The Story of the Shoe Box
Barbara Myerhoff, 1935 - 1985
Myerhoff told the following story from her Fairfax fieldwork a number of times in later years, often as a way of discussing the crucial importance of life history work and of telling stories as a means of survival:
"I was working with a man who was a survivor [of the Holocaust]...When he was 11, they knew in his family that the time was limited, everyone knew that, and he was told to pack some things because they would be leaving in a hurry....
"So picture an 11-year old child looking around his room, knowing his life is about to be destroyed: what should he take? And he was frozen in the dilemma of the choice. And so he made himself two shoe boxes. In one shoe box he put pictures of his family, he put some poetry he had written, he put a postcard from a girl- his treasures- his autobiography of things. And in the other he put an extra pair of shoes and some underwear and a hanky and a knife and a watch. And I think he probably put in a toothbrush. And he came home from school one day and he was told, 'Now! Run!' And he ran in and grabbed the shoe box. And they left.
"When they stopped again, he looked into the box, and he had taken the wrong one. He had the hanky and the shoes and the toothbrush and so on.
"And he thought, 'What did I want this box for? What did I want the other box for? What did the other box mean- to anybody?' And he said, 'It was as though I was standing at the edge of the sea, and I knew I would be pushed into the sea with my box, and the only thing that mattered was that I not sink with the box. It was as if I would try to throw the box back onto shore, and maybe somebody would catch it.'"
- Quoted in Marc Kaminsky, "Story of the Shoe Box: On the Meaning and Practice of Transmitting Stories," Handbook of the Humanities and Aging, eds. Thomas R. Cole, David D. Van Tassel, and Robert Kastenbaum (New York: Springer, 1992) 309-10.