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Personal Histories in the Movies-Everything is Illuminated

A few nights ago I had the pleasure of viewing a delightful movie called “Everything Is Illuminated”. It is based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer which describes a trip to the Ukraine which the author took in order to find the village in which his grandfatherwas born. In the movie he undertakes the journey in order to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1942. The film is mainly in Russian with English subtitles but it is beautifully made and describes a bittersweet personal history of this time in Mr. Foer’s life.

If you wish to learn more about this film you will find an excellent critique in the Houston Chronicle at http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ae/movies/reviews/3385392.html

Better still, if you subscribe to Netflix it is available for streaming http://movies.netflix.com/WiSearch?v1=Everything%20Is%20Illuminated&oq=everything&ac_posn=1

Although, when I’m asked to create a personal history for an individual it usually comprises as much of the individual’s life history that can be practically recorded in the time allotted to the project. However, I feel that this movie provides an excellent example of how one incident might be worth recording alone in its entirety. If the project is properly conceived, planned, and executed it will provide the type of insight into their loved one’s personal history that should be recorded for future generations of their family. I have already successfully carried out such a project. After completing a three hour personal history for the family of a gentleman who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1940 I took the segment which consisted of his escape from Germany and his journey to meet his family in Bolivia. This included a disastrous fire on the ship in which he and his family were traveling, their rescue, and their final journey to their destination. This made a moving 50 minute segment of his life history and it was well received by a large group of his relatives and friends. I did considerable research on this and was able to find pictures and newspaper cuttings from archives to enhance the video.

Personal Histories Can Be Quite Dramatic

I recently completed the personal history of a an elderly gentleman who had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1940. His life story was most eventful and the final production lasts for almost three hours. It is quite obvious that to for younger family members to sit sit through an audio/visual personal history which is almost as long as “Gone with the Wind” is a little too much too ask. Indeed, we do have a wonderful record of this gentleman’s life, times, and philosophy. Future generations of his family will be fascinated with it I am sure.

However, there is one part of his story which really caught my attention . He and his parents left Genoa on a ship the NV Orazio which caught fire on the first day of their voyage to a new life in South America. There was a large loss of life.  I decided, with his permission, to create a short fifty minute documentary on that part of his story and called it “The Great Escape”. By researching archives  (including the New York Times), adding some video, and music, the result was a movie which moved an audience at an organization film evening.

I am not creating a link to the movie . Anyone interested in the video is welcome to contact me directly.

Too Young for a Personal History?

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the bat mitzvah of a rather special young lady. During the celebration a video was shown consisting of pictures taken out of the family album from her birth to her 12th birthday. It was fun to watch but we didn’t learn very much about the young lady. This set me thinking. Does someone who was only 12 years old have a life history to relate? I feel that no one is too young to have a life history. Many events happened in this young lady’s life. She was able to overcome an extremely serious illness and is now turning into a bright attractive adolescent excelling not only in school but in anything she sets her mind to.

I felt a little frustrated by the fact that I was not given the opportunity [nobody thought of it] of creating a personal history project, lasting 10 minutes or so, from these many family photographs. By adding interviews with family and friends and a few video clips showing her at home with her family and at school we would have had a really exciting tale to tell. Perhaps we will have the opportunity of creating such a production for her” Sweet 16” event.

Children seem to grow so quickly and so much happens to them in this fast-moving modern world we live in. It is a shame not to record important events in even the youngest of lives. There are so many audiovisual tools available on the market today most of which are really inexpensive. High definition Flip cameras cost just over $100 and normally come with simple editing software. So might I suggest that you start filming the new arrival and continue to do so as they grow and develop? The memories that you are creating will be of infinite value to you and future generations.

Organize Your Photographs to Create a Personal Hisory

Very often, when a client asks us to produce an audiovisual personal history we are presented with a very large box of sometimes very old photographs. Photographs not only help trigger memories during an interview but also add greatly to the final presentation. Unfortunately, many times the “who”,  “where”, and “ when” of the photographs are missing and no amount of research by the client can interpret their origin. During one’s lifetime we take so many photographs covering major and not so major events in one’s life. We don’t however realize that as years pass we are inclined to forget the incidents or people we were recording. You  can imagine how much more difficult this becomes as future generations start looking at these photographs.

