stop images of Auschwitz

Somethin’s Burnin’

Watching 24-hour coverage of our city explode 

on the news

between commercials for 

Ivory Liquid

Snowy Bleach

White Castle 

Classic Aunt Jemima

Feeling the soul of our city erupt in our hearts—

I can feel the fire

I started teaching 2 months later in Highland Park, 

which is right in the middle of Detroit's inner city.

Seemed as if we could still smell the horror all around us.

Our little oasis of safety in room 204.

I was just a sophomore in college.

The school district gave me an 

"Emergency Substitute in a Permanent Position" Credential 

because no teachers would come to that neighborhood. 

Almost the same age as my students-- 

Still remember many of their names all these years later 

Edith Hightower, Rosetta Norris, Regina Jackson, 

Jeffrey Gray, Lloyd Lewis, Mark Hoffman,

Levester Hawthorne

"Detroit," the movie, will be released August 4--

wonder if it will seem like a home movie--

If it comes to Las Vegas,

what Detroiters want to go with me to see it?

To hear it?

To feel it?

We can toast our past with Vernors or Faygo,

 have a Sanders hot-fudge sundae afterwards . . .

and think about the ways that 

Something's Still Burnin’

Can you feel the fire?

© 2017 Joanne D. Gilbert. All Rights Reserved





Memoirs are a form of Personal History writing, and can range in size from short vignettes to novel-length books. The following sample is an excerpt from the upcoming Young Adult book that I am writing with child Holocaust Survivor, Dr. Miriam Brysk. It takes place after they have escaped from the German-Occupied Warsaw, and relocated to Soviet-Occupied Lida.
 When the Germans subsequently took the region away from the Soviets, 
they forced the Jewish population out of their homes and into brutal ghettos.
 Miriam and her parents were among the few survivors of the monstrous 
"Great Lida Massacre" on May 8,1942.


The following vignette was written in response to the prompt, “Caucus,”during the early months of the 2016 election year.  It provides a perspective on the Democratic process that is both familiar, unique, and too often, frustrating. The Dr. Seussian title sets the tone for an essay about a chaotic experience. Note the cultural reference points, including, Elmer Gantry, “inch-by-inch,” Girl Scout cookies, “Rocky,” song lyrics: “Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide,” Sarah Palin quote: “You betcha.” These references enrich the narrative and create connections with the reader.

CAWcuss RAWcuss Runs AMAWKUSS!

Did someone say, CAUCUS? Slowly I turned—inch by inch—step by step . . .

According to directions, I had dutifully pre-registered online, arrived with my printed-out registration form in hand well before 11 am, waited in the eye-ball frying midday Nevada sun, during the always festive, pollen-splattering, birth of allergy season, in a line that stretched all the way around a huge high school, for an hour. During this time, we were all were regaled by various buskers, including an overly tanned, blindingly bright white toothy grinned Elmer Gantry-esque candidate for judge who was working the line, handing out business cards, and asking people to vote for him.                                                                    He was followed by an overly gregarious father and his shy Girl Scout-cookie-selling little girl. Along with their patriotically decorated wagon,festooned with a large American flag on a tall pole, they systematically went from the beginning of the line to the end, selling cookies. They must have made a fortune. Would have made even more if they'd been selling water. Then some caucus staffer in a turquoise t-shirt (CSTTS),  slowly moved down the ever-growing line, announcing that anyone who had preregistered, should go to the back of a different endless line, which I dutifully did.  After a lengthy wait, another CSTTS working this long line came by, and asked for our precinct numbers.          

Huh???  Precinct numbers??? 

          What is this precinct number of which you speaketh? Why wasn’t “Bring your precinct #” mentioned in all the emails? Why wasn’t it printed on our registration form?  None of us had our precinct numbers. So then we had to go to a third long line for people who weren’t smart enough to  know their precinct number. The registration # on our reg form was not sufficient. So then I went to the back of another long line, in which I tried to remember to be patient, dignified, and mature because otherwise I’d embarrass my family, who have stationed spies all over the city to report all my embarrassing-to-the-family activities.                                My wait in this line lasted 10 minutes before I snapped, and to an imaginary sound track of the “Rocky” theme, I exited the line, found a fresh-faced youngster who was manning a Solar Energy booth, handed him my cell phone and registration form and hissed, 

“I'm going to give you a tearful hug, and then have a total melt-down if you  don't figure out my goddamn precinct #. I will scream that you are my  grandson and that you never call, write or visit. Do you see all the grand parents in this sweating mob? Do you have any doubt how they will react?”                                                                         

He smiled nervously, while his twitching eyes scanned the hoards, trying to figure out if there were any security guards who could come to his rescue when the geriatrics attacked. He responded politely, but futilely, 

“Um . . . ma’am, I’m so sorry, but I don’t work for the caucus.” 

