It took six months, but my part in the Sustaining Memories program, a joint project coordinated by Ryerson and the Azrieli Foundation where I used to work, is finally complete.
(The program pairs volunteers with Holocaust survivors who want to share their story in the form of a memoir, but, for whatever reason, require some help to actually get the story on paper. It involved several initiation/information sessions, interviews, hours of transcription and organisation, data gathering, chronological ordering, and finally, editing the mess into a readable story representing the life of the survivor as told by him or her.)
The experience was a wild array of adjectives and emotions. Meeting, interviewing, and getting to know my survivor was deeply moving and educational, but also disturbing and overwhelming. Where to start? How to do her story justice? How to react as she tells me about these dreadful experiences? How much and when do I probe? These problems were compounded by a slight language barrier (English is her fifth or sixth language) and the usual difficulties that come with age (hearing loss, sickness, memory lapses).
Writing the manuscript was another monumental task – I knew transcription was a long and monotonous process from my time in J-school, but I had never had to deal with such huge quantities of tape. I had over 11 hours of material from interviews and video documents, some of it repetitive, some of it contradictory, all of it important. There was also a huge amount of existing literature and data both online and in libraries in which to read, sort through, and find relevant information. And worst of all were the three competing authorial visions – left to my own devices, I would have written the memoir one way; my survivor also had a fairly clear picture in her mind of what she wanted; and the Sustaining Memories program itself had a clear and rigid set of rules and guidelines. Shaping the story into something that satisfied all three of us might have been the most difficult part of the whole endeavour…if it wasn’t for everything else.
It was stressful, time-consuming, and exhausting, but I also feel that it is one thing that is important and good that I helped bring into the world. I’ve never in my life felt like I was doing something more worthwhile. In some ways, it feels weird to write so much about my experience helping with the memoir, almost like I’m trying to appropriate her experiences. I hope it goes without saying, but I am under no illusions about how lucky I am, how minor these “difficulties” were in the larger scheme of things, and how much of a privilege it was to be involved.
Today, I received a package in the mail containing a bound copy of the manuscript, a certificate and letter of appreciation, and finally, a sense of closure, and with that, I count this item as complete.
(There are currently talks about putting all the memoirs from this year and last year into an anthology, and having it published. So we’ll see where that goes…)
The organisation I currently work for accepts manuscripts from Holocaust survivors, and edits, publishes, and distributes the resultant memoirs through schools, book fairs, and other avenues. Although I don’t work the publication side of things (I’m in good old Communications, of course), but I’ve been working my way through the 20 authors they’ve published so far. These people come from all over the world and have experienced anything from convents to concentration camps. I don’t feel comfortable rating these books – they’re personal and historical documents, not intentional works of literature, so I’m temporarily shelving my star system for now. However, I did want to review them, because I think they deserve to be read, thought about, and remembered.
Felix Opatowski’s Gatehouse to Hell was the first of the memoirs I read. It was a grim page-turner, difficult to put down, horrifying, yet told with a bit of clinical detachment.
Willie Sterner’s The Shadows Behind Me was direct, heart-breaking, and told in simple language that managed to reveal an astonishing depth of feeling. Sterner’s book was also interesting to me as someone who has been fascinated by Oskar Schindler since seeing the movie in middle school. Sterner worked in Schindler’s factory as a painter during the war, and he describes the man, and their relationship.
John Freund’s Springs End is written in the most writerly style of the memoirs I’ve read. Most survivors do not speak English as a first, or even second language, but Freund is comfortable with English, storytelling, and atmosphere. The others so far have been written in a more matter-of-fact, point-by-point, this-is-what-happened-to-me style. Freund is more metaphorical, even lyrical with his theme of the changing seasons, and he philosophically explores his emotions as a survivor.
“How did I survive when so many died? The easiest way to answer would be to say that God was with me, though I cannot accept this explanation because it raises more questions than it answers. […] More than forty million people died in camps, battlefields and bombed cities. Where was God? […] Rabbi Rudolph Ferda believed that we Jews were punished for leaving our religion and the moral teachings of the Torah. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but would a just God punish so severely and unmercifully? […] Even though I cannot believe that God selected me to live, I am grateful that I survived.” ~ pg 71-72
We read along as he grapples with these impossible questions, and describes his well thought-out, ambiguous, and ambivalent answers to them.
Tommy Dick’s Getting Out Alive was dry, terse, pointed, and, in my opinion, darkly amusing. He also slyly gave voice to a question that has always, frankly, annoyed and infuriated me:
“By the spring of 1944, the Germans were fighting for their survival, and yet they began to arrest […] Jews [in Hungary]. One wonders if they did not have strategically more important tasks.” ~ pg 6
Dick’s was also the first memoir I read that really touched on the nihilistically defiant mental view of “screw it, we’re gonna die anyway.” Most have discussed the emotions of fear, anger, and confusion, and the actions of smuggling and hiding. This is the first I’ve read (though not the first to experience, I’m sure) that mentions casual sex as a way to pass the horrible time pleasurably, for example.
Each memoir is unique and fascinating, and each has a worthy and important story to tell. On the one hand, this is so obvious as to become trite (everyone has a story to tell! everyone is important!), but on the other hand, it is an important reminder that we can never know the full story of any situation, and there are as many sides to the same story as there are people to tell it.
Cannonball Read III: 34/52
(Cannonball Read IV: 6/27)