When a Man Dies, a Library Burns Down

There is a Russian proverb that says “when a man dies, a library burns down.”

My pre-real estate career was that of a news reporter.  I worked for a nationwide cable news network and traveled our nation on assignment.   In 1990 I was asked to cover the reopening of Ellis Island.  After the immigration station closed in November 1954, the buildings fell into disrepair and were abandoned.   Peeling paint was the décor and rats were the residents until the site was named a National Landmark in 1966 and monies were dedicated to its restoration. (It’s marvelous restoration if you never visited…)

My job was to find someone who had “come over on the boat.”  That iconic person who remembers the vision of the Statue of Liberty after weeks on open seas.   Old enough to have been there, but young enough to articulate the memories of Ellis Island processing.    This was pre-internet and the only way to find that person was to sit in a dusty closet in a Manhattan Immigration field office.  I was pointed to boxes full of paper files; some semblance of organization but a far cry from the web-based data systems that spoil us today.

I don’t remember her name.  I will call her Olga.  But I remember she lived on the 63rd floor of a New York high rise, her home for over 50 years.  She was from Poland and was 14 when she came to America.  For two hours Olga told her story:  A narrow escape from the Nazi Wehrmacht, the tide of fear which followed  Germany’s politico-military power.   She cried when she saw the Statue of Liberty; she feared the health tests on Ellis Island would send her back.

Her story forever captured on videotape, we said goodbye and I rode 63 floors down to the busy streets of Manhattan.   As I was walking away from her building I looked up.  I wondered which window was Olga’s?  One window in a sea of windows.  One building in a sea of buildings. One city in a nation of immigrants.  All the people passing by…did they know what a treasure lived midway up this highrise? How many more stories are behind those windows?  How many Olga’s waiting to be asked?

What is your story? What a tragedy to allow your story to burn without sharing it! One of the benefits of age is the wisdom of experience and the rich treasure of life stories. What treasures of experience do you have to share? Have you ever taken the time to ask a stranger? How much richer would we be if we stopped to ask and to listen to the person behind the window on the 63rd floor?