Hah! As if that would save him. 

“I don’t care who you work for. You’re young. You know what to do with   this techno stuff so just do it. Now.” 

         So the sweet, mildly terrorized youngster did some abracadabra stuff, flew his thumbs around a bit, and in 10 seconds, found my precinct #. 

 I nabbed another CSTTS person who couldn’t run very fast. I showed him my # and asked him what Caucus room to go to. He informed me that I must have the wrong precinct number, and that I needed the correct number in order to find the room where my co-precincters were gathering. He directed me to get in another line! I asked some people in this line what it was for, and looked at me blankly, no longer able to talk. I soon realized that this line wasn’t moving! So I found yet another line which right before my eyes transformed into a moaning, slimy, swarming, mosh pit.                                                                                   I slithered into it and undulated along with the group as if we were back-up singers for a viper. Soon, I began to sizzle and carbonate around the edges, not unlike that guy who turned into the Hulk. Only for me, it meant my raging inner-Detroit was about to burst forth. Which, unconstrained, would have had negative, if not disastrous repercussions for my reputation as a dignified, somewhat elderly granny, author, and public speaker. As I sizzled and carbonated, I strained my trifocaled eyes to get a better look at the sloppy sign that had my precinct number scrawled on it. Waaaaay down and smushed in at the very bottom! The Grail! Yes! My precious room number! 317!                                                    Now I had two numbers! But where would I find room 317?? There was a huge lack of signage. And that's when another exasperated woman teamed up with me and we became dangerous! How dangerous? So dangerous that a wary CSTTS quickly showed us the way out of the mosh pit and into another large courtyard. Where there was even more no signage. Even the Hulk couldn’t cope with this. I defaulted to the no-fail, whimpering granny mode until someone adopted me and led me to my room. YES!! 


The room was filled beyond capacity. People were squished to the point where the room threatened to explode like a dented can of Vernor’s Ginger Ale that had been in the trunk of the car since 1954. And there were four women in wheel-chairs huddled around the door, plus 10 other people who might as well have been trying to channel the proceedings through a Ouija Board. No room at the inn. I channeled my inner Nancy Drew/Emma Peel, and threaded my way sinuously through the crowd, and—TA DAH!—got into the room—where I could see the heat, and smell the frustration. It was a computer room—so no way to leap in a single bound over the desks and get out in the event of a fire. People filled the aisles, so no way to run, walk, or crawl out, in case of a bladder call. And even if I got out of the room dry and alive, since the door was blocked by wheelchairs positioned so closely together that their spokes had probably intertwined and begun to procreate, I’d never breach the rampart. Disaster loomed. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. But worst of all, nowhere to sit. After 2 hours of standing, my bad back, arthritic knees, and throbbing hips, suggested that I commandeer a wheelchair. Just go ahead and flinging a sweet, elderly, handicapped person out of her chair and ride off with it into the rapidly approaching sunset. Maybe this would have happened at a Republican caucus—but I definitely couldn’t get away with it at a Democratic caucus. So many bleeding hearts, doncha know. 

Fortunately, age had not dulled decades of reconnaissance skills finely honed in smokey jazz joints and crime-ridden, grafitti-layered, high schools, teaching crazed drug-hopping or lulled delinquents. I did a quick danger check, and with boundless relief, spotted a chair that had been wedged behind a file cabinet where someone who’d had to go to the restroom had probably hidden it. Climbing single-mindedly over, under, around, and through, avoiding the snarky looks of people who feared I might have less than Democratic motives, I made my way to the chair, hoping it wasn't a mirage. And so for the first time in over two hours, I sat. And then nothing happened. And then more nothing happened, and it happened for a long time because although it was well after noon, there were still some 200 people outside having the same problem I did—They didn’t know their precinct #s. Just as the folks in the room seemed to be reaching a frighteningly restive and irritable climax, a messenger from the outside world started bringing us news flashes about how close the last person in line outside was to the front door of the school. "It will be 35 minutes . . . 20 minutes . . . we'll be out of here by 3 pm. Promise!”                                                                                                                     People were now getting faint and beginning to visibly wither. Some left because they physically couldn't take it anymore. Then, apparently everyone who had still been outside in line at noon, finally got in, and found their rooms! And even though we’d never broken into Hillary or Bernie groups per the directions on the board, because the room was too small; and even though we’d never elected a chairperson because the volunteer who was in charge hadn’t been trained and didn’t look at the chart on the wall that listed her duties, it was Caucus Time!

