Performing a Family Oral History


by Tumbleweed Smith

Jan Hart of Temple goes to schools, churches, synagogues and libraries performing the actual words spoken by her grandmother, Annie Harelik Novit. Jan’s presentation is called Annie the Immigrant. It all stems from some tapes she found in storage closet.

In December of 1968, Annie sat down with her children, grand children and great grandchildren and told about her life as a young immigrant from Russia in the early 1900’s. A recording of the event was made and it stayed in that closet until 1986, when Jan got it out and listened to it. Her grandmother had been dead five years and when she listened to the recording, Jan says she felt that her grandmother had returned to speak to her.

The tape begins, “My name is Annie Harelik Novit. I was born in the Russian village of Slavan in White Russia August 3, 1886.” One story tells about ice-skating on the Berezina River in wintertime. In 1906 Russia was experiencing revolutionary times and it was becoming harder and harder for Jews in Russia. They were beaten and their businesses and homes were burned. Thoughts turned to immigrating to America. The family eventually settled in Dublin, Texas and opened a store.

“I felt compelled to capture our family history on paper as a gift to future generations of the family,” says Jan. She transcribed the recording onto 37 pages and turned them into a book. She included copies of naturalization documents.

After she passed it out to family members, she heard from cousins shortly after they received it. “They told me they cried and laughed and went back to re-read parts of it. They had the best time remembering our grandparents and told me I needed to get it published.”

Jan wrote a children’s book titled Hanna the Immigrant, published by Eakin Press. She got the idea to get out the recording of her grandmother because she was looking for a project. “My kids were all grown up by that point and I was bored, suffering from empty nest syndrome. It has just snowballed. I had no idea what would happen from my listening to those tapes.”

Jan dresses in a Russian peasant costume and talks with a Russian-Yiddish accent when she speaks before groups. She plays Klezmer music to begin. She says everyone should consider doing oral histories of their families. “Many times when I’m speaking to audiences they tell me they wished they had recorded their grandparents’ stories because they’ve forgotten them. I always encourage children and adults to record the stories for future generations. Tape them, write them down, whatever it takes.”

Jan has written a book based on experiences of her mother. She has also written three more children’s books plus a guide for interviewing older family members.

Originally published in Tumbleweed Smith's syndicated newspaper column and posted here with the his permission.
Other columns by Tumbleweed can be found on his web site.

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