Thanksgiving Assignment: Family Interviews
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
History is . . .
The story of people.
The story of their struggles.
The story of their triumphs.
The story of their defeats.
It’s the story of their lives.
History = His Story
Family Interviews: Uncovering Hidden Stories
I can remember dreading social studies as a young student. To me it meant reading in textbooks about events and wars, and memorizing dates. It wasn’t real, and it wasn’t personal.
It wasn’t until one Thanksgiving in college that my feelings about history changed, drastically. One of my professors gave us an assignment to interview a grandparent. We had to find out their hidden stories and learn what life was like during their younger years. I still to this day find it hard to believe that my grandparents lived two houses away from me almost my entire childhood, and yet I never knew the amazing stories of their lives until that Thanksgiving Day.
Because of this memorable experience, I have given this same assignment to my own students ever since my first year of teaching, and every year I get positive results and amazing stories: Stories of times long ago. Stories about difficulties and successes. Stories about life.
So as you send your students off to the Thanksgiving holiday break this year, assign or encourage them to talk with their grandparents or older relatives and learn their hidden stories. Follow your own assignment as well. If there is one thing I have learned about history, it's that it is real and it is personal, and that if people had not shared their stories with others, we would not know them. The stories would die right along with the people. Just think of how many stories were never shared, that we will never know.
My Grandparents’ Story
It was 1956 and my grandparents, with my uncle (age 6) and my mom (age 5) were living in communist Hungary. One day my grandparents were visiting my great-grandparents in Budapest when they got word that the communist government was looking for my grandfather. Knowing this, they could not risk going back to their home. They had to flee. So they bundled their kids up and left my great-grandparents' house with whatever money and supplies they had and could carry. My great-grandfather set them up with a person that helped Hungarians flee the country undetected for a fee. My grandparents paid all the money they had to be led to the border, and the man pointed them in the correct direction.
My grandmother recollects what seemed like days of walking in the tall grass in the pouring rain with two young children. She remembers starting to hear voices, and my grandfather stopping the family, motioning them to stay quiet and hidden. It was then that he realized that the man had pointed them in the direction of a communist soldier camp. Right away, my grandparents had to pick a direction. My grandmother vividly remembers the feeling of complete unknowing and confusion. They couldn’t go back or forward for fear of arrest. They had to just pick another direction and pray it would lead them to safety. Again, my grandmother tells of the heavy rain, which she describes as the heaviest rain she ever experienced in her life.
After much more walking, my grandparents came to a village. Relieved at finding the village and in desperate need of food and help, my grandparents were prepared to knock on the first door they came to. But my grandmother had an overwhelmingly negative feeling about the first house and begged my grandfather to skip it.
They came to the second house and knocked on the door. It opened and the two men inside quickly pulled them into their house. Afraid and exhausted, my grandparents answered their questions. But mainly the men wanted to make sure that my grandparents did not go to the first house.
It turned out that this was another communist soldier camp. Amazingly, the people in this second house were soldiers that were secretly helping Hungarians escape to the border. They explained that their fellow soldiers would have quickly turned them in. Shortly after, the two men left my grandparents to rest and eat while they went to work.
My grandmother shared with me the feeling of not knowing what was to happen and wondering if she could trust these men. A few hours later, the men returned and quickly hustled my grandparents, my mom, and my uncle out of the house. It was “shift change” at the border, the most opportune time to sneak across. My grandmother shares how one of the soldiers carried my mom, handed her across the border to my grandparents, and shook their hands.
They were safe, and they were now free.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Their journey to America was not a smooth one, and they had many other hardships even when they arrived here. I am so thankful for all of their struggles and for having the opportunity to know this small piece of history.
What are your family stories? If you have given this assignment to your students, what interesting stories have they found out? Please share these and any other resources you have for family history projects.
And if you haven't given this assignment, but want to, here are some interview questions to help you and your students get started.