Blog Archives

100 things to do in 1000 days; #7: Sustaining Memories program at Ryerson University.

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.

IMG_0648 copy

Name hidden to protect privacy of the survivor until she is ready to release it and/or the manuscript is published in an anthology.

(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…)

 

Survival Kit – Review – (-)

Zuzana_Sermer_1

I read a LOT of Holocaust lit as a kid (Jasper, Lisa, Daniel’s Story, Endless Steppe, Number the Stars, Diary of Anne Frank, Devil’s Arithmetic, and more). I know I watched Schindler’s List in middle school, but I don’t remember if seeing that movie was what led me to the books, or whether the timing was coincidental. At any rate, after my young adult binge, I…never really touched the topic since. It can be so exhausting to mentally put yourself in that place (thank god, of course, that I have the luxury of taking the break).

But last year, I began working at the Azrieli Foundation, which publishes the memoirs of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada. At the time, they had published 20 English language stories, although I believe that number is now 21. I was given the entire library to read, and it took me about a month to work myself up to the challenge.

What finally pushed me to start reading the books were the videos. The Foundation has also begun releasing short movies of survivors who have published memoirs with them. The movies feature a mix of book excerpts, interviews with the authors, and animation. I watched these videos during an afternoon of booth-manning, and not only did I finally feel ready to read the books, I also felt like I needed to. The videos were incredibly effective because once you hear them speak, and see them communicate, you (or at least I) feel the need to know them better.

Zuzana Sermer is a very thoughtful and articulate woman, and her memoir is probably the most novelistic of the ones I’ve read. One simile that really stuck with me was her comparison between Communism and zoos, and war, somewhat, and jungles. “Inhabitants of a zoo may be safe,” she writes, “but they are helpless captives without the richness that makes life worth living.”

I’ve reviewed 4 of these memoirs already. It’s difficult to find new things to say after reading and reviewing so many of a similar type of book, so I’m going to end with the following, which comes from my previous review and states my feelings as clearly as I can phrase them:

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.

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: 46/52

(Cannonball Read V: 7/36)

Reviews: Maus I – ****, Maus II – *****, and MetaMaus – ****

During my time working for the Azrieli Foundation, and partnering up with a Holocaust survivor to help write her memoirs, I have also, not surprisingly, been reading a lot of Holocaust literature. I previously reviewed some memoirs published by the organisation. Now I’d like to review a collection of works by Art Spiegelman, the first two of which are regarded as classics in both that genre, and the genre of graphic novels.

Maus 1Let’s start with the first volume. The story moves along briskly and is deceptively basic. It’s a simple black and white cartoon with minimal text. But a lot of stuff is packed into those words and those pictures, both explicit and inferred. I really liked that he tells the story in his father’s voice and accent – it makes you [the reader] feel like your own grandpa is telling it to you. I also liked that Spiegelman generally doesn’t put boxes around the drawings when they take place in his own [modern] times; only those that take place in the past are framed.

Maus I and II were published in the 70s and 80s – examples of Meta before it was cool (seeing as how now, nothing is allowed to be published or aired on TV without copious internal referencing). I don’t read a lot of graphic novels (mostly just this and Alan Moore), and I enjoyed the way the format, by publishing the story chapter by chapter, allowed him to use subsequent chapters to make reference the process of writing, and to events occurring in response to those previous chapters, such as showing the work-in-progress to his dad.

I found the parts with Vladek remembering his past and dealing with his present the most affecting – maybe because it’s a more personal and smaller sort of terror and destruction, maybe because marital strife, suicide, and depression are more relateable than the unimaginable horror of death camps, bunkers, and starvation, I don’t know. But I also always find it interesting to read the way children portray their parents in memoirs, especially if the relationship isn’t a traditionally happy and comfortable one (and Art and Vladek’s certainly wasn’t).

Maus 2

As good as Maus I was, Maus II was even better. When I worked in a textbook store, we sold thousands of copies of the first volume to high schoolers taking social studies or history or Jewish studies, but I can only remember selling one or two copies of the second volume, and I worked there for four summer rushes. It’s a pity. The second chapter’s musings on success, fear, and a visit to the shrink was incredibly affecting. “Strongest stuff yet. The work is maturing with him.” I wrote in my notes. I also found that this volume did a better job of mixing unexpected humour into the narrative during the depth of despair.

[Side note: Every Holocaust story I read brings up new and different horrifying atrocities. I wonder if it ever stops being affecting, if you just become eternally numb. How do people who study it for a living deal? I bet they could write the best horror/suspense, and I bet not a single one ever has.]

