The month of February is festooned with momentous, extraordinary anniversaries that have influenced our country. Feb. 9 was the 55-year anniversary of the much-heralded inaugural appearance of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The following day, the House of Representatives’ final version of the Civil Rights Act was sent to the Senate, which would ultimately become law on July 2, 1964.
This month heralds a more personal anniversary for our family. With all the hoopla and publicity surrounding the Beatles, it dawned on me, that I, too, was part of a significant television anniversary. I quickly calculated that Feb. 17 was the 65th anniversary of the night the popular weekly “This Is Your Life” program hosted by Ralph Edwards featured my father as the principal subject.
The live audience program on Feb.17, 1954, at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles opened with Edwards delivering the obligatory acknowledgements to crew and sponsors. Then the cameras panned the audience and Bob, the announcer said, “This is Your Life.” The camera zooms in on my unwitting, surprised father, as the announcer continued … “Gregor Shelkan.”
With a mixture of trepidation, resolve and purpose, my father walked on stage and in his halting English asked Edwards whether they could commence his story from the present. Edwards encouraged my father to sit down on the couch, make himself comfortable, and then proceeded to share my father’s life story.
Peppered by leading questions from Edwards, my father spoke about his life and his family, all of whom, except for two sisters, perished in the Holocaust. Interspersed with two live advertisements for Hazel Bishop Complexion Glow, friends from his younger days in Latvia and Vienna, and memories of his internment in concentration camps, my father’s life story unfolded in the living rooms of millions of television viewers.
After various close friends paraded on stage to share their stories about my father’s past, Edwards set the stage to bring the audience to Berlin in 1946. My mother’s voice projected to the audience and television viewers as she reminisced how she and my father met: “Grisha [Gregor] sang so beautifully, so tenderly, that I cried all through the concert. Afterward I went to him and thanked him.”
The thick velvet stage curtain parted to reveal my mother, in a smart black dress adorned with double-stranded pearls and wearing black, ankle-strapped heels, holding my 4-year-old sister’s hand and carrying 18-month-old me. We both were wearing matching pink organza dresses with small, red cherries adorning the waist and the neckline, white ankle socks, and black Mary Jane patent leather shoes. My father rushed to collect us all in a huge hug, while querying, “How did you make the trip alone?”
After our family was seated on the sofa in the middle of the stage – my sister sitting on my father’s lap, staring at the live audience and me fidgeting on my mother’s lap – Ralph Edwards intoned, “This is Your Life, Cantor Gregor Shelkan. Of all the hearts that sing with those of your family and friends gathered here tonight – there are two that sing with greater joy than all others. They belong to your two sisters, Bluma Weiner and Golda Carmi, whom you have not seen since they left Latvia over 20 years ago. Hazel Bishop has brought them here tonight, so here they are your two sisters, Bluma and Golda, from Israel.”
Audible gasps were heard as my father rushed toward the curtain. The sisters rushed toward my father, Bluma on the left, Golda on the right. They embraced, grasping and tenderly caressing one another, their faces moist with the comingling of their tears. Edwards then ushered my father and his siblings to the couch to join my mother, sister, and me.
Aunts Bluma and Golda stayed in the United States for one month. For several weeks, the local Boston newspapers carried stories of the show and the reunion of my father with his sisters, and pictures of our family with our Israeli relatives. To this day, 65 years later, people still regal me with stories of their fond memories of gathering around the family TV watching the episode of “This Is Your Life.”
Recently, one of my first cousins, the only child of my Aunt Bluma, and now the grandfather of 19, happened to be visiting from Israel. On Feb. 17, my cousin Kobi and I viewed the original 16-millimeter “This Is Your Life” program on DVD. Mirroring the preserved black and white faded images of my parents, we sat side by side on the couch in my den to pay tribute to our family heritage and celebrate the anniversary of our 65-year-old program.
Deborah Shelkan Remis writes from Swampscott.