On the last day of our intergenerational program, we were left with chills , the kind of chills come from encountering a moment of life’s truth, of boundaries crossed that connect all people across time.
I’d been bringing the kids out to the senior home once or twice a month all year. For this particular visit the kids had spent a good while preparing; they knew the stories of their elders “by heart“ and were going to present the stories as a goodbye gift. These kids were experienced storytellers, usually telling myths and tales from many cultures and many times, anything they loved and were moved by. But this time the tale to be told was a biography, a biography of the child’s own partner, gathered up across many visits and a through a lot of gentle questioning.
As the kids got in front of the room to tell about their partners, the administrators of the home and I noticed how the featured elder would sit taller, smile bashfully, and look pleasantly honored to have this attention showered upon him or her. Close companions were listening, personal histories poured out. At the end of each life story, the audience clapped with acknowledgement for both the teller and the glimpse into a rich personal past.
Then Jenna volunteered to go. Her partner sat in the wheelchair, head hanging down slightly and cocked as if to put all emphasis on hearing; sight mostly gone. Mrs. Radinsky was thought-of as “in her own world,” gruff, unapproachable, difficult, uncommunicative. Jenna never found her this way; the two of them had an understanding. They’d be off in the corner, conversing about childhood games, gardens, favorite pets, family recipes. No one else was invited into their bubble of shared secrets.
Jenna was one of our best storytellers. She would bring you right into the heart of things, fast; she charmed us into seeing things through the twinkle of her eyes; how could we resist? Jenna began the tale of Mrs. Radinsky’s childhood, the pleasant times of farm life in Poland, the textures and activities of her everyday life. Mrs. Radinsky was listening acutely. As she listened, we noticed her straightening up on the chair, first uncurling her upper shoulders, then elongating her lower back—gradually she even rose up to a standing position, something she hadn’t done on her own for a while.
Jenna talked on, sweet and forthright, telling about Mrs. Radinsky’s siblings and the games they played. But suddenly something totally incongruous happened; as if a thunderstorm swept into our performance space. Mrs. Radinsky, in a raspy but booming voice, addressed the group: “It’s time. It’s time. I’m telling my story.” Jenna, used to unusual behavior from her elder buddy, just kept going, “…they rode the family cow, although they weren’t supposed to, they’d sneak off into the field…” Mrs. Radinsky’s voice intersected Jenna’s “…we were captured. German military officers came. They moved us at gunpoint, the train. Auschwitz, that’s where…My story--I’ve never told my story. Now it’s time. That’s where I was. I was gone a long time.” She spoke loudly, stunning the audience with her power, and her tears. Was this really happening? This was a lady who had only spoken in sentence fragments to anyone but Jenna for a while, and to others only uttered what was required to go about daily living. She now addressed the group outright: “I lost my family, my whole family.” The anguish in her voice gripped us, paralyzed us. Kids looked at me to see how to react. Nodding gently, I kept listening. An elder friend moved next to Mrs. Radinsky and supported her by holding her upper arm. She whispered something to her. Mrs. Radinsky kept talking. The kids, the other elders, the administrators--we were hearing words completely foreign to our usual meetings: “…Sonderkommandos, unspeakable things. Naked, our hair cut off, we….explosives. We carried the explosives to…The death, we wished for the death but some of us were workers…” She gazed over her audience, an acutely focused look in her eyes. There was complete silence, a thick and heavy pause. Then, a shift occurred. Mrs. Radinsky reached into her bag to get an embroidered handkerchief, wiped her face to get rid of the tears, composed herself, and said only one more thing in this meeting: “I thought it was time to tell my story, and it was. So I did. So now you know and I can begin to talk again.” With dignity, she sat down. The senior home’s administrator patted her on the back. With red cheeks, a red nose, and tears in her eyes, the administrator turned to me.
Carry on, I thought. “Jenna, very good, thank you Mrs. Radinsky. Your story is so important, keep it coming..” I started a round of gentle applause. “Now, who will go next?” The other stories seemed plain but comforting: more gifts offered, more gifts received.
The rest of our meeting, and on through the school year’s end, we remained aware of the larger and markedly profound intersection in lives we just witnessed and felt. This moment in time, this meeting, had carried us far beyond ourselves.