A Resolution for Future Holidays: Listen to and Learn From the Past

12/07/2011 04:15 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

The holidays are upon us. For most of us that means a visit with someone we haven't seen in a while. For me it's a time where my family and friends make an extra effort to see each other, taking stock of the people who mean the most to us, and being present with them. I spend much of my life filled with regret that I don't see the people I love as much as I'd like, and that when I'm with them I don't pay as close attention as I should. A visit with a dear friend last weekend broke that pattern, and reminded me why stopping the treadmill for a few hours is so enriching.

When I first met Helen I saw her as a kind, comfortable, suburban, middle-aged woman who loved to teach. And she was. She guided me through a course on Society and its Outcasts when I was 14: Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Antigone, Heart of Darkness, Too Late the Phalorope. It was a learning experience I'll always treasure, every book as alive to me today as it was 30 years ago. I always wondered how she was able to impart so effectively why outcasts are essential to societal progress. But I never really asked.

She and I have remained friends ever since, as she has with the rest of my family, and bit by bit I've learned her full story -- that she was a Holocaust survivor and refugee, born in Vienna in 1929, sent to America alone on the SS Bremen at the age of 9 with nothing but a sign around her neck, requesting the captain of the ship to get her to the right place. Blessedly he did.

Last weekend we sat in her study and heard and saw the details: the passport with the swastika and "Juden" stamped on it, her uncle's letter written several days after he was liberated from Dachau weighing 104 pounds, and her 2-inch thick "autograph book," filled with photographs and messages from the dozens of people she left behind when she fled. Only two survived. All that remains of her cousins is a child's drawing of stick figures at a seder table, drawn while they waited for death in Tereisinstadt.

Her story is one of a kind of strength, resilience and regeneration that is practically unprecedented. That she tells it with such humility and pragmatism -- "Hitler didn't 'come to power'; he was elected in a democratic process" -- makes it all the more powerful and unique.
Who will tell these stories when this generation leaves us? They're in their 80s now, some healthy enough to go on for many years, but many living on borrowed time. How will we really remember?

My father is gone and with him the tales of moving around southern England during the war to avoid the bombings. They are an abstract myth to my children, told by a ranting mother who's trying to make them learn something they just can't grasp. And somehow what will likely replace them -- the boomer generation stories about dropping out of college to find meaning and then deciding to become a hedge fund manager -- just doesn't have the same impact. Foolishly, I never interviewed my father, never recorded his lyric but understated English voice telling the history in his words.

Most of us will gather with extended family in the course of the next 6 weeks. And most of us, busy and overcommitted, will see primarily what needs to be done. Guilty as charged. But maybe this year we can focus instead on what needs to be learned. Shortly after my mother-in-law received her diagnosis of a terminal case of ovarian cancer, my husband arrived with a video camera. Wise man. The dripping faucet can probably wait, but her life story is too precious to overlook. So she tells it to the camera, and therefore to all of us.

They are called "the greatest generation" for a reason. All of them, when evaluated in a sliver of time, can look decidedly un-great, especially as they grouse about the traffic, or alleged draftiness, or a cup of tea that's the wrong temperature. But when they take us back in time they reveal a level of creativity, resourcefulness and grit that is the stuff of legends. We must take the time to listen.

So next time I'm feeling stressed about my commute, or my kids' likelihood of gaining admittance to the college of their choice, I'll try to think of Helen, alone on the deck of the SS Bremen, ten days into her solo voyage, wondering what will happen when she pulls into New York Harbor.