MetaMaus

Art Spiegelman is an artist and author, but he is also a scholar, and his hugely in-depth MetaMaus is somehow a making-of documentary in book form, a history of cartoon and graphic novel media, a collection of extended essays (philosophically talking about art, comics, familial relationships, the act of creating/artist’s process, war, the holocaust, religion, Judaism, survival), and, as he puts it, a build-it-yourself Maus tool kit (it includes a remarkable CD, which has almost every primary source he used to write the books – transcripts, photos, early drafts, obscure history papers, a bibliography – I still haven’t gone through all of it, but eventually I just needed to count this book as read). There’s a lot of stuff packed into this 300 page book.

The book is dense, though, so if you’re a casual fan of Maus, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. On the other hand, it does have a lot to offer, even to people who have never read the book. For instance, it’s practically a crash course in the history of underground comics, which I knew next to nothing about (again, just Watchmen and V for Vendetta).

Boy did I have a lot to say about this one. Although most of it is just quotes I liked, so instead of a traditional review, I’m just going to bullet point a list of comments and things that interested me. Because I can.

  • Father is an extremely difficult, sympathetic man. No one would say the war was a good thing, but it brought out, as all events do, the good in some and the bad in others.
  • Even now, dad saw the cover: “what is it, a parody?” I’ve read Alan Moore and Gaiman, I know there are well-respected Batman comics/graphic novels, Walking Dead, etc, but did it all start with Maus?
  • Because it’s written clearly and matter-of-factly in his father’s voice, I did’t imagine how much work must have gone into putting the story together.
  • I like the concept of visual rhymes.
  • Being honest about the material (which fits in with memory and storytelling) – brings up a lot of stuff about memory (the act itself, its historical importance, and the ability of comics, family relations, second generation).
  • pg 34: Your own thesis, only it’s the author’s own interpretation – i.e., he says, “Perhaps the only honest way to present such material is to say: ‘here are all the documents I used, you go through them. And here’s a twelve-foot shelf of works to give these documents context, and here’s like thousands of hours of tape recording, and here’s a bunch of photographs to look at. Now, go make yourself a Maus!'”
  • pg 34-35: himself as a character; critics didn’t necessarily understand that he was commenting on himself as much as he was commenting on his father- even in Maus itself, he is obvious about it (Harvey Pekar was one such critic) – like when he listens back to a tape recording of himself and winces (this happens in Maus). I enjoyed his reaction to Pekar: “Pekar was like: ‘*Gasp!* I found Spiegelman out! He was being insensitive to his father!’ Well, yeah.” – pg 35
  • pg 77: rejection letters – Really fascinating, especially as a wannabee writer; think: this same thing later won a Pulitzer.
  • the response in different countries
  • pg 100: At a Holocaust conference in LA in 1988 during a ‘can there be art after the Holocaust’ panel: Harry Mulisch (Dutch novelist): “He explained the difference between his novel and journalism: in journalism, it makes a difference if a fire happened, in a novel it’s just how well one can describe a fire. Therefore, as a novelist, he felt he couldn’t deal with what happened in Auschwitz because it was too indescribable – that it’s best left to the […] historians of the world.” He says historians liked that description, but he, Art, took it as a challenge. “I felt we need both artists and historians. I tried to explain that one has to use the information and give shape to it in order to help people understand what happened – that historians, in fact, so that as much as any artist – but that history was far too important to leave solely to historians.”
  • pg 101: During a discussion with the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, he talked about doing a show about contemporary genocide and suggested calling it “Never Again and Again and Again”
  • pg 143: his style causes your eyes to move across the page; more elaborate styles really do make your eye stop and stare at each panel as its own separate things. An example is shown in the book of a version of a Maus page with much more intricate, detailed drawings. I found myself looking at each one like its own copper engraved plate. And the thought extends past what goes in each individual panel to how the panels interact with each other in a way that tells the story effectively and honestly, while also guiding your eye in a way that keeps you involved and easily readable. With enough variety so it doesn’t just looks like a grid. He looks at each page like a sentence and each panel as the words, or paragraph/sentence.
  • pg 185: difference between comics and cartoons, and metaphors getting in the way of belief.
  • pg 202: Understanding the limitations of oneself as an artist, but accepting that it doesn’t make you ‘less than’. It’s storytelling, and we get it out how we can.
  • pg 203-204: discussion of art in museums, “comics weren’t trying to be paintings and failing at it; it’s drawing with a different purpose”; response to High/Low show at MOMA, placing comics and paintings in the same room, therefore implicitly comparing them.
  • pg 224: “Trying to make sequences that are moving but not manipulative is a tricky business.”

Cannonball Read: 37/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 9/27)

Reviews: Azrieli Holocaust Memoirs

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)