And the fun began.                                                                                                    The usual suspects from Central Casting oozed out of their crevices, and started spewing: The long-hair who wanted Revolution. The short-hair who felt Revolution meant Fidel Castro—or Lenin. The woman who wanted any female President. The deaf elderly lady who couldn't hear anything and kept asking repeatedly of no one,“What? What did he say?"  The man who threatened to call the fire department because we were out of compliance with the fire codes by being in a dangerously over-crowded room. The well-groomed, World War II vets, whose pants were sharply creased, and whose hats were adorned with pins, who didn’t let the fact that they had nothing to actually say to say, but wanted their presence known, announced that they were VETS!  And challenged anyone to mess with them. The  wild-haired, sloppy, wrinkled-fatigues-wearing Viet Nam War vet, who sounded so good as he extolled Bernie’s virtues, right up until the last moment when he proclaimed that if Bernie didn’t win, he wouldn’t vote . . .                                                                                                                                        Whereupon, despite promising my family that I wouldn’t call attention to myself, I had no choice but to stand up and respond: 

“Any Democrat who refuses to vote is just giving a vote to the Republicans.  That doesn’t make you a principled person standing up for your rights as an  American. It makes you an immature, self-indulgent saboteur not only of our  rights, but of your own rights. And if you’re sabotaging my rights, you’re worse than a Republican because Republicans don’t know any better.”

Much to my surprise my little articulation of the obvious received an enthusiastic and prolonged round of applause! Then all hell broke loose with people yelling at each other. The religion people against the non-religion people. The military vets against antiwar protestors—and spouses of same, all went at each other for a while, and then the WWII vets, their American flag shirts stretched over puffed up bellies,  circled up, stood tall, held their baseball caps over their hearts, and sang that old Kate Smith call to war, "God Bless America," I naturally then organized a chorus of "My Girl," in response—sadly, the wheelchair brigade couldn’t do the Temps’ choreography in such a small space. I fully expected the Jets and Sharks to dance in snapping their tattooed fingers.          Then—out of the blue— just when we were getting into the musical Kumbaya thing,we were told to settle down and start speaking for our candidates. Unfortun-ately, very few people got the chance because the ubiquitous narcissistic speech-a-fiers needed to bestow their own agendas upon our hapless hoard . . . and took up all the time . . . So much for Bern and Hill. And the kindly, but overwhelmed volunteer who was in charge, had no clue what to do because she hadn’t had the good fortune to have been a teacher in a crime-ridden, drug-infested, grafitti-layered high school. I did hold back as long as I could before standing up and bringing the crowd into order—and was rewarded by two more rousing rounds of applause!                                                                                                Anyway, after many confusing starts and stops and counts and recounts, the vote was finally done. The result was Hillary 110 and Bernie 10, the volunteer announced all the delegates would be awarded to Hilary because Bernie was not "viable" because of some mysterious 15% of some mysterious number ratio. And people got hostile, but what good is hostility when no one is in charge? So we finally left at 3:15. But before I could get out the door, someone handed me a card and a pen and asked me if I’d be an delegate at the next election event. And I signed it. Why? (How many of you can say, "Why?" without going into the whole Mickey Mouse Club theme song?) 

Because this is the granular gutsy grit, the pulsating blood, the life of America. The political equivalent of Carl Sandberg’s I Hear America Singing.”  Yes, it’s too often far less than honorable, and too often ugly. And that's the beauty of it. The beautiful ugliness of participating in the best process yet devised to govern a free people. The beauty of a people who embrace the ugliness  in order to be part of the solution instead of the problem. Dedicated people who will work to make it better—even while knowing they might and probably will fail. People who know that one day of discomfort is such a minuscule price to pay for the magnitude of privilege it grants us. And I'm grateful to be part of it.  I'm grateful that despite the grumbling, everyone was civilized. No shots fired! I’m grateful for the amazing, patient, energetic CSTTSs I met. I'm especially grateful that so many of the indomitable elderly Sun City Summerlin folks living in our precinct—whatever its damn number—stuck with it, many of them knowing all too well what it's like to "live" in a country that isn't a democracy--even an absurd and tattered one.                                                       

From sea to shining sea y’all. Inspiring? 

You betcha!

Copyright Joanne D. Gilbert, 2017 All Rights Reserved



                     "Beauty" is a good topic for Personal History writers.                      Note in the essay below, that the writer provides an open door 

to her history, her heart, and soul. 

Frequent cultural references engage and provide context for the reader.

