An oral history project with Jewish older adults

It was love at first sight for Miriam Simmons that day in 1939. She was welcoming Holocaust survivors in her native Pensacola – one of the many activities she did through her synagogue — and Rudolph Back was among them. That evening, Simmons (born Schloss) told her mother that she had met the man she was going to marry. Simmons and Back indeed married nine months later, but secretly so that Simmons could keep her job at the Works Progress Administration. After six months, they celebrated their marriage publicly.

Simmons, who has just turned 104 years old, shared this and many other memories with Ellen Line, a student at the School of Social Work specializing in gerontology through the GRACE program. As part of her training, Line is interning at Shalom Austin-Jewish Family Service, where she works in the senior adult services department.

Miriam Simmons and Ellen Line. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.

Miriam Simmons and Ellen Line. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.

 

Line spends most of her internship time visiting older adult clients in their homes and helping them with anything from paying bills to making phone calls to finding resources – tasks that allow them to continue living independently. But she treasures the few hours she can steal away every month to sit down with clients and freely chat with them about their past.

“It’s a very different kind of interaction from when you are working with someone on an issue or if they have some basic need you are trying to meet. It’s been neat to give them that space to talk, and not having to guide or direct the conversation as much as I might do in a clinical interview,” Line says.

These conversations, which Line records, are the building blocks of an oral history project at Jewish Family Service.

“The idea of a person living a legacy was very important to me,” says social worker Carlye Levine (BSW ’04), who supervises Line at the agency and suggested she started the oral history project. “There are Holocaust survivors and World War II survivors here in Austin, and we think it’s important to hear and record what life has been like for them.”

Line adds that there is much interest within the Austin Jewish community in collecting these stories.

“I think the coolest thing about this project is the potential for us to learn from our elders and to place them in a context where they are treasured for their knowledge and life experience,” she reflects.

In addition to her conversation with Simmons, Line also sat down for several recording sessions with an 82-year-old World War II veteran.

“Unlike Miriam, this gentleman spoke specifically about a couple of times when he experienced severe anti-Semitism. One time in high school he was working in shop class, and another student just blatantly said ‘I don’t like Jews,’ and he physically attacked him. Hearing this was really surprising, because I don’t always think about anti-Semitism as a problem in the United States,” Line says.

It was also surprising for Line to learn that Simmons had worked as a reporter for a newspaper when she was in her late teens and early twenties.

“I guess to her it was very natural, she didn’t have much to say about being a woman and working in a newspaper in the 1920s. But she had a funny story. She said that they wanted to make her write about fashion for the women’s section, and she told them ‘I don’t care about fashion!’ She really preferred writing news stories,” Line says as she laughs.

Her eyes water when she shares that the World War II veteran she interviewed passed away only a few weeks earlier.

“It has been such a gift to do these interviews with him. Around last December he said to me, ‘You know, I’m really enjoying our time together.’ And I really enjoyed it too. It has been a privilege to be part of this process,” Line says.

“In our ageist society, older adults are often cast aside as irrelevant, but my work on this project, and my internship in general this year, has shown me how far from the truth that is,” Line adds.

As she wraps up her time at Jewish Family Service, Line is developing guidelines for future interns or volunteers to continue with the oral history project. The agency hopes to receive funding in the near future to purchase recording and transcribing equipment, and to develop a platform to share the collected stories with the wider public.

“I went to a little museum on 6th Street, and they had an oral history exhibit about race and place in Austin. And it seemed that they had developed an app with short clips of all of the transcriptions,” Line explains. “It would be amazing to do something like that!”

Posted April 25, 2016. By Andrea Campetella. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.