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The Power of Storytelling

Recently I had the pleasure to speak to a group of 4th and 5th graders at a San Francisco public elementary school for their annual Writers Faire. Since my new book is about my family’s Holocaust experiences, I was not intending to talk about the book’s content but rather the process of doing family research and writing stories, something I was encouraging each one of them to do.

To provide some context, I held up my book and asked the students what they thought the title Legacy of Rescue: A Daughter’s Tribute meant. “Legacy,” I began,” is something you inherit. What do you think it includes?” Hands shot up and a student asked, “Traditions?”  “Yes!” These kids are really sharp, I thought. “What does ‘rescue’ mean?” A bunch of boys yelled out “saving someone!” Indeed. When I got to “tribute” I suddenly realized I would not be able to easily explain it since the term evokes so much for me. A shy little 4th grade girl slowly raised her hand and quietly but confidently stated, “Thank you and remember.”

I was stunned. Tears welled up in my eyes as I repeated to everyone what she had said. “That’s exactly right! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I wrote the book as a thank you to my wonderful father and the wonderful man who rescued him, and as a tribute to them both so we would remember them.” I looked at her and saw that she was smiling proudly as my knees were still a bit wobbly. “I’m not sure I can continue talking after that!” Everyone laughed and I turned to the little girl and said, “Thank you. You gave me such a gift by saying that.”

When I got back to work and told some colleagues about this experience, they all got tears in their eyes. “That is amazing! Kids are so insightful.” My boss even asked if my new career was now going to be teaching 4th grade since I was so struck by what happened.

“People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another,” said Studs Terkel, the consummate storyteller best known for his oral histories of everyday Americans.

Storytelling is an age-old tradition of passing on individual, family, and cultural experiences.  Stories about an experience that has touched your heart have the power to touch someone else’s heart as well. Stories connect us deeply to each other and foster empathy. They can challenge our assumptions and create new ways of perceiving, and ultimately serve as catalysts for new ways of acting.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Jon Herzenberg, reminded me of the online non-profit Kiva organization as a great example of the power of stories to be transformational.  Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending as little as $25 in order to alleviate poverty around the world. “We’re inspired to contribute based on the human story,” Jon explains. “We connect to people’s aspirations. We trust a global stranger whose story moves us to act.”

Inspiring others to act is exactly why I have been speaking for over two decades about my father’s rescuer who saved him and over 100 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. When people hear the story, they not only are moved by the compassion and courage of this individual, but are also beckoned by the story to consider what they would have done. Many of them have told me, “I hope I could have done the right thing under those circumstances” or “I would hope that I could have that kind of courage to help not just a family member but a complete stranger.”

The truth is there are circumstances in everyday life that give us opportunities to do the right thing, to help each other. After all, we’re all part of the same human family. My friend Jon shared the perfect metaphor, the Banyan tree. “It’s not just one tree. Its roots cascade down to the soil and grow another tree off the side. As it reaches out it keeps expanding. It’s symbolic of the tree of humanity.”

Talking with the elementary school kids and sharing a few stories my kids wrote about their wonderful grandfather, it became clear just how powerful stories can be. The students laughed and resonated with what my kids said. Despite coming from different families and different cultures, the students saw themselves reflected in my family’s stories and perhaps were inspired to tell and write their own.

Marta Fuchs, a marriage & family therapist and librarian, is the author of “Legacy of Rescue: A Daughter’s Tribute” (available on amazon.com and blurb.com) and co-author with her brother Henry of the multigenerational extended family memoir, “Fragments of a Family: Remembering Hungary, the Holocaust, and Emigration to a New World.”