The Eye of the Beholder/The Soul of the Beheld

It was at the beginning of 7th grade when I realized that my “AQ” (Appearance Quotient) status would forever be ensconced in the "Cute” section of the Life’s Bleachers. Along with the merging of the 6th grade graduates of OP School District’s 4 elementary schools into one centralized Junior High, came the first time I'd been in proximity to a peer who was authentically, and purely, beautiful. What a shock. 

Since I’d always been assured by my adoring Grandmother that I had a shana punum, and I had received reverent oohs and ahhhhs when I showed up wearing a ruby red chiffon dress to the latest bar mitzvah, so I was totally unprepared to find out I was destined to be a side-man in the Beauty Band. What precipitated this bitter new awareness? 

The mere existence of Joyce Gold. 

Who knew that a 12-year old could possess such beauty? Such crystalline green eyes? Such chiseled cheekbones? Honeyed-peach-velvet skin? Such a pert nose on a Jewish girl? Even her name—“Gold"—gleamed with her supremacy. Joyce Gold floated through our school’s hallways in a softly glittering penumbra of glamour. Crowds parted silently for her—even at the gridlocked juncture of the main hall and B-wing where I once punched Mr. Goff for being too handsy. (TMI?) She reminded me of the Richard Cory poem before I even knew there was such a thing—and of course before I knew its ending.  

Joyce Gold. 

Champagne couldn’t have danced as ebulliently across the tongue as did those syllables. I don’t think I ever heard her voice because she never spoke to me during the years between 7th and 12 grades. I’m sure there was no direct eye-contact. My trifling, dull, brown eyes would have slunk away in tearful shame at their hopeless insignificance.

  Joyce Gold even lived on the rich side of town, although I never saw her house because I had no reason to go to her side of town. I’d probably have been barred from crossing Coolidge. I’m sure that, unlike my wrong-side-of-town, 1-bathroom, no-basement house, hers would have come with all the trimmings. A regular Thanksgiving Dinner of a house. Probably even had an attached 2-car garage—with a remote control opener. And she for sure bought her sophisticated teen-girl clothing at Jacobsen’s or Saks—whose daunting thresholds I’d yet to traverse. 

How sad to know I was finished as a star before I’d even had a chance to sparkle. My Eastern European Slavic face, with its Nina Krushchev profile, would never include cheekbones. Because of Joyce Gold, I realized that I’d never make it as a singer because of Aretha. Or as a dancer because of Cyd Charisse. Or as a writer because of Dorothy Parker. 

But all that demoralizing beauty was no match for one shining, unlikely, hero. 

Harvey Morks.

Harvey came to Pepper Elementary School in 6th grade. He had some unfortunate physical issues, and at first, his appearance provoked brutal teasing from our classmates. Not yet aware of my own appearance deficits, and therefore full of self-confidence, I was a self-proclaimed champion of all underdogs. Anyone who messed with Harvey would suffer the consequences of my merciless rapier tongue. Soon there was no teasing. I didn’t realize that doing the right thing would have consequences. 

Until high school. Starting in 9th grade, every October, there was the annual ritual of making all but a few select girls feel like utter failures. Homecoming. Every Homeroom had an election to nominate someone for Homecoming Queen. Without fail, Harvey would nominate me, and I would win our Homeroom’s nomination to be on the ballot. We all knew that I never had a chance at the title—which of course went to the real “beauties,” but at least I got nominated from our Homeroom. Every year. We never discussed it. But for one hour a year, for 4 years, my star sparkled for someone, and I felt beautiful. And I learned an important lesson about finding my own audience, and making the best of what I had. Sparkling wherever I could. 

Even though I would never be beautiful, I exploited every ounce of cuteness I possessed! I found people who appreciated “cute”! I found some songs I could sing, along with some folks who enjoyed hearing me sing them--and somehow ended up an amateur jazz vocalist. This led me to become involved in the Jazz Community as a publicist and event organizer. I became an amateur West Coast Swing and Argentine Tango dancer, and although I’d never enter, much less win, a competition, I can still “cut a rug” when my arthritis gives me a break. And best of all, I became a published author of a book that features Jewish and Gentile Polish women who defied the Nazis. In the course of my work, I have traveled throughout the States, Canada, and Europe, making presentations to large audiences. I have met extraordinary people—some of whom think I have a certain “sparkle”!

Three years ago, as I approached the age of 70,  I made a presentation about my book in Detroit. In the audience were Harvey’s widow and daughter, and we had a lovely reunion after everyone else had left. How grateful I was after 50+ years, to be able to let them know the difference that Harvey had made in my life because he saw me sparkle.


The topic of "Worries" is popular with memoir writing coaches because it never fails to elicit important memories, and can easily relate to a variety of periods in a person's life. Try making a list of your biggest worries at age 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and so on. It will be interesting to see which worries appear more often than others, and thereby create a theme for a vignette!

