Shared Stories Provide Perspective, Reflection

Header Image

Shared Stories Provide Perspective, Reflection
Foote parents with students

Imagine: It’s June 6, 1944. A soldier in the U.S. Army, you’re part of the third assault wave at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. There will be 23 assault waves to follow, but the ocean water is already red with blood from the first two waves. The beach is strewn with carnage — just the beginnings of the D-Day invasion in which more than 9,000 lives would be lost. You have the critical job of supplying ammunition to your fellow soldiers, yet you are not allowed to have a weapon.

Eighth grader Jacob’s great-grandfather is the person who found himself in this situation all those years ago. He — and the other African American soldiers fighting for their lives on the beach that day — was not provided a weapon to protect himself. Instead, he survived by by taking weapons from the hands of dead soldiers.

Jacob’s grandparents, David and Joyce, shared their family’s story with the 8th grade Humanities students this week. They were joined by five other Foote families whose compelling personal tales not only illuminated history for our students, but exemplified the power of storytelling.

David explained why his father-in-law and others were unarmed on that unprecedentedly dangerous day: “‘Negro soldiers,’ as they were called at that time, were not considered to have the know-how or capability to handle weapons.”

Despite this immense disadvantage, Jacob’s great-grandfather survived. He earned two bronze stars for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service … in connection with military operations against an armed enemy,” and eventually returned home — albeit a changed man.

“He didn’t want to talk about it,” said Joyce. In fact, she knew nothing about her father’s time in the U.S. Army until her son interviewed him for a school paper decades later. The history of African American service in World War II is one that is well-hidden, and veterans from that generation were not encouraged to share those stories. But Joyce was glad he eventually did. “He served with dignity, and he served with valor,” she learned.

“The access we have to these stories is a banquet that we must all relish in,” reminded Alison Moncrief Bromage. Together with Liz Warner, the Foote Humanities teachers hoped their students would gain perspective through the experiences of others. The stories that were shared by Foote parents and grandparents this week were a reflection of the times from which they originated.

Eighth grader Lucien’s father, shared the story of his great-aunt Olga and great-uncle Joe — a couple whose union was unlikely at best. A Slovakian Jew on the run from the Hellenic Guard during World War II, Joe survived by hiding in the mountains. His eventual wife, Olga, had her own inexplicable escape. She and her family were initially taken to the concentration camp in Auschwitz-Berkinau. She was then transferred to Danzig (though she never learned why), and was later abandoned by German soldiers while on a “death march” across the European tundra. Olga survived by taking shelter in abandoned homes until she was finally rescued by Russian soldiers. The two Holocaust survivors are still alive and have been together for 70 years.

Students also heard the story of Tal’s great-grandfather, a Zionist in Palestine, who worked to sponsor Jews coming to America during and after the Holocaust. He also managed to purchase a plot of land in what would later become Israel — a secret he kept until his death.

Lorenzo’s grandfather Mauro is a former judge in the international criminal court circuit in The Hague. Speaking to the students via Zoom, he shared the story of his parents in Italy during World War II, who chose to flee Rome instead of informing on dissidents and Jews. The young couple, just married, spent much of their honeymoon seeking shelter and scrounging for food  while evading capture by the Germans; Mauro’s 18-year-old mother was pregnant with him at the time.

“The German Occupation was one of the darkest times in the history of Rome,” Mauro lamented. Yet, from that dark time came hope, he pointed out. For example, the Nuremberg Trials following World War II established new legal precedents, including a new criminal charge: Crimes Against Humanity. “It was the beginning of the idea that one cannot escape being punished for crimes of that magnitude. There has to be a due process of law,” said Mauro.

Foote Alumna Sarah ’89 told the story of her grandfather, who renounced his Swiss citizenship for many years in protest of the German atrocities of World War II. Sarah’s grandmother escaped persecution of the Jews in Basel, Switzerland, through a lucky coincidence: a family with the same last name was leaving for Portugal and had an extra ticket. Leaving her entire family behind, she rode the bus to Portugal, and boarded a boat to New York City, where she eventually met Sarah’s grandfather.

“It’s really important to tell these stories, and share them, but my grandparents resisted talking about it,” Sarah told the eighth graders.

In response, Liz cautioned her students not to wait until it’s too late to talk to their families about their life experiences. “Your family is a really valuable resource. Ask the questions. You’ll be glad you did,” she advised.

While many of the stories that were told this week had tragic elements, the unifying theme was one of perseverance. What was missing from these stories was regret. Each storyteller could point to a remarkable point in their family’s history, one in which they can take immense pride. And share with the next generation.

Get Social!

    Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.