As we build Tell History, every so often we have a reminder that we are building something that enriches people’s lives.
One such moment came after we collected a spectacular story about Susan Smith, a Texas native who was studying abroad in 1961 and witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall. She narrowly escaped arrest behind the Iron Curtain, facing down Russian tanks and bribing East German soldiers in order to get to West Germany. You can watch the video here.
Once we sent Susan the link, she shared it with a few people in San Antonio. A few days later we received a note from her longtime friends Richard and Toni Goldsmith. It turns out Toni was also in Berlin that very same day, viewing events unfold from the other side in West Germany.
“Although Toni and I have known, admired, and loved Susan and Tommy [her husband] for decades, Susan had never told us about her student encounter with the Russian army in Berlin,” writes Richard. “We were both amazed to discover that Susan and Toni were at the Brandenburg Gate on the same day.”
While Susan was coming from Poland, Toni had just finished a work/travel program in Germany. Toni was travelling with a friend who had relatives in East Berlin, and the two planned to meet the family at the gate. When they arrived, there were tanks, but no family. The next day they tried again, but only found more tanks and a newly erected barbed wire fence.
When Toni decided to leave, she also shared Susan’s experience of a tense train ride through East German territory to the West. Richard writes:
“The non-American passengers in her rail car all huddled together, did not talk, and kept their eyes on the floor while they were still in East Germany. Some of them were yanked off the train when the troops or police entered… Everything miraculously changed as soon as the train entered West Germany. The same travelers who previously appeared to be in a stupor began to talk and sing, jumped up to celebrate, brought out food and wine from their baggage and shared with all other passengers.”
Although the two friends had witnessed this turning point in history, which marked a major escalation in the Cold War, it hadn’t come up in conversation after decades of friendship.
“I am astonished that Toni and Susan were at the Gate on the same day and never knew it. Even though they probably were not on the same train at the same time, they had the same general reactions and emotions. Thank you for making it possible for Toni to share Susan’s experience…We realized how interesting the Tell History web platform already is and how useful and important its future will be.”
This is exactly what we hoped Tell History could do: bring people closer together through shared experiences.
Strangers can discover they have something in common, but so can close friends and family–even after years of shared meals and storytelling. Experiences are brought to life and gain new significance when they are shared with others. Toni and Susan’s discovery proves that recording a story isn’t just about preserving memories: making history also means making connections.