Here is the 2nd-draft of a Personal History vignette based on "Worries," which is now titled, "What Me . . .?" This title creates interest by leaving out the key word, "Worry," which is a reference to Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman's query, "What Me Worry?"

Note the use of other Baby Boomer cultural references, as well as family details that enrich the context, and support the theme. 

Also included is a photo of my Great Aunt Rivka, Holocaust victim, who is mentioned in the vignette, and whose spirit inspires my work and lives on within me.

"Predictions" is another topic that is a great "prompt" for memoir-writing! Hope you enjoy the sample!
Note cultural references, foreshadow, surprise ending.
Here's a sample of a Personal History story 
that was inspired by the topic: 
 "A Time You Had to Fake It Til You Made It"
Note how the reader's interest is heightened by the conversational tone, as well as the references to poetry, literature, colloquialisms, 
and popular culture. 

Here is a Personal History-in-Progress Sample 

that was prompted by the topic:

Describe a moment that changed your life.

Change of Life

Have you ever noticed how when a little puddle of ignorance in a dark corner of your brain is unexpectedly illumined by a flash of the obvious, that your mind experi-ences a mini-whip-lash? And how in the midst of that, “Oh duh! How-could-I-not-have-known-that?” moment, you wonder what else you’ve been missing? And worry that you’re the only one who didn’t know? Did you try to ignore the flash, and continue on as if you’d never seen it? How’d that work for you?

When was your first “Duh” moment? Was it when you learned about Santa Claus? Your parents having sex? Eeeuww! Sometimes it can be a revelation of utmost simpli-city, such as when I discovered to my shock, at age 12, that the word, “simile” was not pronounced, “see mile.” I’d been tossing that one off with typically misguided pre-teen insouciance for at least the preceding six months. This humbling moment propelled me to be extra vigilant so I’d never mis-pronounce a word again.

It can be like the moment when at the age of 18, I realized that I was attracted to the formerly creepy twerp who used to chase me in kindergarten. When did he get so cute? And then later, another moment when I realized that he really was creepy, and that big and creepy was so much worse than little and creepy.  How do these flashes of insight happen? What do we do with them? What do they do with us?

Sometimes, when we least expect it, the dawning of the obvious can reveal a dark reservoir of ignorance that is so vast, and so deep—so fetid—that your entire belief system will writhe and shift in its glare. The choice at that moment is either to close your soul’s eyes, and continue on in the darkness as before, or to pull yourself together, take a deep breath, and venture into the new, and terrifying, uncharted territory ahead.  

Such was my experience, when I was a 62 year-old, long-divorced, college instructor, finally living a relatively organized, predictable, and comparatively peaceful life, secure in the notion that I was informed, rational, and open- minded. Secure until a routine Tuesday morning, when as I entered my classroom, something caught my eye. I blinked as an irritatingly insistent, and frustratingly implacable, laser-beam of reality shot through my lifetime of unques-tioned certainty. In that split second, I was confronted with the choice of examining--or ignoring--a belief I’d always absolutely accepted as  the immutable truth—a belief upon which my thoughts, emotions, attitudes, behaviors, and even relationships were based. I was offered the opportunity of discovering that a basic tenet of my life was in fact,  abso-lutely, and dangerously, false. Cringe.

Under the anxious gaze of my students, whose biggest concern at that moment was whether today’s quiz would be open-book, I wavered momentarily. Time stood still as I battled sweaty waves of nausea, as well as wildly clashing thoughts that swirled and morphed like a Dali painting. In a Fellini movie. My eyes couldn’t see. My ears couldn’t hear. And of course, my mouth couldn’t speak. But my heart managed to beat as loudly as the one beneath the floor-boards in Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Hoping not to have a heart-attack in front of my students, I strug-gled to maintain my confident, professorial demeanor. And I  avoided acknowledging to myself that I was facing an abyss. And that a decision was called-for. 

On the one hand, since I was the only person who knew about the abyss, no one would be the wiser if I ignored its impatient, glistening maw, and just kept walking to my desk. I could carry on as usual. On the other hand, since my feet seemed to be wearing the cement boots I’d heard about in mob movies, I couldn’t lift my them. 

Mustering what was left of my decimated aplomb, I lurched like a beginning roller-skater, to my desk. I sat down. I smiled, and had a student distribute the closed-book quiz to a chorus of groans. My breathing began to normalize as I assured myself that there really was no need to make a decision. No need to change. I could relax. 

