The Perfect Day to Share Family Stories

As I run through my Thanksgiving prep checklist, I feel particularly grateful for the list of people who will be with my family on Thursday. I feel so fortunate that we will have three generations at the table. Holidays are precious times. They are also opportunities to tell stories, remember where we came from, appreciate our good fortune, and give thanks for the things we care about most.

Robyn and Ben Schein

With my husband, Ben, in Budapest

Storytelling is something I think about a lot at The Minneapolis Foundation. In my work with philanthropic families, I always encourage them to tell their stories. The tales and anecdotes that families remember often reflect their shared interests, and they can be a guiding light as loved ones work together to plan their charitable giving.

But storytelling is particularly top-of-mind for me right now, as I just returned from a wonderful trip overseas. My husband and I joined a group of young Jewish leaders from Minneapolis to visit Budapest and Israel. In Budapest, we spent time with leaders of the Jewish community. The vibrancy of their revitalized community is palpable and, frankly, quite surprising—for we discovered that many people in this community did not tell their stories for 50 years.

The Jewish population of Hungary before World War II was 800,000. During the war, more than 400,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps, and most of the remainder were forced into ghettos in Budapest. At the end of the war, only 200,000 were still alive. While some of the survivors left for the United States or Israel, many stayed in Hungary. They persisted under Communist rule, mostly living in secrecy and not openly practicing their religion. They stopped passing down their traditions. They stopped sharing their rituals. The families stopped telling their stories.

On our trip, we often met people in their twenties who learned they were Jewish only by accident. One woman we talked to discovered she was Jewish at age 13 when she found an old family photo of her grandfather holding a Hanukkah menorah. It was a secret her family never discussed.

It was also common to see young people, the third generation since World War II, leading the way in conversations about their histories. They are often the ones who are now asking questions of their elders. They want to know the stories and traditions.

We spent an afternoon hearing from three women in their eighties who shared their personal stories of surviving the Holocaust. In soft voices, free of anger, they spoke of being separated from their parents, of the sounds of soldiers’ feet marching by their home, of never knowing what happened to family members. They started telling these stories only recently, as part of an intergenerational dialogue program. In opening up about their experiences, they are enriching the lives of the young people. Even the hardest of memories ground families in the important lessons of where they came from.

Every family has unique, deeply meaningful stories. For yours, some stories might be about immigration—of honoring those who gave a hand as your family resettled in the United States. Other stories might center around a special place—maybe a lake where your family has vacationed for generations. Through the telling and retelling of these stories, we honor what has come before us and help continue the family narrative for generations to come.

I hope you will spend time at your Thanksgiving table telling your family stories. I hope most are filled with joy and laughter—but I also hope you don’t shy away from the hard stories.

The group of young Jewish leaders that we traveled with had the great privilege of spending an afternoon with these Holocaust survivors.