The Coast News Group

Keeping history alive with video keepsakes

RANCHO SANTA FE — Debra Mann believes that every senior has a story to tell, especially those who lived in the 1930s and 1940s before World War II and during the Great Depression.
Through her business Lifetime History Videos, Mann videotapes people’s life stories that become priceless family keepsakes for generations to come.
In her seventh year of the business, Mann calls it her “part-time job,” but it is more a labor of love and the opportunity for people to make history come alive through their own stories.
She said these days the Great Depression is given only a few paragraphs in history books, but once the story is told by someone who lived through it, it becomes very real to a new generation.
“Most of the people I speak to and interview had very different lives especially as children,” Mann said. “What it was like to be a 10-year-old then and a 10-year-old now are quite different. They worked after school. That was generally a given. The money you made you gave to your parents and most of the jobs were not easy.”
“No one picked them up in a fancy car and took them to gymnastics,” she said. “They were lucky if they had a bike and it was rarely new. The most important thing is they were never bored. There was no TV, no phone, not even a radio, but some very brilliant minds came out of this period of time in the 1930s and ’40s before the war.”
She said she has had a passion for senior citizens since the age of 16. She went on to get her masters degree in social work so that she could work with them, which she did, mostly as an advocate who made sure they were given the services available to them.
They would tell her stories and she realized their family had never heard the story and probably never would unless the stories were documented.
“I brought a camera with me so I could create a video legacy for the person, so the children could watch and find out about things they had no idea about, that they are not the first person to do something, they are the last ones to do it,” she said.
She said since the nuclear family is a thing of the past and the divorce rate is more than 50 percent, family history has become as fragmented as the family.
“Children are pulled apart,” she said. “Christmas is at one of the parents’ house and Thanksgiving is someplace else. We are stretched all over the world.”
Mann said she could see that fewer people were able to pass on their wisdom, either by telling their families or writing memoirs.
“This is a viewing generation,” she said. “I call myself a video biographer. I capture the essence of a person. It is not fancy there are no fancy frills. I feel this generation is not about fancy.”
Mann, 56 and a member of the Rancho Santa Fe Business and Professional Woman’s Association, said she got the idea for her business because of her mother-in-law.
“I knew she had been married once before, but I did not know what had happened,” she said. “I asked her if she had gotten divorced and she told me that her husband had been murdered. He was one of 40 Jewish factory workers in Palestine in the 1930s who had committed no crime, but they were stoned and bludgeoned to death because of their religious beliefs.”
Mann said she has sat with people ages 65 to 102 and everyone has a story.
Many people might say their life has been quite unremarkable and would not make a very good story, but Mann does not believe them.
With one or two exceptions, the people she interviews are ordinary people.
“They won no prizes,” she said. “They didn’t become presidents. They had been moms and dads, many from large families. Most didn’t get the opportunity to go past elementary school, but they taught themselves and they were fearless that nothing would stop them if they wanted to do something.”
The men were jacks of all trades and the women worked from sun up to sun down. There were no conveniences and the workloads were intense.
“There was no need for a gym,” she said.
One of the stories memorable to Mann is a woman, 80, who had just lost her husband of 60 years a few months earlier.
“She decided to share a story she had never shared before — even with her family.”
She was a Jewish girl in Germany on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10, 1938, when within a few hours the Nazis destroyed or damaged thousands of synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses. It became known as Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) because of the broken glass that covered the streets. This night also marked the escalating violence against Jews and the beginning of the Holocaust.
Her father was taken away that night.
“When the mother stopped crying she said to the girl to come along, we are going to walk over to the mines. When her daughter asked why, her mother told her they were going to jump in and end their lives. The mother told her the reason was that the world would not be fit for Jewish people to live in.”
“She was 10 and had never told the story,” Mann said. “If I hadn’t asked, those children and grandchildren would have not known this.”
This story has a happy ending, in that the whole family was reunited in the United States a few years later, but not before the girl and her brother were sent to the U.S. via Kindertransport, which transported children out of harms way. It was similar to the Underground Railroad used by American slaves. The family’s silver Shabbat candlesticks were smuggled out in her suitcase.
To learn more about Lifetime History Videos, call Mann at (760) 650-6262 or visit