Tea, family and time travel – An unforgettable trip to China

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 11:14am

I recently returned to China to record audio-visual testimonies from survivors of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. In February 2014, the Institute incorporated 12 Nanjing testimonies into its Visual History Archive, adding a new perspective to the 53,000 testimonies that we collected from the Holocaust and the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide.

I was joined by Zach Goode, the Institute’s video archive and post-production supervisor, and Dr. Yanming Lu, from the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, who is conducting the interviews.

In just eight days, we recorded 18 survivor testimonies. The experience of conducting two or three of them in one day, had a unique and powerful effect on me.

We interviewed two sisters, born in 1923 and 1926. Although the area is rapidly being modernized, they still live in the 100-year-old house where they were born and never left. Nanjing is a modern city and skyscrapers now surround their little home, but they still get their water from an old well in the front of the house. We had to walk through a tiny alley away from a big bustling city street to get to their house. It really was like traveling back in time.

We interviewed the sisters separately but at the end of the interviews, we had them sit together. They both became very engaged and talked about being little girls and the games they played. They still had a playful side, often correcting each other like they were little girls again. 

The siblings also reminisced about the hard times they endured, including their experiences during the war. The older sister remembered heavy bombing in the area near their house, and seeking safety in a nearby bomb shelter. Unfortunately, many of their family members were killed during those bombings.

Our visit became a family affair, and many relatives visited while we were there. The sons of one of the sisters gave me a tour of the neighborhood, including old buildings that are still standing from World War II. They even pointed out where that bomb shelter used to be. The sons seemed very eager and proud to be showing a piece of their family’s past with me.

Everybody was so happy and honored that we were there to record their matriarchs’ testimonies. The grandchildren had never heard about their grandmothers’ experiences and knew very little about the Nanjing massacre. But they now not only know the stories, they – and their own children and grandchildren – will be able to hear the stories long into the future.

The family really appreciated our visit. And it was so encouraging to hear how much each one of them respected the work of USC Shoah Foundation. Their hospitality and pride in having us record the sisters’ testimonies was so strong and genuine that it was almost overwhelming. I really wished that all of our staff could have experienced this moment.

It is not only the survivors who are happy to share their life histories, but also their descendants, who appreciate that we came all the way from the United States and were working with the Museum to record and preserve the stories of their loved ones. They expressed thanks to all the people who make this work possible. While we believe in the importance of our work on an intellectual level, here we were able to experience it on a deeply emotional level. After we left the little 100-year-old home Zach and I received a thank-you note from one of the grandsons, who expressed his families’ gratitude to us again, and that they would remember our visit forever.

However, this was not a rare occurrence. We experienced the same type of appreciativeness and sincerity from a different family the next day when we interviewed the oldest survivor, who was born in 1920. By the time we had finished recording the interview, her two sons and three daughters, along with their children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, all assembled to thank us for giving their mother, grandmother the chance to tell her story.

In those eight days, I experienced something truly amazing and almost indescribable - meeting the survivors and their families in their homes - was definitely one of the most moving experiences I ever had.

Karen Jungblut