Poppy Finston, 93
Poppy Finston, 93

Project at Marin shul gets seniors to tell their stories

When it dawned on a few enterprising people at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael that some members were in their late 80s and older, they knew the time had come to capture and preserve their stories.

So over a period of eight months, interviewers fanned out across Marin County to record the personal histories — many untold until now — of 36 congregants, ages 86 to 105, who represent chapters in a history most people don’t know about.

Generations: Rodef Sholom Storytelling Project” was born out of the desire to learn more about “our shared heritage and the people in our midst who are living testament to it,” explained Julie Fingersh, one of the people involved in the project.

The uncovered stories include tales of living through the horrors of war and the hardships of the Depression, and personal histories in Austria, Morocco, Paris, Shanghai and Brooklyn.

One of the interviewees, Herbert Heller, talked about finding himself, at age 15, face to face with Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele in Auschwitz; the young Heller vociferously insisted he was fit for work, thus saving his life. Joe Pell talked about hiding in a barn when the Germans came to his family home in Poland, then fleeing into the forest with other escapees and sabotaging roads and bridges to disrupt the Nazis.

“Some people were happy to tell stories,” said Cindy Ostroff, the project’s director. “Others, initially, were not — because of poor health, or because the telling is painful, or because they’ve told [the stories] too many times before — and needed a bit of coaxing.”

Eight interviewers from the congregation collected the stories. The youngest of them, Jacob Mandel, 15, spoke with his grandmother Shirley Berman, 89.

Jacob Mandel, 15, with his grandmother Shirley Berman, 89
Jacob Mandel, 15, with his grandmother Shirley Berman, 89

“I thought I knew about her life, but you never know what you’re missing until you sit down for 45 minutes and really listen,” he said. “My grandmother suffers from dementia, but this brought her back. It exercised her memory and she enjoyed it so much.”

The collected stories also provide glimpses of early Jewish life in Marin, of couples meeting at JCC dances and of the beginnings of Rodef Sholom.

Poppy Finston, 93, who moved to Marin with her husband in the 1940s, talked about the congregation’s early growing pains. “Marin was very non-Jewish at the time,” the former Oakland resident recalled. “We joined to find out who the Jews were, when it was housed in a Christian building with a temporary rabbi. There was a gentle war between the very religious and the people who wanted a Jewish temple but wanted it to be modern. The conflict got people active — taking sides.”

Rodef Sholom Rabbi Stacy Friedman heralded the stories and the people telling them. “They’re our pioneers, our first families, and their stories show the great pride they have in continuing to support it.”

Last month, the elders were feted after a Shabbat service. By coincidence, the event took place on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which a few of the seniors lived through, and it also occurred two weeks after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, making the gathering feel especially meaningful.

“It was an incredibly rich experience,” Ostroff said. “The elders came to the bimah, each introduced by their interviewers. This might sound like a little thing, but nothing is so little when you’re in your 90s.”

Friedman said that “one of our most important values” is honoring elders. “This is something we wanted to do for a while, so our seniors aren’t relegated to the margins,” she said. “We will continue to listen to them and create more intergenerational opportunities.”

Added Fingersh: “Our congregation was overwhelmed that Friday night by the power of those stories of courage and tenacity that put our struggles in perspective. As Jews today, we haven’t had such reasons to build resilience.”

As for Mandel, the teen had such a positive experience interviewing his one grandmother that he now plans to interview the other, who fled Austria in 1940. “When I’m that age … I hope my own grandchildren will want to interview me.”

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.