Over the next two days, however, instead of relaxing, I wrestled with the “What ifs.” What if there were some truth to be found? What if everything I’d ever believed in was false? What if the people who trusted and respected me in all my ignorance became repulsed by the newly enlightened me? How would I live with this unfamiliar belief system? Who would I be? And then finally, tentatively, reluctantly, I crept, slouched, and then slid into the light.

So what was it that caused such a cataclysm?

Just an innocuous 2”x5” announcement at the bottom of my classroom’s bulletin board indicating that a particular course was being offered. I almost didn’t notice it. But like the cloudy blue eye, also in Poe’s, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it became the focus of my existence. Instead of looking away, my eyes lingered a little longer on it. Instead of being an inert black and white paragraph detailing course inform-ation, it began to throb at me in neon red. It’s edges seemed to crinkle, unfurl, and then beckon to me. As if I’d tumbled down a rabbit hole, my sense of self began to waver. Ultim-ately, I couldn’t NOT think about it!

What was the message conveyed by this piece of paper the size of an 8 ounce container of Philadelphia Cream Cheese? And why did it have this bizarre effect on me? 

It was a simple announcement that the German Department was offering a course entitled, “Anti-Nazi Resistance in 1930s-40s Germany.” What? There were Germans who resisted the Nazis? Yeah, right. Then, I choked back a scornful chortle, thinking that the course would undoubtedly be very short, since as we all “knew,” there was NO German resistance to the Nazis. And I knew this more than most.

As a Baby Boomer growing up in a 90% Jewish suburb, whose adult population was almost 100% Holocaust Survivors, there was precious little I didn’t know about Germany and its craven acceptance of Hitler. Our fresh, clean 1950s American air was permeated by the spirits of our murdered families—our hearts still choked on the smoke of their obliterated cities, towns, and villages. Numbers tattooed on the forearms of parents and Grand-parents were commonplace, along with hideous scars and awkward limps that were part of an unspoken past too horrible to ever mention. Too important to ever forget. We "knew" that the Jews had been helpless, innocent victims, and the Germans had been all-powerful monsters. We knew all we needed to know about German anti-Nazi resistance. There had been none.

But for some reason, as I looked at my students—these intent people who trusted me—I was plagued by nagging hints of my own possible hypocrisy. Throughout my 40+ year teaching career, I’d extolled my students to step outside their bubbles. To examine their assumptions. To be in-formed. To try walking in someone else’s shoes. To grow. 

So I decided to discuss my dilemma with my class. I knew they’d been in situations as challenging to them as mine was to me. I told them about my past, and asked if they thought I had what it took to sit in a classroom that was filled with what I expected would be lies about brave German people? Would I—who had never been able to listen to German accents (even in Hogan’s Heroes), buy anything made in Germany, or even eat German Chocolate Cake—be able to sit in a classroom and keep my Jewish mouth shut? 

I was instantly rewarded by exhortations of, “Yes! Yes, you can!” “You have to step out of your bubble . . . chal-lenge your assumptions! Get informed! Walk in someone else’s shoes! Grow!” Sheesh. Hoisted by my own petard, I called the German professor, and upon hearing her heavily accented, “Hello,” felt my skin crawl. I had to force myself not to hang up. I told her I was a colleague, very interested in her topic, and asked if she would agree to let me audit her course. Her effusively positive response initially sparked my suspicion—I didn’t want to be Exhibit A in a German’s personal quest to show she wasn’t anti-semitic—but it was too late to stop now. I had opened a door to a life I’d never imagined. And if I could have imagined it, I wouldn’t have believe it. 

So every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the rest of the semester, I sat in a student desk at the back of the room, and learned about the many Germans who risked—and usually lost—their lives in their futile fight against the Third Reich. I listened to German accents. I cringed less and less as the weeks wore on. I understood more and more deeply about what it meant to be a human being faced with a fight against inhumanity. 

  And I learned how wrong I’d been all my life. I learned that if I could hate an entire people, I really wasn’t any different from the Nazis or their followers. I was judging them on in sufficient information. I learned that we are responsible for finding out the whole truth—uncomfortable as it may be, instead of believing little bumper-sticker nuggets of familiar faux wisdom.

This realization was more than just a whiplash for my brain. This was an earthquake, a shift in tectonic plates of massive proportions. But as difficult as it was to face— and to change my beliefs—I became determined not to live a lie. Or to even let a lie live. I was grateful to have finally seen and understood the obvious: Of course there had been Germans who’d defied the Nazis. But since most had lost their lives because of this defiance, and others were afraid to talk about it, very few people knew about them. I under-stood that my life had a new purpose, andI needed to make up for a lifetime of misinformation by trying to set the record straight any way I could. What a huge responsibility—and honor— for someone who had so little time left.