Organizing one’s photographs should be like keeping a diary. Records should be kept on a regular basis. Now in the digital era there are a number of software programs which makes this process relatively easy. Today I came across a very interesting article on this subject in the “Home Organizing Ideas” website at http://www.home-organizing-ideas.com/organize-photos.html. I’m sure that you will find it well worth reading.



Personal Histories Create a Legacy

I have just completed creating an audiovisual personal history of an elderly gentleman at the behest of his children. His childhood years were spent in Nazi Germany from where he and his parents managed to escape just after the outbreak of World War II. A cousin in Bolivia saved their lives by providing immigration visas for the family. His story of their escape, sea voyage to South America, life in the Bolivia, and ultimately immigration to the US reads like a novel. By adding family photographs, newspaper clips, music, and other items of interest I was able to produce an exciting two-hour video for him and his family.

The first viewing of the production at his home was in front of his wife, children, and two of his grandchildren. The most interesting reaction was that of his grandchildren who sat fascinated. They had heard some of his tales over the years but for the first time they were able to get a true picture of just what an incredibly resilient and fascinating person their grandfather is. They also received a lesson on how one can survive in the most difficult circumstances and indeed find the strength to thrive. Indeed this is the legacy he is handing down to future generations of his family. They, in turn, now have a physical record  to hand down to their offspring.

Personal Historian in the News

I was very honored to be featured in the “Connecticut Jewish Ledger” this week. A great article written by Howard Blas Director of the Camp Ramah of New England Tikvah program. Howard, who is in charge of a program which celebrated its 40th anniversary this month, works with mentally challenged young people. He runs an outstanding summer camp program  which not only integrates these campers into the regular camp but also organises vocational and post vocational programs for them. It ocurred to me that Howard would make a fantastic subject for a personal history if we could just get him to sit still for a couple of hours.


SPOTLIGHT: Westville senior helps others tell their life stories

By Howard Blas
Published: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 12:52 PM EDT


WESTPORT – Most school children have completed the required family tree and family history project. The project typically involves interviewing relatives, writing a paper, and making an oral presentation, accompanied by old photos and documents. But a second career for Westville senior Stanley Dalnekoff has him taking the research and presentation of family history to new heights.

Dalnekoff, who grew up in Glasgow, Scotland during World War II, firmly believes that “every person’s life is interesting. No matter how ordinary you might think your life is, to your descendants and future researchers it is extraordinary!”

Dalnekoff seeks to help families pass down their stories — in audio, video, or book form. His website www.HeritageVideo.net invites potential clients to “Let your grandchildren get to know you!” Dalnekoff, the grandfather of four, says.

Dalnekoff’s colorful personal story includes growing up the son of a leather merchant in Glasgow, obtaining his CPA degree, moving to Israel and opening a business in Beersheva in the 1960s before moving to Connecticut and founding New Haven Travel Service in 1966. Dalnekoff, along with his wife, Donna, who holds a PhD in comparative literature from Yale, turned their travel agency into a $20 million business.

Dalnekoff sends a list of possible topics to prospective clients. In the first meeting, he reviews photos and videos and begins to listen to the family’s story. Dalnekoff then begins recording the story. Dalnekoff and  his team manage all aspects of videography, sound, and lighting which he feels enhance the look and feel of the final movie. Once the recording sessions are completed, Dalnekoff reviews the tapes, suggests additions or deletions, scans and digitizes photos and adds footage from family movies. Dalnekoff has also been known to carefully research and add appropriate music and footage from town or world history from the time period. Once the family reviews the video and gives final approval, the DVD is made and delivered to the client.


“Our sole purpose is to provide you with the ability to let your children, grandchildren, extended family, and friends get to know you!” says Dalnekoff.

Howard Blas is a freelance writer living in Woodbridge.