This is why at Be Independent Home Care we love what we do. We get to hear stories like this one from our clients every day! Its amazing how many interesting stories people have when they have been on this earth for 80, 90 or 100 years!
This project below written about in the Guardian has brought more than 100 older people into primary and secondary schools in London to share life experinces in an effort to build intergenerational relations.
Centenarian brings his ‘living history’ to schools
“I tell stories, little human stories,” says Gus Bialick, who turned 100 last March, of his role volunteering in an innovative project to break down generational barriers. “These are things you may not read in the history books, but they happened, and they happened to me.”
Bialick, the son of Jewish refugees from turn-of-the-century Poland, is the first centenarian to take part in the Intergen programme. The project has brought more than 100 older people into 22 primary and secondary schools in London and the north-west to talk about their life experiences and offer support with reading and other activities in an effort to build relationships and challenge intergenerational stereotypes.
Bialick sees himself as a “living history book”, sharing with schoolchildren his first-hand accounts of Zeppelin raids on London during the first world war, 1930s marches by the fascist blackshirts through London’s East End, and the allied landing in Sicily in the second world war.
He loves his new role. “I have lived a long time, and been through and seen a lot of things, but when I speak to young people today they know so little,” he says. “There’s nowhere for them to get their recent history from, apart from films or television. So if they meet someone like me who tells them things that actually took place, little personal things, they seem to want to know more and more about that, and that’s interesting for me.”
Intergen, set up in 2010 by the charity From Generation to Generation to bring older people and children together in schools in the neighbourhoods, has worked with several volunteers in their 90s, but Bialick is the first centenarian. The idea behind the project is that older people have more time to listen and have seen it all before, so they can really make a difference. The volunteers, meanwhile, feel valued and that they are giving something back.
The charity’s founder, Norma Raynes, believes the link between generations works wonders, with pupils gaining greater understanding and respect for older people, and the latter escaping isolation.
From Generation to Generation plans to extended the project beyond schools to share skills such as beekeeping and allotment care between older and younger enthusiasts.
Bialick has given talks at a school near his former home in Exeter – he returned to east London last year to be nearer his family – but this is the first time he has volunteered regularly. Asked how he got involved, Bialick says he joined Intergen after a chance encounter on a park bench with one of its coordinators. Demand for his stories means he has been asked to speak as regularly as his health and energy allow to history students at Morpeth school in Bethnal Green, east London, and will soon start visits to other schools near his home in nearby Wapping.
How is he so active in his old age? “The secret is to choose your parents carefully,” he says. Bialick chose with care: his father Isaac, who in 1905 – aged 17 – fled Cossack attacks in Poland, also lived to be 100.
Bialick’s talks are inevitably very personal: he hands round family photographs and tells how he was born into a Yiddish-speaking community of Polish Jewish emigres in Whitechapel, east London, in his parents’ tiny two-room lodgings behind the London hospital. “It was just as difficult as it is today to get housing,” Bialick says.
His childhood coincided with the first world war – he remembers his father pointing out a Zeppelin in flames above London in 1917 – and the harsh years of the Great Depression, when he witnessed Oxbridge undergraduates driving buses to try to break the 1926 general strike.
Bialick says the rise of fascism in Europe and the march of Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in the East End had a profound impact on his politics as well as that of his Jewish friends, with whom he explored ideas for a better world. “I was afraid for the older people who were scared to go out in the streets,” he recalls. “Young Jews became communists very quickly because they were the only ones fighting against the fascists.” Bialick sympathised with the communists and contemplated joining the Labour League of Youth, but ultimately eschewed political parties and sought refuge in classical music. Vegetarianism, another idea explored at the time, has stuck with him for 80 years.
Living through a period of such change gave him and his peers a stronger political awareness than children today, he believes. “History was changing before your eyes. We lived in such varied times – I remember the general strike, the flares that lit the market stalls in Aldgate before they got electricity. Each day something happened.
“Many children today don’t look for things any more. They seem to be blinded by what they see on television.” And this is a driving force behind his desire to volunteer. “I want them to understand what went on before their arrival on this earth and that to us it was a serious time.”
While he wishes to open youthful eyes, Bialick does not condemn. “I’m sorry for the younger people. We haven’t got a proper organisation that is working for the people. I think these are career politicians that we’ve got, looking after themselves.”
The coalition government is making “so many errors”, he believes, not least in the area that affected his own generation: housing. “For so many years they have talked about having more housing, but have done nothing about it. I am sure they could appeal to the goodness of people to volunteer to help build houses, even for little or no money. The government could make people feel the need to pull together, but all we see is how the bankers are taking advantage. This is a wonderful world we live in but so unequal and so badly organised.”
And if Bialick knows inequality when he sees it, the “troubling” rise of Ukip – set to surge in next week’s European elections – also stirs memories. “I think Ukip will get a strong vote. Nobody likes foreigners: a century ago people raised questions in parliament about the Jewish families in the East End: who were these ragged people with their strange clothes? But the next generation went to school and made a great contribution.”
Although at 14 Bialick was bright enough to be asked to stay on for further study, it was out of the question. “I had to go to work and learn a craft: that was my destiny.” His tailoring career was interrupted by wartime service in the Pioneer Corps, where he survived the invasion of Sicily and witnessed not only large-scale killing but rape and abuses committed by allied troops against civilians. “You won’t find these things in the history books,” he says, “but they are true – I saw them.”
Despite the scattering of his own and his wife’s families (his wife Gisela was a Kindertransport refugee with whom he enjoyed 58 years of marriage), Bialick believes the younger generation should look after the old. “The government should teach younger people to take care, especially of their own family, to take more of an interest. I know their minds are full of trying to earn a living, or making a career, but they should find time for older people, who have feelings as well.”