LIVERMORE -- History textbooks are full of solid facts and figures, but they didn't record the whistle of the incendiary bomb that exploded in Susan Mayall's yard in England during the Blitz, terrifying the neighborhood and torching her sister's diapers drying on the clothesline.
Nor can teachers convey the horror and disbelief experienced by Aaron Latkin, a young foot soldier in Patton's 3rd Army in World War II. Deep in Germany, he and his buddies participated in the liberation of Ohrdruf concentration camp, the first such capture by U.S. forces. There, he saw a pit filled with emaciated corpses, and witnessed the reaction of American commanders to the carnage. The photos he secretly snapped during those days are part of an invaluable historical record.
These remarkable first-person accounts -- and those of other original witnesses to history -- are being shared with another generation, thanks to the efforts of a Livermore woman who believes stories like these can teach powerful lessons of courage and cultural understanding. Ruth Gasten, herself a Holocaust refugee, has been speaking about her experiences as a child in Nazi Germany for the past two years. It one day occurred to her that her rapt high school audiences would benefit from other first-person stories.
"I've been here in the valley for more than 50 years, and I knew other people who had thrilling and harrowing stories of what happened to them," she said. "We're all seasoned people of a certain age, and our lives have been through different paths ... but these are stories students should know about."
Gaston began talking to friends and networking, looking for a range of potential speakers willing to share their personal histories. Her recruits include former Livermore Mayor John Shirley, an infantry veteran who fought in Italy, France and Germany during World War II and saw combat at Anzio Beachhead. Speaker Mony Nop survived the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, walking from Cambodia to Thailand at the age of 6. He spent four years in refugee camps before escaping to the United States in 1983.
Tad Kishi is a Japanese American who was sent to the Manzanar internment camp in California at the onset of World War II, only to be later drafted and sent to occupied Japan to serve as an interpreter. John Sarboraria's story is local -- the recollections of a boy in Livermore when the city was a small town of 3,500 residents.
"I think hearing stories of historic events and how they affected the lives of real people is helpful to young people in many ways," Gaston said. "It helps them to realize how people have suffered great deprivation and survived, and it helps them to understand how necessary it is to take an early and decisive stance against injustice when you see it.
"We can give (students) a different viewpoint from what they can get in a book," said Aaron Latkin, a retired Lawrence Livermore Laboratory engineer who witnessed the liberation of Ohrdruf concentration camp. "You couldn't believe what you were seeing" there, he said.
Although the Allies won the war, it wasn't a given, he said.
"Practically everyone contributed to the war effort in one way or another ... We started with very little, and had a lot to overcome. At times we weren't sure we were going to be victorious."
Susan Mayall is a retired history teacher and former owner of Goodenough Books in Livermore. Her father, a Royal Marine officer, was killed when his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean by an Italian submarine during World War II. She survived years of air raids as a child in Great Britain during the war.
"It's something I feel people should know about since this country has experienced so little of war itself, and the people have very mixed ideas of what it's like," she said. "I do this because I think it's an important part of history -- to know that even in a country that was fairly cut off from the worst of the war, there can still be tremendous suffering."
The fledgling speakers' bureau is an original and valuable resource, said Neil Henry, director of the Regional Oral History Office at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
"I've never heard of a program quite like this," he said. "First-person viewpoints on history usually are not collected by history books, and add another dimension of immediacy for audiences, and that resonates with people. Those who have lived through historical moments can pass on information ... and can be very impressionable for young people."
Ruth Gasten has only begun approaching schools with her concept, but is working to find additional speakers from a wide variety of countries and cultures who can relay their life experiences to a diverse student body. A wide-ranging knowledge of history is not necessary -- just real-life stories.
"We're talking about personal experiences -- fears, pain and joy," she said. "I want people from Asia and Africa, from South America ... History didn't just happen 50 years ago. Look at Rwanda, Sudan, South Africa, the partition of India, Vietnam, the boat people -- there are so many situations.
"I hope we will all learn to understand and accept each other," she said. "We've all had harrowing and transformative experiences; the speakers will share their experiences, and hopefully the audience will learn from them. The stories may even help the students gain insights into themselves or members of their families."
The speakers' bureau has the potential to literally bring history alive for students, said Henry of the Bancroft Library.
"You multiply this by manifold, and you have a real rich treasure trove that adds to the historic record," he said. "When people can talk directly about their experiences it tends to be very emotional and moving -- it puts history right in front of (students) and it brings it alive right before their eyes. It's not just a dusty textbook you're reading."
The speakers bureau website (http://ruthgasten.wix.com/speakers) has the email address of each speaker next to their biography, which tells about their personal story. Readers who want to contact a particular speaker may send them an email.
To learn more about the website, or to become a speaker, contact Ruth Gasten at email@example.com.