I became consumed with finding out as much as I could about German anti-Nazi resistance, and to use the resulting information to set the record straight. In the process, I traveled to Europe, Canada, and throughout the United States, talking with people who had lived through the Holocaust.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the stories of anti-Nazi defiance I heard were almost always about male heroes. Having been on the forefront of the Womens’ Rights Movement in the 1970s, I couldn’t believe that the women hadn’t done anything to fight the Nazi horror. While I could find examples of extraordinary women such as Anne Frank, and Hannah Szenes, who’d been martyred, I wanted to know if any women, who had stood up to the Nazis, had survived.

And so I stepped into a very specific abyss—the search for Jewish and Gentile women, who as teenagers, had actively and successfully, defied the Nazis. In the process, I learned that not only were there German women who stood up to oppression, but there were also Poles, French, Dutch, Greek, Italian, Romanians—in fact, there were women who actively, and successfully, opposed the Nazis in all countries affected by the Third Reich. Shining through this formerly dark realm, were the facts that not all Jewish women were victims. Not all Gentile women were perpetrators, collabor-ators, or bystanders.

Now that I had this new-to-me information, what was I going to do with it? Bolstered by my new-found courage, I refused not to take a risk—I decided to research and write a series of books that would celebrate the true stories of Jewish and Gentile women who not only dared to defy the Nazis, but who survived, and went on to lead long, loving, and productive lives. Contrary to what I had believed, these women were neither martyrs nor monsters. They were just regular, everyday women who experienced many life-and -death challenges—and they adapted to each one.  I had no credentials for doing this—I wasn’t an author. I wasn’t an historian. I had no connections, I had no particular standing in the community. But somehow, my sense of inadequacy that usually would have held me back, didn't matter. I felt as if my future books were flying away with me—and I was holding on for dear life!

I was being carried along by a wave of urgency—time was running out for “my” women—and I certainly wasn’t getting any younger.  I embarked upon an intense mission of research and interviews that brought me into the lives of women who had never imagined what life would thrust upon them—including that in their senior years a woman would come asking them about their experiences during the Holocaust. Even if they had imagined these things, they wouldn’t have believed them. But, upon being laser-beamed with reality, they managed to step into the abyss, and do what had to be done. They each experienced an indelible moment when everything changed, and they took on the responsibility of going public with their pasts.  

Because they trusted me with their stories—and their hearts—my life has been changed irrevocably, and enriched immeasurably. As a fragile and arthritic senior-citizen, with next to no financial resources, I have travelled alone to places I’d always been afraid to go—including Poland, Germany, and my own heart. I’ve been in conversations where I didn’t speak the language. I’ve fallen and been unable to get up in a shower in Munich. I have been stuck in a bathtub in Amsterdam for hours. I have eaten foods whose ingredients I hope I never discover. But I have met with world-renowned experts in the field, who graciously treated me and my work with respect. I have become a well-regarded public-speaker and published author. I have faced my demons—and defied them.

The first in my WOMEN OF VALOR: Resisters to the Third Reich, series focuses on Polish Jewish and Gentile women, and was published in 2014. The foreword was written by Dr. Michael Berenbaum, one of the world’s most respected experts in Holocaust history.  I’m honored by the wonderful reviews that this book continues to receive. 

In 2015, I was privileged to be a speaker at the Krakow, Poland Jewish Cultural Festival. So despite my fears and infirmities, at the age of 68, I went to Krakow. And standing in a spot that once had meant certain death to Jews, I told an attentive audience about the WOMEN OF VALOR who defied the Nazis. I went to Vilnius, Lithuania, and walked the same cobble-stone streets where my murdered relatives had once walked. And I now know that they didn’t go silently like sheep to the slaughter. 

It’s so easy to avoid those life-changing moments, to remain secure in the familiar—even when the familiar is a lie. How daunting it is to step out of our bubble, inform ourselves, and not only deal with reality,  but inhabit it. How gratifying to be able to give others the opportunity to see and inhabit it as well. 

Because I ultimately didn’t ignore one momentary flash of insight, my life took a 180 degree, multi-dimensional turn. How terrifying it was to know I was facing a moment after which nothing would ever be the same — how gloriously liberating it was to discover that instead of stepping into an abyss, I was stepping out of one.


As a Personal Historian, I often provide clients with topics to jog their memories. Here's an example of a unique approach to the topic,
The memory initially was initially recounted as: 

When I was in the 6th grade, I chose not to let  my boyfriend lay down on top of me when       we made-out.

 It is now an engaging coming-of-age story 
that  includes many socio-cultural references 
and a touch of 1960's morality! 

