When Family History is All That is Left

The outside of the upper level of the House of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran before it was destroyed.

The upper portion of the building where the Báb declared His mission on 23 May 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, before its destruction in 1979. Reproduced with permission of the Bahá’í International Community.

I sat on the edge of my seat with my cup of tea in suburban Sydney listening to the elderly man recount a scene in the city of Shiraz in Iran.  It was 1955 when he saw the mob tearing down a house with their bare hands.  Fearing that another historically significant building (pictured above) would be torn down, Mr Noorgostar guarded it for three months.

Why were these buildings targets of such fury?  They were of great significance to the history of Iran because they marked the birth of what has become the largest non-Islamic religion in Iran today – the Baha’i Faith.  Since the emergence of the Baha’i Faith in mid-nineteenth century Iran, Baha’is have faced recurrent waves of persecution.

The dawning place of the Baha’i Faith can be traced to the building which Mr Noorgostar helped to protect.  It was here in 1844 that a young man called the Báb first announced that the long-awaited Messenger of God would appear very soon.  The windows of the room in which this event occurred are pictured above.  During 1955 when Mr Noorgostar was guarding this building he slept outside in front of these windows.

Mr and Mrs Noorgostar left Iran during one of the periods when the persecution of the Baha’is was waning.  Several years before the revolution in 1979 which established the current regime they moved to England.  Like most families who move they took with them the photos and the memories that were important to them.

Then the revolution swept through Iran and once again the Baha’is were one of the targets for repression.  Mr. Noorgostar’s family home did not come to him in accordance with the wishes of his parents after they died.  His family was Baha’i so the government allowed others to seize the house.

Currently the national leadership of the Baha’is are serving 20 year prison sentences.  Baha’is have been barred from university education for 30 years.  They have established  the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education to provide higher education for Baha’i youth but that has been raided and Baha’is who were carrying out the work of the Institute have been imprisoned.  Baha’is face arbitrary arrests and Baha’i cemeteries are desecrated.   Baha’i children are harassed at school and there is a torrent of vilification of Baha’is in government-backed media outlets.  All this is well-documented and increasingly governments and prominent people around the world are voicing their concern.

It is hard enough for Baha’is in Iran to live in these circumstances let alone look after their historical records.  The government in recent years has allowed the destruction of buildings that are significant sites of Baha’i history, indicating that the government is keen to expunge the Iranian landscape of evidence of a religion that not only is the largest non-Islamic religion in Iran but has around five million believers in over 180 countries.

In these circumstances collections of photos and other memorabilia held by families such as the Noorgostars become of great importance in preserving the national history of countries such as Iran.  The Baha’is are not the only group facing persecution in Iran and Iran is not the only country which is or has undergone a crisis from which people have had to flee.  Australia is one of a number of countries which has received people who cannot return to their homes.  Some may come with nothing but the clothes on their backs, others come with a few photos.  All of them come with memories of events in their homeland.  In some cases these mementos and memories are the only historical evidence that remains of their community and events back home.

This is demonstrated in the October 2011 newsletter of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society.  Martin Davis writes that the Museum of the History of Polish Jews which will be opening in 2013 has “had difficulties in finding material about the town and have asked me for pre-war images from Dzialoszyn or narratives about the town and its way of life” (p. 9).

In many families old photos are often stashed in a box and stories held in the deep recesses of memory, unshared, unexplained.  Sometimes memories can be painful and in the hurly-burly of life there just never seems to be time to chat about the past.

Then the family members with the knowledge of the old country die.  A box of uncaptioned photos  is found.  The family gathers around and tries to identify the places and faces from the past.   Perhaps fragments of the stories are remembered but there are many unanswered questions for the next generation to puzzle over.  In the future grandchildren and great-grandchildren will try to decipher their family’s past from other sources but they are stymied not only by the destruction of records in the old country but also because the language is now foreign to them.

Australia is effectively a custodian for the history of many nations, not just Australia.  How can this history be preserved and cared for?  The starting point lies with the families that hold this material and that means delving into the world of genealogy.

It is inevitable that when older members of a family die some information about the past is lost but families can take steps to save a lot of this history.  Asking members of the family to write down their memories and caption their photos is not sufficient.  Many people don’t like writing and faced with a box full of photos are overwhelmed by the size of the job so fail to start.  Concerted effort is needed by the younger generations to spend time with older members of the family, open the family album, question them about the photos and most importantly write captions for the photos and write down the stories from the past.  The photos might need to be removed from the destructive photo albums of the 1970s and 1980s in order to preserve them. It takes time, sensitivity by the questioner and persistence to do this but the rewards are great.  This process can deepen relationships within the family and help the younger generations develop a sense of identity so they can understand where they fit in the world.

This is not just an exercise in creating a family tree with names and dates of birth, marriage and death, important as that is for families.  Families such as the Noorgostars who came to Australia from countries where their communities are victims of persecution may be holding snippets of history that have been lost in the country of origin.  My hope is that when conditions in these countries become more favourable Australian families will then help these countries reconstruct their archives and their understanding of the nation’s history by sharing and repatriating these records.

Your Turn…

Do you come from a family that has had to flee their native country as refugees or whose native country subsequently endured some crisis that has potentially damaged or destroyed historical records?  What steps have you taken to record your family history?  What difficulties have you encountered in preserving your family’s memories?

Disclosure

I became a Baha’i in 1987 and worked as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community between 2003 and the beginning of 2007.

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