Voice Your Choice!

“There ain’t much meat on her                              but what’s there is “cherce.” 

      ~Spencer Tracy talking about Katherine Hepburn’s backside

As a kid, I was built like Olive Oyl. I could even mimic her voice and call out  for Pop-oy! (In later years I used this talent to mimic Edith Bunker) Because of my unfor-tunate lack of feminine curves, I was forced to act as if I had morals when we went to make-out parties in 6th grade. Our particular cohort of 6th graders was partic-ularly precocious because we had been blessed with the presence of the preternaturally gorgeous, and infinitely evil Bob Sayles. He’d just gotten out of juvie, and was a year older chronologically, but eons older in the mysteries of sex and brutality. (He used to push lit cigarettes into the Monkey Habitat at the Hughes and Hatcher Men’s Store  at Detroit’s preeminent Northland Mall.)

So we went to make-out parties, and my boyfriend was shorter than me, so I’d get a backache contorting myself to make-out while we slow-danced to, “Tears on My Pillow,” “Silhouettes on the Shade,” and “There’s a Moon Out Tonight.” Adding to the unpleasantness was that I didn’t like the way he kissed. I didn't have much to compare it with, but, wispy, wobbly, mushy, and drooly didn't do a thing for me.Years later, when he got married, I wondered if he’d ever learned to kiss, or if his wife had to put up with his lack of finesse. More years later, I wondered the same thing about his mistress when he got caught cheating.

In any event, when it came time to stop dancing and LAY DOWN WITH THE BOY ON TOP, I demurred—allowing people to jump to their own conclusions about my high standards of behavior. High standards, HAH! I couldn’t let a boy lay on top of me because my HIP BONES PROTRUDED TOO FAR! And in the absence of any other protrusions, I was afraid I’d impale my boy-friend on these sharp projectiles. In other words, I felt guilty in advance, for possibly hurting a boy who was trying to take advantage of me. And who eventually would break his wife's heart. Ah yes . . . pre-Women’s Movement masochistic nostalgia!

My 11-year old boyfriend quickly grew frustrated with my intransigence, and eagerly responded to—dare I say, “pounced upon”?— the bosomy, husky-throated clarion calls of green-eyed Marilyn—she was a sophis-ticated 7th grader, who had seriously huge, frequently unfurled,  boobs. And—she let boys lay down on top of her. She and a couple other older girls had decided to cougar on down to the 6th grade and steal ours. Couldn’t compete with that. 

My only solace was Spencer Tracy’s comment about his beloved, scrawny Katherine Hepburn. What I did have was “cherce.” I knew this because our 10th grade art teacher (I was still scrawny in 10th grade), Mr. Burns, had confided in one of the boys—who immediately told me—that he’d deliberately sat me at a table with my back to him so he could enjoy the view. I also knew this because Gentile boys, who’d been swimming at Crystal Pool in their turquoise Speedos that showed way more than I wanted to see, followed me and my girlfriends as we walked home along Greenfield—calling out appreciative comments about my derriere. 

Now that I not only am no longer built like Olive Oyl, but am actually built more like the whole damn olive tree, I often muse sadly about how I once had something that was “cherce.” 

     Here's an example of a Personal History vignette that was inspired by                                           a monthly Writers' Group Topic: "Quirks."                               I started with the basic facts of the story:
 I stole a piano from my future ex-in-laws in 1970. 
And then I added my voice, context, cultural references, and writing style--
                 As your Personal Historian, I can do the same thing for you--                 using your memories, individual voice, values, and style!


In this 1st installment of The Wineman Family Story, young Micheleh Sklar Wineman leaves everything she knows behind in order to start a new life in the New World. Along with Reuven, the love of her life, she creates a new family, while her homeland and family in the Old Country were destroyed by the Nazis.This personal family history recounts the love and courage of a woman from her youth and innocence to the wisdom of age 103--against the turbulent backdrop of world history.

A Certain Smile: With a song in her heart and a smile on her face, Mimi's life demonstrates the power of love to triumph over adversity--from summer-stock to Cary Grant, Joe Williams, and Buddy Greco . . . from life-threatening illness--to The Senior Ms. Nevada Pagent, there's never a moment that Mimi's sunny smile does not brighten!

In "Nate's Piece of the World," we follow the exploits of Nate Schwartz from the Old World Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of his early childhood, to his daring jump onto the running-board of  "Lucky" Lindbergh's car, to on-location photographs of the Nevada Atomic Test Site and Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, to winning Ballroom Dance competitions in his late 80s--Nate's quest for yet another "piece of the world" leaves a loving legacy to his 2 sons and 3 grandchildren.